Like spoiled children, tyro Labor MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Yoram Marciano thumbed their figurative noses at the leader of their party and at the prime minister, and refused to vote for the state budget. It's a matter of principle, of conscience, they explained, that prevents them from supporting the government. It occurred four days into the 17th Knesset session, and even though their subversive behavior is a blatant violation of the coalition agreement, the heads of Labor and Kadima apparently took it in stride.
They will come to regret their acceptance. If the prime minister and the minister of defense do not take immediate and firm disciplinary action against the two rebellious MKs, they are likely to have a lot of trouble with the Knesset. Instead of summoning the whips of the coalition parties for consultations, Ehud Olmert should have demanded that Amir Peretz bring Yachimovich and Marciano into line immediately, and instead of trying to wheedle them into supporting the budget, Peretz should have forced them to toe the party line or face immediate punishment.
According to its policy guidelines and the remarks by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he presented his cabinet to the Knesset, the Olmert government exists, above all, in order to bring the convergence plan to fruition. "This is the basis of its existence," the prime minister said. The implication is that the other goals that appear in the government's platform are secondary. If two coalition MKs absent themselves from the vote in protest over a relatively minor matter such as an increase in the price of bread (with all due respect to the implications for poor families), how will the prime minister guarantee the majority he will need to carry out the much more difficult task of implementing a withdrawal from the West Bank? And if, despite the explicit commitment in the coalition agreement, the two MKs evade their duty to support the budget in the Knesset without being punished for it immediately and harshly, how will the prime minister and the Labor Party chairman deter other coalition MKs from violating their directives?
The Knesset is not a kindergarten, where the teacher is tolerant of the whimsies of her small charges. The Knesset is a political field of action, the site of tough negotiations over the affairs of state. The rules of the game in the Knesset demand coalition discipline, without which the government is liable to fall every day. There is a built-in tension between the expectation that coalition MKs will support the government's positions absolutely, and their desire to express their own positions and not to be a rubber stamp for the government. That tension reaches bursting point infrequently, when the issue at stake is dear to the heart of the MKs. Only then does the coalition break up. When a small rise in the price of bread or the first reading of the state budget law - most of which was drafted by former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is the pretext for rebellious voting, it is hard to view it as a justifiable reason. It is more likely to be seen as a populist excuse.
Some of those who spoke at the discussion held last week at the President's Residence on the state of democracy in Israel focused on the gap between the public's support for democratic values and its decreasing satisfaction with the performance of democracy in the country. The disappointment is expressed not only in the degree of trust the public feels for political parties. (Forty-two percent of survey respondents do not trust them at all, and 36 percent trust them a little.) These figures are the result of the behavior of the parties and their central committees in recent years, and the translation of these results into votes in the Knesset elections. It can be assumed that the public is now fed up with the unending frenzied political movement that prevents governments from finishing their terms, and seeks a stable regime.
Shelly Yachimovich, Yoram Marciano and their like need political maturity, and fast. In order to understand where their spoiled protest of last week is leading, they should cast a glance at the Likud, which until six months ago was the largest faction in the Knesset. To help them to internalize the necessary insight, the kindergarten teacher must make them stand in the corner.
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