The settlers are the real government of Israel
Events this week showed that junior MKs are dictating the national agenda and the settler tail is wagging the dog in the Knesset.
On Monday, after the Boycott Law passed by a vote of 47-38, Likud MKs flocked around MK Zeev Elkin, chairman of the Likud faction and the coalition, a resident of the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank, and the law’s sponsor. His seat in the next Knesset is guaranteed. MKs Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely, Zion Pinyan and Yariv Levin were there; Ofir Akunis embraced Elkin. If this had been the Teddy Stadium, they would have hoisted Elkin onto their shoulders and carried him in a victory procession.
“I wasn’t out for all the media − all the noise,” Elkin said modestly the next day. “I’m also not sure about my seat in the next Knesset. Who’ll remember this in another two years?” But Elkin knows his voters in the settlements never forget.
“At first,” he added later, “this law was of no interest to anyone. In the preliminary reading everyone supported it, and there were no problems in first reading. Only last week did the media campaign start. In fact, the work was done for me by Peace Now and the left-wing organizations. Then Kadima also got on the bandwagon. Tzipi Livni did not take part in the previous votes; it was only on Monday, when she saw what was going on, that she remembered she was against it.”
Elkin is right. He worked on the legislation for a few months, scurrying between the relevant ministries, taking part in discussions of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The only one from Kadima who tried to shoot down the bill there was MK Yohanan Plesner.
In private conversations, Elkin sounds a lot less ideological and extreme than he comes off elsewhere. Someone asked if he thinks the law will cause Israel international damage. “In the long run, I think not,” he said with satisfaction. “But the campaign against the law is causing us a certain amount of damage.”
There are some who attribute Elkin’s aggressive behavior to his Russian origins; in some Knesset circles, he’s known as “the Bolshevik.” His Hebrew is good, but he has a strong accent. Ten years ago, he was a member of Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party. In 2005, he spearheaded Likud’s Russian-language campaign against the withdrawal from Gaza. Afterward, still a political unknown, he got an offer from Kadima leader Ariel Sharon to defect to that party and enter the Knesset easily, as part of a slate of candidates drawn up by the party’s founder, who was in need of a settler who was also Russian. Elkin put ideology aside momentarily, and entered the Knesset on the Kadima list under Ehud Olmert. On the eve of the last elections he returned to Likud and was chosen in the party primary to run as a representative of the new immigrants’ constituency.
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) asked Elkin if his passion for enacting legislation of this kind had to do with his being beaten up as a kid. The immigrants, veterans and newcomers alike, sometimes carry unpleasant memories from Mother Russia or from the torment of trying to integrate in Israel.
Grace and decorum
As the left continues to crumble and be increasingly irrelevant, the parliamentary right is becoming ever more militant against the Arab public, “the professors,” the Supreme Court, creative artists, so-called intellectuals, donors from abroad and so on.
In the past Israel’s right wing was characterized by grace and decorum, as decreed by Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and by grace and courage, as per the Betar anthem.
These days, Benjamin Netanyahu is not ashamed to take the floor and declare that if not for his support of the problematic law, it would not have come to a vote. If so, why didn’t the government sponsor it? Why was it dragged in by Elkin? And why didn’t Netanyahu bother going to the Knesset Monday night to vote?
The answer is that there is no government in Israel and no head of government. The tail is wagging the dog. Junior MKs dictate the national agenda to the government. One time it’s Elkin, another time it’s David Rotem from Yisrael Beiteinu, with the admission committees law − or maybe Fania Kirshenbaum, from the same party, with her suggestion to establish parliamentary committees of inquiry against left-wing organizations. Or it might be Alex Miller, also from Yisrael Beiteinu, with the “Nakba Law” or with his “Cinema Law,” which says that only those who declare loyalty to the state as a Jewish and democratic country will get government funding for making films.
Behind the scenes the settlers are at work: They are the real government in Israel.
MKs from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu compete with one another in persecuting the left, which for years has been dealt one electoral blow after another. New members of Likud are increasingly extreme. Likud activists know whom to appeal to in order to get votes in the next primaries: Both Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman are in competition for support of the right.
Less than two days after Elkin pushed through the Boycott Law, Lieberman announced that next week, his Yisrael Beiteinu faction will submit Kirshenbaum’s proposal involving parliamentary committees of inquiry. A few hours after that announcement, Bibi declared that the Boycott Law was his baby.
Betwixt and between, Lieberman vanquished the government on the question of raising the retirement age for women to 67, and said his faction would support the bill proposed by MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima) to leave it at 62. Netanyahu balked and declared that Likud MKs could vote as they wished. Thus Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was the only one to vote against Itzik’s bill, versus 67 supporters.
Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin tried to block the Boycott Law. Just before the vote, he was under heavy pressure from cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser to remove the bill from the agenda to avoid embarrassment to the government while the Quartet was meeting in Washington. Rivlin said he would comply if the government were to announce, even as a formality, that it would examine possible revisions to the bill. Hauser could not promise any such announcement from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Rivlin nevertheless asked Elkin to reconsider. Elkin declined. “If we postpone it for a week, the pressure will only grow,” he explained. Rivlin threw in the towel. “Do you know the old song, ‘We don’t want to sleep / We want to go crazy’? Well, go crazy. I, for one, will not vote for this bill.”
At midday Wednesday, at the height of the storm over the Boycott Law, MKs Levin and Elkin stated that they intend to submit a bill giving the Knesset veto power over appointments of Supreme Court justices, by means of hearings for candidates in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Shortly after the two made their announcement in the press, the cell phones of the 2,500 or so members of the Likud central committee vibrated with the following text message: “Toward a revolution in the Supreme Court − the transparency law for appointment of justices, sponsored by MK Yariv Levin. The whole Likud is mobilizing!”
Someone invested quite a lot of money in this project. But it was too much to swallow, even for Likudniks. The first to issue a tough rejection of the idea was Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. He set the tone. Following him, the bureaus of Rivlin and of ministers Begin and Meridor released similar statements.
A few hours later, Netanyahu took the podium in the Knesset to present his government’s achievements and to defend the Boycott Law. “We respect the Supreme Court, we will protect the Supreme Court,” he said. An hour later, the premier’s office issued a more detailed communique, stating that Netanyahu opposes “unequivocally a bill that will grant the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee the authority to disqualify candidates for judgeships and intervene in the appointment of judges.”
Next week, the Knesset will go back to squabbling over the bill to investigate left-wing groups. More brilliant ideas await us in the week after that, and then the Knesset will disperse for a long summer recess, and quiet shall descend upon Israel − at least for 80 days.
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