livni - Emil Salman - August 3 2011
Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, August 3, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Olivier Fitoussi
Benny Begin, alone in the rows reserved for cabinet ministers. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Even as the Rothschild tent dwellers baked under the Tel Aviv sun, the Knesset plenum also found itself momentarily displaced yesterday. The MKs who took part in a special session on the middle-class protest were forced to use an alternate hall, since the regular hall is being renovated.

And so, at 11 A.M., Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin began the historic session in the auditorium. Dozens of MKs were directed to the padded theater-style seats by ushers. Coalition MKs sat on the right side, and the opposition sat on the left.

The first row of seats - reserved for the prime minister and his cabinet - was empty for most of the session: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, and the vast majority of cabinet ministers did not appear for the discussion, which centered on the middle class's protest and the doctors' strike.

Minister Benny Begin represented the government in responding to the MKs' claims. Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai also were there.

Netanyahu, however, opted to tour the rail line between Ashdod and Tel Aviv.

Steinitz's office said he was "in Tel Aviv" during the Knesset session yesterday.

Initially, there were only four Likud members present, along with one member from Shas and one from Atzmaut.

The opposition, on the other hand, was in full strength.

"The government and the coalition members ignore the Knesset," said MK Yoel Hasson, adding, "When you witness the government's disregard and insensitivity, with so many seats empty, you realize that this is a coalition of rats fleeing a sinking ship. They know this government cannot possibly have any solutions."

MK Amir Peretz said, "There is no doubt that something happened in Israel.

"It could be that the people will not bring down the government, and that the echoes of the protest are not reaching the government offices," Peretz said. "But public opinion in Israel today is somewhere else entirely. The prime minister cannot go to elections with his worldview."

MK Ahmed Tibi was furious about Likud's efforts to present the protest as one led by spoiled citizenry.

"I did not know that the water pipe is a status symbol until Likud described the protesters in tents on Rothschild Boulevard 'sushi eaters and water pipe smokers,'" Tibi said.

Opposition head Tzipi Livni made the session's keynote speech. She assailed the government and blasted the socioeconomic cabinet, "which met yesterday and did not discuss this protest, as if it were happening in a different country."

"The demonstrators are not the ones who have to make the budgetary decisions and find the budgetary funding," Livni said. "This discussion should have been held in the Knesset. The problem started here, and it must be ended. The leadership must draw a vision for the future, not create a committee."

"The protest must come to an end with the birth of a just Israel," Livni said. "It may come to an end with the transfer of funds from one article to another in the budget, and the protesters out there deserve much more."

Begin responded that many of the problems to which Livni referred began during the period in which Kadima, her party, was in power. "The phenomenon whereby many citizens spend more than their income also did not begin today, but dates back to at least 2004," he said.