Savir's Corner: Lunch at the Knesset cafeteria

Instead of leading society to better shores, the legislature reflects the worst of it, inflated egos serving themselves instead of the people.

knesset 521 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
knesset 521
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
This article was written on April Fool’s Day.
Those who really think that Israel’s critical strategic policy decisions are taken in the Prime Minister’s Office or at IDF headquarters are wrong.
The decisions – over war and peace, who is a Jew or an Arab, democracy or theocracy, economic rescue or meltdown – are all taken in the real inner sanctum of Israel’s decision-making process: the world famous Knesset cafeteria.
Entry is allowed only to those privileged individuals that we, for one reason or another, have elected to represent us. A regular citizen treats an entry pass to this half-star restaurant as one of the major highlights of his or her life.
I have been there, as a frustrated member of Knesset, but also as a curious observer. The following is a snapshot of what could actually take place there.
On a good day the cafeteria looks like a kibbutz dining room after a heated debate over Marxist education. The eyes of our legislators are not set on the aesthetics of the place, but rather on the center stage of the room – the buffet, prepared by the kindest and worst chefs in Israel, those who won the tender for “who can prepare stuffed peppers in less than a minute for less than a shekel.”
And yet the menu somewhat resembles the one at the Tour D’Argent in Paris: stuffed peppers à la Galilée du Nord, Kfar Saba schnitzel with pommes de terre à la Negev, creamy spinach soup à la Green Line, “Raful’s famous plum pudding” for desert.
Most of the representatives are intensely engaged in deep soulsearching and lively debate on their culinary preferences. Good relations with the waiters, the most sympathetic inhabitants of the cafeteria, are absolutely key.
When that strategic crossroads has been crossed, hours before lunch, the MKs need to make important geopolitical decisions about whom should they sit with, mostly in order to attract attention of the Knesset correspondents, the most respected inhabitants of the House. A mixture of two or three coalition members, one leftist, one haredi and an Arab is generally recommended. And this is how quite lively discussions begin at most tables: • At Table 1, strategically close to the buffet, sit Minister Limor Livnat and MKs Merav Michaeli and Nissim Ze’ev, preparing for their speeches on International Women’s Day.
Ze’ev mumbles through his thick beard: “What is the fuss about Women’s Day? In the scriptures, the role of women, our four matriarchs, is duly highlighted. We live by this. My wife, may she live long, is one of the best cooks in Jerusalem. She never misses a meal when I come home exhausted from a day’s work.”
Michaeli: “Nissim, you live in the Stone Age. When I come home, dinner is served by my partner, Lior Shlein. Gender equality is the most important human right.
Marilyn Monroe once said: “a woman who aspires to equality with men is not ambitious.’” Ze’ev: “Marilyn who?” Livnat: “Just a blond shiksa. We in the national movement aspire to equality for all humans, Jews of course. Look at the Netanyahu household...” a common grin by the loyal opposition, Ze’ev and Michaeli.
• Table 2 – on the far right of the room, where MKs Miri Regev, Shelly Yacimovich and Amram Mitzna discuss the possible eviction of the Amona outpost in the West Bank. Regev, already eating some pickles – served by her friend Benny “the fox,” the most skillful of the Knesset waiters in making powerful friends – says: “I will be there to stop with my own body such an eviction, waving the blue and white. Bibi-Bugi-Buji – a kindergarten, all foot soldiers for Barack Obama since his visit.
Don’t they understand this is Eretz Israel! Our forefathers walked there.”
Mitzna: “And I fought there; but this outpost was built on Palestinian private land. Miri, from one general to another, give up on Greater Israel. It will bring an end to the Zionist dream; an end to peace.”
Regev shouts, awakening the entire cafeteria: “Never, Amram, never, do you hear me, never!” Yacimovich: “You make too much noise. I need to focus only on social issues.”
• At the center of the room sit a table of prominent journalists, Nahum Barnea, Ayala Hasson and Co. Among them is the former MK Yossi Sarid, addicted to impressing his media audience with his tormented brilliance, and former journalists MKs Yair Lapid, Nachman Shai and Nitzan Horowitz – the prophets of this cafeteria congregation.
They know what happened, is happening and will happen in the country, region and world. But we don’t know what they know, as they whisper to each other with unrestrained selfimportance.
Around them a team of 11 Knesset members, handing the journalists small sheets of paper with “state secrets” and even their personal phone numbers.
One note read: Ayala, one minute on Mabat and I will tell you the precise date and location of the attack on Iran.
• Table 3 – Speaker Yuli Edelstein, MK Yariv Levin, MK Ahmed Tibi, in a heated discussion on democracy.
Edelstein: “Plato was right,” and then he quotes “A measure of a man is what he does with power.”
“And believe me, I know what to do with power. That’s why Bibi preferred me over Rivlin; Rubi took the opposition seriously. I will play by the rules of a true Jewish democracy.”
Levin: “We can do the right thing, Yuli, but then come these leftists on the High Court of Justice and ruin it all with their subversive decisions. I will pass a law to make sure that High Court justices are elected by the coalition, where we have a majority.”
Tibi: “Go ahead, guys, you are committing national suicide, this is good for us.” And then he starts reciting the lengthy decision of the Arab MKs on the matter, only to be interrupted by the declaration that all members – without difference of religion, gender or party – have been waiting for: “Lunch is ready” proclaims Shalom, the sous-chef.
Within a second, they all storm the buffet, pushing one another relentlessly with their elbows.
And they have elbows – this is how they got here in the first place.
This somewhat satirical description is not far from reality. Our House of Commons is not representative of the common sense of the country.
Politically, it has become almost irrelevant, as the executive is making the important decisions on legislation and declarative decisions are without value. War and peace are decided by the cabinet and the generals, economics by the clerks of the Ministry of Finance, religion and state relations by the rabbis. The one thing that is being influenced by the Knesset is our democracy. A strong legislature would balance our executive; a pluralistic debate of a high level of discourse would educate our young to democratic values; good social and democratic legislation would strengthen the country’s democratic fabric and social justice.
But this is not what is happening on the hill in Jerusalem.
Instead of leading society to better shores, the legislature reflects the worst of it – inflated egos serving themselves instead of the people, total dependency on the powerful executive and nationalistic preaching overshadowing equal rights legislation. And so, sadly, we are left with the cafeteria.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this piece.