What's in a title?

One thing veteran Knesset followers have learned is to never assume the subject matter listed for a discussion in the Knesset plenum is ultimately what is going to come out of the deliberation.

Knesset in the snow 370 (photo credit: Knesset Spokesman's Office)
Knesset in the snow 370
(photo credit: Knesset Spokesman's Office)
One thing veteran Knesset followers have learned is to never assume the subject matter listed for a discussion in the Knesset plenum is ultimately what is going to come out of the deliberation.
When the prime minister is summoned periodically to address the Knesset, the subject submitted ahead of time for the debate can be as broad as “The Failures of the Government in the Diplomatic, Security and Socio-Economic Realms.” In other words, “the government has failed in every possible way.” But such a broad title is also a way for the opposition MKs to address whatever issues happen to be in the news that particular day. The same approach goes for the Monday no-confidence debates.
In other cases, you just need the experience of navigating the Knesset to predict what will emerge. One such occasion was a relatively easy guess: Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich was listed to answer a question on a different issue even as the “Prisoner X” story was making headlines in Israel and Australia. As anticipated, the minister used the opportunity to relay the official version concerning Ben Zygier, and very few people knew, hearing the newscasts later, what Aharonovich had actually been at the plenum podium for in the first place.
This week, Bayit Yehudi MK Orit Struck pulled a parliamentary trick by asking one question, when her real intention was to get to the bottom of something else altogether. Maybe she really did want to know “what the attitude” of the Lebanese government was to the killing of an Israeli soldier by a Lebanese army sniper along the border this month, as her official inquiry stated during the Wednesday “question time.”
But after receiving the initial reply from Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Struck used the opportunity of a follow-up to raise a totally different subject. She complained that she had submitted a question to the prime minister asking for details regarding the terrorists who are due to be freed in the scheduled upcoming third installment of a security prisoner release, and that the Knesset had approved her question, but that the government vetoed it on grounds that the information was classified, and therefore could not be discussed in the plenum.
Struck said that she was dismayed that while the government had claimed that the details were classified, the information had appeared in the media. Elkin, who of course was at the podium for a totally different subject – the question about Lebanon – said that the Foreign Ministry had nothing to do with the prisoner issue, and therefore he could not respond to the Bayit Yehudi MK’s complaint.
Still, Elkin was more than happy to express his opposition.
And Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who seems to be feeling increasingly comfortable taking proactive decisions, indicated that he, too, was against the prisoner releases, and warned the government that if turned out that the media report on the details of which prisoners are to be released proved accurate, the government would have to answer to the Knesset as to why it refused to allow Struck’s question to be asked.
Several hours later on Wednesday, when perhaps the government was hoping that not too many people were still watching, and the attendance of MKs in the plenum was thin, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir replied to the matter of the prisoner release.
As you might have guessed, his comment on the impending release was not made during a debate having to do with that issue. The subject was instead the bombing on the bus in Bat Yam earlier in the week, in which the alertness of a passenger and the driver prevented what certainly otherwise would have been many serious casualties.
So there you have it. The agriculture minister was answering in the name of the public security minister about the Bat Yam bus attack, but made greater news by responding on the matter of the prisoners. By the way, as for the substance, he said that while the government did not feel for the moment that it had to revisit the issue of whether to, in fact, carry out the next batch of the prisoner releases, “it’s possible that could change.”
The phenomenon of one minister replying for another is one that has angered many a Knesset speaker and MKs, in general, over the years. Sometimes there are real reasons why the minister who is supposed to reply is not available. Other times, it’s assumed that the minister just can’t be bothered.
But we’re not finished with this past Wednesday.
Minister Shamir raised the level of Knesset ridicule when after responding for the public security minister, he was then the assigned minister to reply for Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat on the matter of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans tearing up a Koran.
What made the matter so ridiculous is that Shamir, on what was undeniably a very serious matter, replied exactly the way that Livnat had written her response, meaning that he spoke in the feminine form. How can you take such a response seriously? If I understood the presiding House speaker Gila Gamliel correctly, Shamir did so purposely to protest the all-too-prominent tendency to hand over responses to other ministers.
Speaker Edelstein has promised to crack down on the lack of discipline on the part of MKs. One issue, among others, that remains a problem is the lack of attendance by not just ministers, but on various occasions also by the “regular” MKs. It stood out this week, yet again, when the plenum held a special deliberation entitled, “Jonathan Pollard’s 29th Year in an American Jail.”
MKs Nachman Shai and Ayelet Shaked have boasted that they secured the signatures of over 100 MKs on a letter to US President Barack Obama that calls for Pollard’s release. However, when Shai presented a resolution to sum up the special plenum discussion on behalf of most factions in the House, it passed in a vote of 18-0. Sure, it was unopposed. But where was everyone else among the 120 MKs? It would be hard to call it an impressive show of support for a cause that those speaking during the discussion had called a consensus issue.
Still, what can be said about the special deliberation on Pollard, at least, was that it was an impressive show of how the Israeli Knesset held a discussion – and kept to the title.
The author is political correspondent and managing editor at Israel Radio’s English News in Jerusalem.