A Knesset session on Israel’s staggering poverty levels went wildly off-topic on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog challenged each other to condemn the far-left Breaking the Silence NGO, and right-wing criticism of President Reuven Rivlin, respectively.
The raucous Knesset session, which drew cheering and applause from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, prompted Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to take the unusual step of calling a time-out, with Herzog’s microphone cutting off mid-speech.
Edelstein later apologized for losing his composure, while sharply rebuking the parliamentarians for their rowdy conduct.
Addressing the prime minister, Herzog said: “You say that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t condemn incitement, but you don’t condemn the terrible and awful incitement against the president of the State of Israel.”
The opposition leader was denouncing criticism of the president for attending the Haaretz conference on Sunday, alongside members of the Breaking the Silence NGO — a combat veterans group that documents alleged abuses by IDF soldiers against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Netanyahu then took to the podium. “From personal experience, leaders are criticized,” he said. “I oppose all incitement and all violent discourse against the president or any other public official. At the same time, I will continue to fight for the right of everyone to express their opinion.”
Turning to Herzog, Netanyahu “demanded he get up and emphatically condemn the Breaking the Silence organization.”
Herzog returned to the podium, but due to jeering from the lawmakers, Edelstein paused the session. Minutes later, the session resumed and Herzog returned to the microphone.
“In certain cases, Breaking the Silence crossed the line, but you must let people who fought on the front lines express themselves, in the right places,” he said.
“I am disgusted by these opinions, but I will fight to allow people to say them,” Herzog added.
Herzog’s remarks were met with more screaming from coalition lawmakers, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett who cried out “[you should] be ashamed!”
Bennett on Tuesday announced he would ban the NGO from Israeli schools; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Sunday said he would prevent the organization from entering army grounds.
Not content to keep the debate in the Knesset, Netanyahu and Herzog proceeded to duke it out on Facebook.
Netanyahu posted a video from the plenum and wrote: “MK Herzog, the time has come for you to condemn Breaking the Silence, an organization besmirching the image of soldiers around the world, blackening the face of the Israel Defense Forces, harming our fighters.”
Commenting on the video, Herzog wrote: “Bibi, in demagoguery you deserve a 10/10 score. In demagoguery we lose and you win for sure. But a prime minister is not a talking parrot. He needs to run a country. The time for talk is done. Deal with stopping Arab terrorism, restoring quiet to the streets and catching the Jewish terrorists from Duma, fight raging poverty, change the natural gas draft and mainly, for once in your career, start seeing people as people. In short: Start working, stop blabbering.”
Not to be left out in the condemnation war, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid condemned Herzog’s “refusal” to condemn the Breaking the Silence organization and Netanyahu’s “half-hearted condemnation” of the condemnation of the president.
“It’s a disgrace,” he said of Herzog’s statements in the Knesset. “Herzog ought to support IDF soldiers instead of radical left-wing organizations.” As for the prime minister, “he cannot continue with his partial condemnations in order to pay lip service. The time has come for him to protect the president loudly and clearly, to condemn those who incite and clarify that he does not support them in any way.”
In response, the Zionist Union accused Lapid of “inciting” against Herzog.
“Lapid, as usual, was not in the plenum during the speech and is trying to divert attention from this by inciting,” the party said in a statement.