On Monday last week former Knesset speaker and health minister MK Yuli Edelstein, announced that he is planning to contend for the Likud leadership against current leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
There is no shortage of senior Likud MKs who have declared their intention to contend for the Likud leadership, but in recent years Edelstein is only the second one (the first was Gideon Sa’ar) to decide to challenge Netanyahu rather than await his departure.
At the end of December 2019, Sa’ar received 27.5% of the vote in the Likud Central Committee, to Netanyahu’s 72.5%. An opinion poll taken after Edelstein announced his intention to run, conducted last Tuesday, found that 86% of the Likud voters preferred Netanyahu and only 4% preferred Edelstein, and that the Likud under Netanyahu would receive 34 Knesset seats if elections were to be held now, and only 20 Knesset seats if led by Edelstein.
However, the poll also showed that Edelstein, with 20 Knesset seats, has much better chances than Netanyahu, with 34 seats, to form a government. In other words, though Netanyahu has the direct support of over a quarter of the Israeli population, the parties that do not want to see him as prime minister represent over 50% of the voters, and over 50% of the Knesset seats. In the last three years nothing has changed in this respect.
This is the basis of the Likud’s conundrum: Netanyahu cannot form a government – and though the support for Edelstein in the Likud is painfully low, only he, or another of the other potential contenders for the crown (for the time being, all Ashkenazi males, over 60), has any chance of bringing the Likud back to power in the foreseeable future.
It seems as though only Netanyahu and his community of cheerleaders reject this perception of reality and continue to act as if the current government can be brought down sooner rather than later.
The current tactics used by the opposition, under the leadership of Netanyahu, to try to bring down, or at least weaken, the Bennett Coalition include holding endless filibusters (which usually end with a vote in which the Coalition gains a majority); getting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to address the plenum, and then interrupting his speech with constant heckling and nasty comments; and delivering speeches in which the government in general and Bennett in particular are mocked and demeaned, an activity in which Netanyahu himself plays an active role.
Most of the opposition also boycotts committee meetings, refusing to appoint permanent representatives to them. Furthermore, as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu has the right to receive a monthly briefing on various secret matters from Bennett, but refuses to come. Who knows? Perhaps he has managed to concoct private, clandestine briefings elsewhere. It is not beyond him.
The quantity of unparliamentary verbiage that emanates from the opposition, but especially from the Likud, is unbearable. Among the 30 Likud MKs, most of those participating in this activity are (regrettably) Mizrahi MKs. Last Monday, in the special sitting held at the request of the opposition, in which Bennett was called upon to defend his government’s budget, I counted 10 Likud MKs (not including Netanyahu himself) who participated in the shameful performance. Nine of them were Mizrahim. The more veteran Ashkenazi Likud MKs who were present in the chamber held their faces down most of the time, apparently out of embarrassment.
There is very little the coalition can do to stop this ugly phenomenon.
The Knesset speaker and his deputies can only demand that those addressing the House withdraw a comment if he/she refers to another MK as a Nazi (or some other name related to the Holocaust), a terrorist or a murderer.
The Knesset Ethics Committee can also deal with utterances of MKs in the plenum or committees, if someone from inside or outside the Knesset bothers to complain against them. In the past, up to 10% of the meetings of the committee were devoted to such matters, but, alas, in the 24th Knesset the Ethics Committee has not been established, because according to the Rules of Procedure it must include two members from the coalition and two from the opposition, but the opposition (except for the Joint List) refuses to appoint its member/members.
The problem of unparliamentary language worsened in the 20th Knesset – following the establishment of Netanyahu’s first purely right-wing-religious government, and the entrance of the maverick Oren Hazan to the Knesset on the Likud list. On July 20, 2015, the Ethics Committee, under the chairmanship of MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), sent the following letter to all MKs:
“Due to the deterioration in the discourse in the Knesset plenum in the recent weeks, which is unpleasant to our ears, and the numerous appeals that reach the Ethics Committee, from which one may learn of the serious damage caused to the status of the Knesset in the public’s eyes, the Ethics Committee feels obliged to try and get rid of the phenomenon with the tools available to it.
“While the committee will continue to defend the right of MKs to as much free political and ideological expression as possible, it will not tolerate expressions that include obscene language, slander, mudslinging and debasement of individuals and communities....”
The committee warned the MKs that in future it would be more stringent in the sanctions it would impose, to the extent of removing MKs from Knesset sittings.
The situation today is much worse than it was six years ago, in the 20th Knesset, and if the Ethics Committee were to be appointed and were active today, many MKs, especially from the opposition – including Netanyahu himself – would undoubtedly be summoned by it, or would be much more careful in what they say, by finding wisecrack ways to get around the rules.
One is reminded of the story from the 19th century, of former British Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli (who was of Jewish origin), who, after being reprimanded by the speaker of the House of Commons for stating that “half the (Liberal) cabinet are asses,” withdrew his statement and replaced it with “half the cabinet are not asses.”
Netanyahu’s speech in the plenum last Monday was, as usual, excellent from a rhetorical point of view but full of libelous insults directed at Bennett and “factual inaccuracies” – some deliberate and others incidental.
If the Ethics Committee were active today, it could certainly find treasures in Netanyahu’s speech. Perhaps it would also discover that, as usual, historical accuracy is not one of Netanyahu fortes – such as when he referred in his speech to the Palestinian leader in British Mandatory times, the mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin al-Husseini, as “Faisal Husseini,” who was a Palestinian politician who served as the person in charge of Jerusalem affairs on behalf of the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords, and held his office in the Orient House in east Jerusalem until his sudden death in 2001.
It will be interesting to see whether, after the government will get the 2021/2022 budget approved toward the middle of November, Netanyahu will finally sort out his own personal conundrum as leader of the opposition – one way or another – and stop shaming himself and the Knesset.
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.