With British Prime Minister David Cameron watching on and waiting to address the Knesset, several ultra-Orthodox and Arab MKs walked out of the plenum during a speech Wednesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in protest over new legislation including the so-called Governance Bill approved Tuesday, which raised the electoral threshold required for political parties to enter the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s speech, which came immediately before Cameron’s address, was repeatedly interrupted by catcalls from those opposition MKs who weren’t boycotting him. Meretz MK Esawi Frij, the only Arab MK who didn’t boycott Netanyahu’s address, was asked to leave the plenum after he repeatedly shouted at the prime minister. Frij heckled Netanyahu for talking about Jewish history in the holy land, declaring repeatedly that the focus needed to be on “the future.”
Cameron was seated next to the lectern throughout Netanyahu’s speech. When he rose to speak, he departed from his prepared text and referred good-naturedly to the political bickering he had witnessed, saying his ambassador Matthew Gould had warned him that “people may shout, some people might leave, fights might break out” and that he might learn a new Hebrew word, “balagan” — chaos. Evidently, if he’d been hoping for a respite from his ordeals at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Cameron joked, he’d come to the wrong place.
During his address, Netanyahu focused primarily on the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his “unwillingness” to end the conflict, and said that pressure should be put on the Palestinians rather than on Israel to sign a final peace agreement.
“The Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state is at the root of the conflict, not the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza,” Netanyahu said. “It’s time for international pressure to be directed not only at Israel but also at the Palestinians who consistently and systematically refuse to take any effective steps.”
The prime minister went on to criticize opposition MKs for boycotting his speech, and said that their behavior was unwarranted. “I did not choose to be a member of the opposition, but if I were in the opposition, I would sit here and listen.”
On Tuesday, the Knesset passed into law the so-called Governance Bill, which raises the minimum threshold parties need to enter the Knesset and contains other measures which its backers say will improve stability in the Israeli political system
The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beytenu chair and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, was approved by a 67-0 vote with no abstentions or opposition votes, as the voting was boycotted by opposition parties, which are opposed to the measure. The opposition also boycotted subsequent votes on laws to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF, and to require a referendum for territorial concessions.
The bill raises the minimum threshold for a party to enter the Knesset to 3.25 percent of total votes, as opposed to the previous 2%. This is seen by analysts as having a devastating effect on the three Arab parties, none of which would have cleared the 3.25% threshold if it had applied in the last elections.
The bill also freezes the maximum number of government ministers at 18, and makes it more difficult for Knesset members to succeed in a vote of no-confidence, which is used to bring down a government and call new elections.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report