The Monday Knesset faction meetings of each political party normally follow a similar and often mundane pattern.
Journalists and party officials gather in the designated faction conference room to hear the party leader deliver a statement about the issues of the day and, sometimes, take a few questions. The press is then ushered out to allow lawmakers to discuss the week’s legislative agenda behind closed doors.
In recent years, however, Likud party faction meetings have regularly turned into mini pro-Netanyahu rallies, with dozens of party activists present to welcome the prime minister to the room and cheer him during his speech.
At one such meeting in January 2017, shortly after police opened a criminal investigation against him, the devoted supporters burst into a round of “Bibi Melech Yisrael,” changing the biblical-theme song from “David is the King of Israel,” to use the prime minister’s nickname.
On Monday, Culture Minister Miri Regev tried to insert herself into the succession of meetings, by holding her own press conference at the same time as the parties were gathering, and also taking a leaf out of the the prime minister’s book by having the room full of her own supporters.
But her hastily organized gathering, called after Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman blocked the passage of a bill that would have granted Regev the power to withhold arts funding based on political criteria, was noteworthy not for her supporters’ adoration of the Likud minister but for their animosity towards the reporters covering it.
A furious Regev had called the press conference ahead of the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting so as to put Liberman on the back foot and force him to respond to her. The former defense minister, however, brought his party meeting forward by two hours, just before Regev’s, allowing him to preempt her criticism.
After a typically ebullient appearance by Liberman, in which he took multiple questions on his insistence to only consider supporting the Culture Loyalty Bill in exchange for backing for his own agenda, reporters were riled to find that Regev, by contrast, would not be answering any queries from the press.
An announcement to this effect by her spokesperson was met with protests from reporters, who insisted it was unfair and unprofessional to invite them to a “press conference” but not allow any questions whatsoever.
“That’s the ABC of media relations,” one journalist complained, while another threatened a mass walk out if press queries were not going to be fielded.
Regev eventually caved, allowing the journalists in the room to challenge her claims that Kahlon and Liberman had “given a gift to terrorists” by refusing to back her bill. But her supporters were less willing to yield.
As the reporters asked their questions, the pro-Regev activists in the room repeatedly interrupted, attempted to answer on their own and, in some cases, muttered and even called out offensive epithets at the press.
One activist branded a female correspondent a “bitch” for asking a question while another labeled a religious journalist “a traitor.” When this reporter challenged some of the rowdy activists, he was called a “son of a whore.”
— רועי שרון Roy Sharon (@roysharon11) November 26, 2018
Animosity towards journalists is not uncommon at Likud events. Netanyahu has had a famously combative relationship with the media, regularly accusing it of carrying out “witch hunts” against him, dismissing specific journalists as biased and untrustworthy, and denouncing critical stories about him as “fake news.” And his supporters have often followed suit.
But the treatment of journalists at Monday’s event was almost unprecedented for a “press conference” taking place at the Knesset, where political reporters are supposed to be able to cover events freely and without fear of intimidation.
A member of the Knesset security unit overseeing the press conference did intervene at one point, warning a Regev supporter that such behavior is not allowed in the parliament, but none of the activists were asked to leave or reprimanded for their insults.
Responding to a request from journalists for an apology from Regev, her spokesman denied that the activists has been brought to the press conference by the minister and said their actions were therefore “not her responsibility.” He added that since Regev had not heard the specific insults, “she has nothing to respond to or condemn.”