With the punctuality of a Swiss train, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin started the session at the strike of 11 and wished the five MKs present in the plenum a good morning.
The parliamentary work of the day began with urgent questions lodged by MKs for the ministers. The questions, submitted beforehand in writing, were spoken from a microphone. United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni wanted to know how much the heads of the non-profit organization Hiddush (Freedom of Religion and Equality) are paid annually.
Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, speaking in a mumble, delivered the exact sum and a host of other inaudible information.
Gafni wondered why the two made an average annual salary of over 550,000 NIS, why more than 90 percent of the non-profit’s incoming funds went to salaries and, finally, why, if they are so concerned about the marginalization of women in the ultra-Orthodox communities, the highest paid woman in the organization makes less than 10 percent of the director’s salary.
Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz asked for permission to speak and Rivlin, feeling expansive at this stage of the day, graciously promised him a turn at the microphone.
I wonder, Horowitz began, if the justice minister’s Orthodoxy and his known stance toward the Orthodox communities might have influenced his response in some way when looking into the matter of a non-profit that happens to be run by a Reform rabbi and why he did not feel the need to look into the salaries of the few hundred ultra-Orthodox non-profits for the sake of comparison?
Rivlin, a wildly conversational individual, launched into a story about his law school days, the point of which was that while he struggled to get by, the man to his right, minister Ne’eman, was always top of the class.
Ne’eman thanked him, mentioned something about learning a daily page of Talmud and a dose of the Chofetz Chaim (a 19th century rabbinic work on the perils of slander) and summed up by saying that he merely looked into the question that was asked.
The next matter of the day was for Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Ra’am-Tal MK Ibrahim Sarsur had submitted two questions: why had the University of Haifa removed the Arabic writing from the university seal and when would a certain school in Kfar Kassem find out why so many teachers and students had been accused of cheating on recent Bagrut matriculation exams.
The answers: the official seal has one language, Hebrew, and something along the lines of as soon as possible.
National Union MK Arieh Eldad followed up: “If the University of Haifa decides to depict on its seal a picture of a giraffe eating a family-sized pizza will the minister then, too, be called before Knesset to answer for their decision?”
Rivlin laughed heartily and termed the question “a fine piece of satire.”
Next up were the day’s preliminary laws, which are either scrapped on the Knesset floor or accepted by a simple majority and sent to the relevant Knesset committee for debate and fine tuning.
They included a bill that would reduce the severity of the fines imposed on those caught traveling on Jerusalem’s light rail without having paid (the ticket has to be bought on the platform and cannot be purchased in the car); a bill that would move Independence Day from the fifth of the month of Iyar to Thursday of the same week (which passed with a resounding majority despite National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari’s lecture on the legacy of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and Rivlin’s rhetorical wonderings about whether a similar fate awaited Bastille Day and the Fourth of July); a law about proper biking attire, including an earphone ban and mandatory reflective gear (brought by former Jewish Agency head and current Kadima MK Zeev Bielski); an unsuccessful bid to excuse newly married couples from paying municipal tax for the first year of their union; and a unanimously accepted bill by Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On to afford special rights to organ donors in need of a donation themselves.
There were others but, like Rivlin, I went to lunch and came back as the plenum floor began to fill in anticipation of the day’s big vote – Yaacov Katz “Ketzele’s” bill to bypass the Supreme Court and make legal several thousand structures in the West Bank.
He hobbled in and out of the room with his cane, spoke on his phone, leaned back in his chair and checked the visitor’s section now and again to see if the Beit El residents had arrived. They had: young couples with children and carriages, perhaps unaware that the bill promised to them by dozens of government representatives would eventually be rescinded.
Red in the face and hoarse, Ketzele banged on the lectern and railed against coalition head Zev Elkin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Benny Begin among others. He likened himself to Zeev Jabotinsky in Warsaw in 1938, battling to save several Jewish lives from destruction (he later took back that comment and asked it to be stricken).
The prime minister, in a salmon-colored tie, snapped at him and said something about leaving him “out of it.”
Begin spoke soothingly. National Democratic Assembly MK Jamal Zahalke and MK Michael Ben-Ari were escorted out of the room. Begin suggested Ben-Ari be allowed to stay but Rivlin said, “he wants to be able to say he was thrown out.”
And then, perhaps because he understood that the MKs would abide by Netanyahu’s decree and vote down the bill and perhaps because, as he said, “Rabbi Melamed came to me in tears,” Ketzele said in a soft voice that he was rescinding the bill.
A commotion ensued over whether this was feasible at this point.
Rivlin said it was, so long as the government allowed it.
Netanyahu confirmed that he was not involved one way or the other and the chairman ruled that that was equivalent to acquiescence.
He brought down his gavel.
Deputy Knesset Chairman Ofir Akunis took over on the raised chair.
There was plenty of work left: a bill regarding IDF veterans and their status vis-à-vis the defense ministry’s rehabilitation wing, the nature of Bible study in Israel, the number of fans available in the Israel prison service, the recent report on the public defender’s office, the treatment of animals in the Bird Market that operates on Saturdays in the Sharon region, the marking of Nakba day in the Arab sector and the work done on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line on Shabbat among other things.
But by then, nearly everyone left the room.