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'It seems like we have lost our moral compass'

‘The air is full of gunpowder’: In Knesset speech, Rivlin laments social discord

Criticizing government for failing to pass state budget or appoint permanent police chief, president decries violence between protesters and cops

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/ Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/ Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday launched blistering criticism of the state of Israel’s leadership, calling on the government to swiftly pass a budget and appoint a new commander of the Israel Police, which has been without a permanent commissioner since December 2018.

“It seems like we have lost the [moral] compass we have had since the state was founded, the fundamental principles and values that we are committed to uphold. We must look forward. The virus is with us to stay, and we cannot deal with it if our hands are tied behind our backs,” Rivlin said, speaking at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session.

“For more than two years, the Israel Police has been functioning without a permanent commissioner. Police are dealing, right now as we speak, with one of the most complex challenges in its history. Appoint a police commissioner now,” he said.

“For more than two years, the State of Israel has been without a budget,” he said, mentioning the toll on the welfare and education systems and arguing that “we are in danger of losing the next generation.”

“Businesses are failing, unemployment is high, the deficit is growing and the medical system is groaning under the burden of the ill. Pass the budget now and give Israel’s economy the basic stability it needs,” Rivlin urged.

The Knesset last passed a state budget in March 2018, which was in force until the end of 2019. The lack of a comprehensive budget law in 2020 has left many ministries struggling with unexpected budget shortfalls and made it difficult to plan ahead. Many organizations, including those that ran the largest programs for at-risk youth in the country, were forced to close for part of the year as government support dried up. Some treasury officials have warned that Israel’s credit rating with international lending agencies could be hurt.

Under the coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can retain the premiership in an interim government only if the government falls due to failure to pass a budget, a move that the premier has been accused of engineering.

Police scuffle with protesters during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

In his speech in the Knesset plenum at the opening of its winter session, Rivlin also addressed the rising social tensions in the country.

After praising the national unity reflected during the first coronavirus lockdown in March and April, the president said that “as the crisis deepened, so did the disagreements and the splits between us. I never imagined with what power this disunity would hit us.”

“The current crisis is amongst the worst we have experienced because, unlike other crises, it takes our basic freedoms from us and undermines our foundations as a Jewish and democratic state,” he added, lamenting the “inconceivable harm to the freedom to worship, the freedom to gather and protest, the freedom of movement and the freedom to work.”

“Friends, I feel the air is full of gunpowder. I feel the fury that is flooding the streets. But it is unacceptable that night after night, protesters beat protesters, police beat protesters, protesters throw rocks at police,” he said.

“Israeli tribalism is bursting through the cracks, and fingers are pointed in accusation by one part of society toward the other. Stop! Please stop! This is not the way. Only by recognizing and listening to each other can we deal with the crisis upon us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset plenum, October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/ Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke after Rivlin and said Israel was “on the right path” to containing its second wave of the coronavirus.

He defended the national lockdown that was imposed to curb the surge in infections, saying it has saved lives.

“I call on all public leaders, from the left and from the right, to act together with mutual solidarity,” he said. “We will lower the levels of brutality and violence, which isn’t acceptable in any situation, and together we will lower infection and mortality rates.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid unloaded on the government for its handling of the pandemic and accused Netanyahu of fueling division in Israeli society.

“People feel abandoned and exposed, so they look for someone to embrace them. They feel like there isn’t a government. There is no one they can trust. There is no one that cares. So if there is no state, at least there is a tribe,” Lapid said. “The problem doesn’t start at the bottom, it starts at the top, it starts with the government.”

Lapid commented on the near-constant coalition infighting and continued lack of state budget.

“People are sick, people are dying, why can’t you work together? Why can’t you pass a budget? Every fifth business in Israel has closed, why aren’t you doing anything? How dare you stay stuck in your toxic arguments? How dare the prime minister continue to focus on his own criminal trial?” he said.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaking in the Knesset plenum, October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

He declared that the coalition was not capable of tackling the pandemic and therefore called for a new government.

The session opened after days of increasingly acerbic fighting between Netanyahu’s Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, with each party accusing the other of failing to adhere to coalition agreements, politicizing the fight against the coronavirus, and dragging the country unnecessarily into early elections — issues that have been consistent themes throughout the unity government’s short life.

The power-sharing deal between the parties stipulates that Gantz will become prime minister in November 2021. It also says that if any party breaks up the coalition to call an election, the other party automatically takes the premiership in the lead-up to a fresh national vote. However, there is a single exception to this rule, that being the state budget: failure to pass the state budget by the legal deadline will automatically lead to elections, with the prime minister keeping his post. This is seen as a loophole allowing Netanyahu an “exit window” to elections without losing his seat.

Netanyahu currently has two such windows: the passage of the long-delayed 2020 budget by December 23, and the 2021 budget by March of next year. Missing either of the deadlines will trigger automatic elections.

The Blue and White party wants the 2020-2021 budget passed by December, to prevent Netanyahu from having the option of heading to elections in March. On its side is the coalition agreement, which stipulated that a two-year budget would be passed this year.

Polls have shown Blue and White sinking to 8-10 seats, if elections were held now. Likud has also seen its prospects wither, with a poll from the channel last week showing it dropping to 26 seats, just three more than the right-wing nationalist Yamina party.

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