It was only halfway through his speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session Monday that an irate opposition leader Isaac Herzog managed to capture the attention of the stirring, restless plenum. Raising his voice abruptly, Herzog launched into a furious, metaphor-laden J’accuse against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and against his ostensible efforts to put a nail in the coffin of the new, yet-to-open, public broadcaster.
Netanyahu is attempting to silence the media, muzzle all critical voices, and in an “incredible zigzag,” is seeking to close down the very corporation that his predecessor in the Communications Ministry, Likud MK Gilad Erdan, set up through government legislation, Herzog charged.
(While the government maintains that it is seeking to curtail the new broadcasting body to cut costs, critics say the real reason is Netanyahu’s fear of the corporation’s political independence. That assessment is buttressed by statements from Netanyahu expressing fear that it will be left-leaning.)
“Your principles and goals are identical to a classic military coup — control, cleansing, oppression, and breaking up the strongholds of democracy, which in your sense of persecution are nests of resistance and a threat to your reign: the media, the law, the criticism, the army officers and police officers and the security forces, the foreign service and the opinion leaders, the culture,” Herzog added.
“So grow up already!” he yelled across the plenum at the prime minister, who was sitting in the front row in a blue shirt and red tie, his arm flung over the next chair. Netanyahu appeared relaxed, even amused. But other MKs certainly perked up.
It wasn’t the first time in the supposedly festive hour-and-a-half-long opening plenum session that an Israeli leader had appealed for political maturity. In fact, Herzog was the fourth, after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who decried hateful rhetoric among politicians; President Reuven Rivlin; and Netanyahu himself.
A short while earlier, Netanyahu had paused his own speech to address heckling by Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson.
“Grow up, calm down, listen,” Netanyahu told the opposition lawmaker directly. Facebook is a better venue for heckling, he added.
Boycotts and broadcasters
Pen in hand, a bespectacled Netanyahu did not look up from dotting his notes, or even flinch, when Rivlin raised the hot-button issue of the hour in his speech, the second of the evening.
“Those in favor of a public broadcasting authority cannot turn it into a trumpet of the commissars, and those who oppose a public broadcasting authority should come and state a clear opinion,” the president declared.
Facing the grim-faced president, Netanyahu was flanked by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, whose potential to challenge him for the premiership has reportedly fueled some tension. Across the plenum, lawmakers huddled and murmured with their neighbors sporadically during the speeches. But Katz and Netanyahu didn’t chat for the first hour, although later they shared a laugh.
The members of the Joint (Arab) List, who were seated behind Netanyahu, filed out as the prime minister began to speak. It was a boycott of a boycott of a boycott: The coalition had declared it would snub the Arab lawmakers for boycotting the funeral of former president Shimon Peres. They, in retaliation, declared they’d boycott the prime minister’s speech.
Taking the podium, Netanyahu did not immediately address his reported efforts to close the public broadcaster. But his animosity toward the media was immediately and keenly felt.
He began by citing commentators’ predictions on the Middle East over the past 10 years. The Economist on Tunisian stability, Newsweek on Syria’s promising future, Haaretz in 2011 on Assad, and Yedioth Ahronoth in the same year appealing to the government to make peace with Syria.
“You have to read it to believe it,” he said, before deriding the “self-styled experts.”
Israel, he thundered, was an “island of stability” and prosperity in a war-rent Middle East.
On the press, he reserved praise for a Saudi journalist and several others in the Arab world who appealed for a softened approach toward the Jewish state.
It took him over 20 minutes to arrive at the new public broadcaster, on whose dismantlement the cabinet will vote next Sunday. He knew the crowd was waiting to hear it, and he said so, earning murmurs of approval from the plenum.
“We will rehabilitate the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and we will do it with financial responsibility,” he said in his first public comment on the subject. The Israel Broadcasting Authority has been downscaled dramatically as the new broadcaster, Kan, set up shop, and it was the first confirmation that the prime minister wanted to ensure that Kan never goes on-air.
Later on, the prime minister said: “We want to see our Arab friends integrated into society.
“We don’t want to see anyone left behind,” he said to the conspicuously empty chairs left behind by the Joint List members.
Screaming and silence
When Joint List MK Abu Taleb Arar took the podium, the coalition staged its own walkout, although several coalition lawmakers, including Speaker Edelstein, stayed put.
There was also a bout of screaming to complement the earlier heckling. At one point, Arab lawmakers requested a moment of silence for the victims of the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre and proceed to pray. When they protested that some people didn’t stand, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) interjected, and was met with calls accusing him of being a murderer. Meretz MK Issawi Frij was ejected from the plenum.
But of all the boycotts and protests, it was the quiet ones, the ones nearest the prime minister, that were the most telling. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who hours earlier vowed to veto any attempts to close down the new public broadcaster, was notably absent.
During Netanyahu’s speech, a few seats over from the prime minister’s vacant center seat, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri tweeted: “It’s important that there be a strong and professional public broadcaster that will represent the entire public. Therefore, on Sunday, in the cabinet, Shas’s ministers will vote against closing the broadcaster.”
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.
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