Opposition responsible for toxic Knesset discourse, physical threats on MKs - opinion

The Jewish opposition (excluding the Joint List) is by far much more to blame than the coalition for escalating threats and attacks on MKs.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu walks behind Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset earlier this month. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu walks behind Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset earlier this month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Last Wednesday I enjoyed several moments of optimism, as MK Moshe Arbel (Shas) presented a motion for the agenda in the Knesset plenum, in which he proposed that a parliamentary committee of inquiry be formed to deal with the problem of violence against MKs.

My optimism was caused by the fact that he tied the problem of violence against MKs to the toxic discourse among MKs in the Knesset, which he said also had to be contended with.

I was also encouraged by the fact that Arbel is a member of the haredi bloc in the Knesset, which is particularly active in the toxic verbiage, as part of the opposition’s unrelenting, explicit refusal to accept the legitimacy and implicitly also the legality of the current government and coalition in general, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in particular.

The presiding speaker of that Knesset deliberation, Deputy Speaker Eitan Ginzburg (Blue and White), expressed his appreciation for Arbel’s initiative, even though the coalition had decided to oppose the initiative.

As explained by Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz (Yesh Atid), who replied to the motion on behalf of the government: The police, in cooperation with the Knesset’s sergeant at arms, is in charge of offering protection to threatened MKs and contending with violent incidents against them, and the problem that must be addressed is the violent, disrespectful discourse in the Knesset, which encourages violence, and to which a parliamentary committee of inquiry is not the answer.

SHAS MK Moshe Arbel: We don’t need to agree to everything, but we should disagree without hatred. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)SHAS MK Moshe Arbel: We don’t need to agree to everything, but we should disagree without hatred. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Unfortunately, my optimism very soon turned into despair. Already at the beginning of his speech, Arbel added his tuppence worth of input to an ugly attack by MKs from Shas and non-Ashkenazi MKs from the Likud on Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (who is not an MK by virtue of the “Norwegian Law”), whom they accused of racism for not supporting the establishment of a hospital in the Arab city of Sakhnin, as proposed by the predominantly Arab opposition Joint List, and cynically supported by the Likud only in order to embarrass the coalition.

In the heat of the moment, Zandberg replied that the racists are the opposition MKs who refer to Arab MKs in general and those of the coalition Arab Party, Ra’am, in particular as supporters of terrorism who wish to destroy the State of Israel.

This superfluous “dialogue” continued, with MK Gadi Yevarkan (Likud) claiming that Zandberg had referred to him personally as a racist (I read through the minutes of the sitting several times and found no such reference). Later on, when he tried to approach her with his cellphone to show her some “proof” of her “racism,” and she told him to move away, he claimed that she had done so because his skin is black (he is of Ethiopian origin), even though she had said nothing whatsoever about him personally or the color of his skin.

What Arbel said to Zandberg at the beginning of his speech (as she started to walk out of the plenum), was “I must say that your conduct of silent racism is ugly behavior” – a statement based on nothing more than unsubstantiated accusations made by Yevarkan and other opposition MKs.

Thus, Arbel added directly to the inciteful references to Zandberg, which could turn into physical attacks on her later on – exactly the opposite of what he himself was to advocate several minutes later in his speech.

The way Arbel presented the problem of violence against MKs in his speech was also rather strange.

First of all, he referred to the coalition chairwoman Idit Silman (Yamina), who has been the target of many personal verbal and physical attacks in recent weeks, and last week claimed that she had been assaulted near a gas station in Modi’in when she was (so she claimed) forcefully hurled at her car.

It was difficult to understand from Arbel’s words whether he was authentically worried by what had allegedly happened to Silman (which is still under police investigation), or whether he was mocking her, against the background of arguments from the opposition (including from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu himself) that she had invented the story “in order to slander an entire public.”

In order to portray a “balanced picture,” Arbel brought an example of an attack on an MK from the opposition – Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism), who was attacked a month ago by two men, who tried to cut his beard.

According to haredi sources, this strange story has nothing to do with opposition-coalition relations, but with internal squabbles among the hassidic courts, to one of which Porush belongs, in connection with the expansion of the light rail on Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem.

THE TRUTH is that in the current situation, there is little if any balance between the threats and attacks on ministers and MKs from the coalition, and threats and attacks on MKs from the opposition, and within the framework of the toxic discourse in the Knesset today, the Jewish opposition (excluding the Joint List) is much more to blame by far.

True, things were a little different when Netanyahu was still prime minister, and a certain group among the demonstrators near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, who demonstrated against him, were inciteful and acted in a shameful manner.

Whether what they said and did ever constituted more than a nuisance to Netanyahu’s welfare, only the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) knows. One thing is certain: the most offensive and objectionable things said during the demonstrations near Balfour Street were never repeated inside the Knesset, and had they been said by MKs in the Knesset, the offensive MKs would have been summoned to the Knesset Ethics Committee.

Today there is no Ethics Committee because the Likud refuses to appoint a member to it, and in practical terms, without the Likud, the committee cannot be formed.

A change in the conduct of the Jewish opposition in the Knesset will occur only if Netanyahu decides that since the chances of bringing the government down in the near future are almost nonexistent, the opposition should adopt a more cooperative and constructive approach to the work of the Knesset, and he instructs his MKs to lower the tone and moderate the content of what they say.

This, incidentally, would lead the coalition to be more generous in its approach to the opposition – especially in the important committees in which the opposition is admittedly deliberately underrepresented.

However, as long as the opposition, including its leader, keeps delegitimizing the government and its head, and keeps doing everything in its power to obstruct their plans – all their plans, not just those that they object to on ideological or practical grounds – one cannot expect the coalition to voluntarily place its head on the guillotine.

Last Saturday, before the 8 p.m. news broadcasts, Likud MKs David Amsalem on Channel 13 and Galit Distal Atbaryan on Channel 12 made it clear that as far as they are concerned, there will be no change in the Likud’s conduct until such time as the current government will fall; and that once that will happen, today’s opposition will take its revenge.

Hopefully, the voices of more moderate members of the Likud will prevail.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.