Early Likud Campaigning, Rows Mark Opening of Knesset Winter Session

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday used the opening ceremony of the Knesset's winter session to send a message of business as usual and consolidate his role as the head of government until elections are held in February.

"I was hoping and expecting the winner of the primary election in Kadima to form a new government," he said, referring to the failure of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who replaced him at the helm of the Kadima party, to form a government. "But now that the die has been cast and it seems we're heading for elections, I will remain in my position until a new government is formed after the elections."

Ceremonies marking the opening of Knesset sessions usually go by without a hitch, but the speech delivered by opposition leader and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, which signaled the beginning of his election campaign, drew much criticism from the floor.

During his speech, Netanyahu promised to improve Israeli pupils' rankings in international standardized tests and place them among the top 10 nations, an almost unrealistic goal given that Israeli pupils currently rank in the fourth tier of surveyed nations.

Another outburst occurred when Netanyahu vowed not to hold talks with the Palestinians over Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees' right of return.

"You are the first person who will discuss [the division of] Jerusalem," MK Avshalom Vilan of the Meretz party said, prompting a series of heated exchanges between right- and left-wing lawmakers.

Former members of parliament are invited to attend Knesset ceremonial sessions, an opportunity seized upon by businesswoman Pnina Rosenblum.

During a chaotic moment in the session, the former Likud lawmaker intervened in the proceedings and called former colleagues who attacked Netanyahu to order. "What are you interrupting him for?" Rosenblum shouted. "That's what elections are for. Let the voters decide."

Knesset Speaker MK Dalia Itzik, who was shocked by Rosenblum's behavior, snapped at her, saying she was "not allowed to participate" but then burst into uncontrollable laughter herself.

Pnina Rosenblum defends Netanyahu

After a few minutes, Itzik regained her composure and said that the chaotic debate proved why the current Knesset should be dissolved. Rosenblum, whose interruption constituted an unprecedented breach of protocol, later issued a press release in which she criticized Itzik for gagging the Likud party.

The Knesset also discussed the world financial - a mere month and a half after it first began.

Olmert announced his intention to hold talks with the opposition to minimize the negative effect on the Israeli economy. Netanyahu said in response that he would support any emergency plan deemed necessary before elections.

The Likud leader, who took to using the royal "we," repeatedly told the plenum about the merits of the budget the government presented in 2003 when he was finance minister.

"The measures we took then will now provide us with the lifejacket, which will help us stay afloat during this financial tsunami," he said.