Failed leadership: Bennett, Netanyahu trade blame on COVID, Iran in Knesset
At opening of winter session, opposition chief accuses current coalition of ‘abandoning people to their deaths’; PM claims previous government led ‘2 years of stagnation’
Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.
The Knesset’s winter session got off to a bitter and heated start Monday, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu castigating each other’s leadership and policies, and several opposition members booted from the plenum for heckling Bennett at the outset of a speech outlining his government’s ostensible achievements.
Among a litany of furious complaints, opposition leader Netanyahu accused the government of “abandoning people to their deaths,” alleging that it waited too long before launching its COVID-19 vaccination booster shot campaign, though Israel was the first country in the world to offer a third shot widely.
Netanyahu, addressing lawmakers after the premier’s speech, said the government had tolerated the deaths of 1,400 Israelis in three months, during the ongoing Delta outbreak.
“Bennett, you promised that when you were prime minister, you would bring a dramatic change to [the fight against] coronavirus in five weeks. You were right, you brought change, but change for the worse,” Netanyahu said.
“We handed over to you a country with almost zero daily fatalities, but since you established the government, and adopted your policy of ‘living with’ [COVID], 1,392 people have died,” he declared.
“Four months ago, under our leadership, the Bloomberg Index ranked Israel fifth in the world in the success of the fight against coronavirus. Today, under your leadership, it ranks us 41st out of 53 countries. Almost at the bottom of the list of the countries examined,” the former premier continued.
In his speech, by contrast, Bennett detailed what he said were the new coalition’s “great successes” over the 113 days since it was sworn in, and attacked the previous government for “serial neglect.”
“Every one of the cabinet ministers and members of the coalition is fighting tooth and nail for the livelihood of the citizens of Israel. We are fighting and succeeding,” he said.
“We went through two years of stagnation: on Iranian nukes, in housing and heavy traffic on the roads,” Bennett said, referring to the transitional governments that headed the country during the four election campaigns held since 2019. “For two years, everything was stuck. Three and a half months after we started, we can already see results: Israel is open, we celebrated openly during the High Holiday period, despite the predictions of lockdown.”
The prime minister touted his government’s COVID-19 policy of avoiding lockdowns and keeping the economy open, while opposition members shouted that it had cost Israel many lives.
“It’s so easy to press the button and order a lockdown, and send millions to unpaid leave from work…, but that’s not the way. That’s the easy but inappropriate path,” he said, alluding to the fact that Israel was a world leader in lockdown days under Netanyahu. “We are stopping the Delta [variant], without a single day of lockdown. The State of Israel is open — something that was once taken for granted is no longer taken for granted,” he said.
Likud MK Galit Distal Atbaryan screamed in response, “You are a con man, you are a liar, you are the worst thing to happen to this country.”
Fellow Likud lawmaker May Golan interjected: “You are the biggest failure of a prime minister we have ever seen.”
They were both booted from the chamber, along with Likud MKs David Amsalem, Shlomo Karhi, and Keti Shitrit, who were all given repeated warnings by Knesset Speaker Micky Levy against interrupting the prime minister’s speech.
Netanyahu, in his speech, also argued that the government has been tolerant of Iran’s nuclear activity, having agreed to coordinate military activity with the United States and not fight the potential resumption of a nuclear deal.
“Have you lost your mind?” he said, attacking Bennett for not arguing against the deal during his recent speech to the UN General Assembly. “You are accepting it as a done deal.”
“Instead of assailing the accord that’s taking shape,” Netanyahu charged, “you chose to attack our wonderful healthcare system… Instead of facing down [Iran’s leader Ali] Khamenei, you took on [senior Health Ministry official] Sharon Alroy[-Prais].”
Netanyahu said the government was also failing to act adequately against Iranian and Palestinian terror.
“There is no leadership, there is no reaction, there is no decisiveness, there is only PR,” he said, alleging that the mainstream media was acting as a mouthpiece for the government.
With the looming deadline to pass the state budget constituting the main challenge facing the government, Bennett also used his speech to praise the proposed financial plan as “a boon for the State of Israel.”
“The budget will pass first reading, and will pass the second and third readings soon, with God’s help,” the prime minister said. “I would like to congratulate my friend Finance Minister [Avigdor} Liberman on this achievement and all the members of the government.”
Failure to pass the pair of budget bills in the Knesset by a deadline recently extended to November 14 would automatically dissolve the parliament and trigger elections.
The budget is a crucial test for Bennett’s government, as it seeks to solidify its hold on power.
Last month, the Knesset gave its approval to the 2021-2022 state budget in its first readings in a major milestone for the coalition. The bills were passed after understandings were reached among coalition parties on various issues under contention. They are now under further review and must pass their second and third readings in the plenum to become law.
The last time Israel approved a state budget was for 2019, before the country became embroiled in a two-year political gridlock.
Bennett also used his speech to tell the Knesset plenum that agents for the Mossad spy agency last month conducted an operation to find information on the whereabouts of Ron Arad, an IDF soldier who was kidnapped by the Amal group in Lebanon in 1986, and has been missing since 1988.
“It was a complex, widescale operation. That’s all that can be said right now,” Bennett says. “We made another effort on the path to understanding what happened to Ron.”
Bennett thanked the Mossad personnel, vowing to “carry on the effort to return all our boys home, wherever they may be.”
The scathing attacks by opposition members against Bennett came despite President Isaac Herzog calling minutes earlier for the resumption of “civil, fair dialogue” between the coalition and opposition.
“Even within the frenzy of debate, do not forget: arguments on substance, yes; legitimacy for thuggery, no,” Herzog said.
Almost pleading with the lawmakers he was addressing, the president said, “There is no other path but dialogue, a persistent, businesslike, and enlightened process of institutional reform, and strengthening the checks and balances between governing authorities in Israel.
“It can happen. It must happen,” Herzog asserted.