'Israel Has Lost Its Compass,' President Rivlin Warns as Knesset Returns to Work

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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President Rivlin speaks at the opening session of the Knesset, October 12, 2020.
President Rivlin speaks at the opening session of the Knesset, October 12, 2020.Credit: Yaniv Hadas/Spokesperson
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

For the first time in three sessions, the Knesset has reconvened in a festive ceremony on Monday afternoon to mark the opening of its winter session, amid Israel's ongoing nationwide lockdown and political deadlock over the passing of a new state budget.

President Reuven Rivlin was received by an honor guard at the ceremonial plaza and opened the special meeting. Along with Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin spoke at the ceremony.

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In an unusual move, a new rostrum was set up in the plenum to allow a distance of two meters between the speakers. The winter session is expected to last until March, but the Knesset may disperse in a few weeks if the government does not approve a state budget by December 23. 

Speaking at the opening ceremony, President Rivlin said "it appears we have lost the compass that has been with us from the nation's founding until now. Our moral compass, our basic values, that are necessary to our existence."

Rivlin urged Knesset members to appoint a police commissioner and pass a budget for 2021 – two issues that have been on hold following political tensions. "The plague is here to stay, and we cannot manage it with our hands tied behind our backs."

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, Jerusalem, August 24, 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakon

"For two years now, the State of Israel is working without a budget. The education system cannot find a clear way to manage the challenge of distance learning, and many students are falling behind, the digital gap is widening, and we may lose a future generation," added the president.

"Don't allow the welfare institutions to collapse, for at-risk-youth without a foundation, for violence and brutality against women, for the elderly, for the poor. Take care of them today! Worry about them now! Businesses are collapsing, the unemployment rate his high, the deficit has grown, and the medical system is falling apart under the rate of infection. Pass a budget now, and allow the Israeli economy the most basic stability that it needs!"

"Friends, I feel the air is full of smoke, I feel the rage in the streets. It cannot be ignored that every night, protesters are striking protesters. Police are striking protesters. Protesters are throwing rocks at police. Israeli tribalism is bursting at the seams, and blaming fingers are being pointed in every direction," Rivlin said. "We must allow space for people's pain. There is no cry that is not worthy of being heard. Only through understanding and by listening to one another will we be able to face the crisis that faces us."

In his speech, Netanyahu defended his decision to impose a second nationwide lockdown, saying “the lockdown actions we took against the second wave of the coronavirus saved lives.” Netanyahu lauded the decline in positive COVID tests from 15 percent to 7 percent in the three weeks since the lockdown has been in effect.

Netanyahu added that the government cannot “give in to pressure from within the government and from without … if we give in to the demands of each sector, we will very quickly be driven to another lockdown. I call on the leaders from the left and the right, work together.”

The prime minister also called upon ultra-Orthodox leaders in particular to urge their communities to adhere to regulations, saying that "the world of Torah is dear to my heart ... I want to emphasize, precisely for this reason, our Torah is a doctrine of life, which sanctifies life."

Opposition leader Lapid slammed the government in his speech, saying that it "uses hate and anger to distract from its failure." According to Lapid, "if we want to heal, this has to be the last parliamentary session of this government. It's time for another government."

Adressing Knesset members, Lapid said "the citizens of Israel are looking at the dispute in the current government, they don't understand what is going on. People are sick, people are dying, why are you not willing to work together? To pass a [state] budget. Every fifth business in israel has closed - Why are you not doing anything? How dare you continue to be stuck in your toxic quarrels? How dare the prime minister continue to be occupied only by his own trial?"

Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett said in his speech that "a lockdown is not a sign of victory, but a certificate of failure," and went on to address Netanyahu saying: "There is another reason why the people have lost faith, the reason is that you, the Prime Minister, do not believe in the people."

"A lockdown is a necessary action when you fail to provide good care. Well-run countries like Cyprus, Latvia, Taiwan and Estonia have not reached another general closure ... The lockdown is destroying a generation of entrepreneurs and business owners here. The closure shatters the minds of our children. The closure is the antithesis of the Israeli spirit," said Bennett. 

Israel's coalition government survived during the session four votes of no confidence proposed by the opposition. Gantz made it clear earlier that his faction would not support the move despite his murky relationship with Netanyahu. "We will not vote for the no-confidence motion today because it is a public relations move and not a A chanced action. But the loss of public trust in the country's leadership should serve as a clear warning sign to the prime minister and members of the government," said Gantz.

After the vote, Lapid attacked Gantz for his decision. "After all the talk from Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz and [Gabi] Ashkenazi are keeping Netanyahu as prime minister. they could have removed him from Balfour this evening but they didn't."

Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at a Kahol Lavan faction meeting on Monday that he will on Tuesday demand an end to the special emergency coronavirus measures currently in place, while saying that he does not rule out replacing Netanyahu. 

Gantz also said that the 2021 state budget “will pass in December” due to the “national emergency” Israel faces, and that Israelis will be able to protest “anytime, anywhere.”

“We’ve been called ‘traitors,’ and we turned the other cheek…” Gantz said, “but we won’t remain silent anymore.”

“The decline in infection rate is a badge of honor for the citizens of the state” he said. “It seems at times most of the people show more responsibility than some of its leaders.”

On the possibility of replacing Netanyahu, Gantz said: “We’ve been brave enough to tell our voters there’s no other choice, and any irrelevant considerations must be set aside in an emergency. We’ll also be brave in fighting for the interests of Israeli citizens in any possible way. We will block anyone trying to drive us over the edge… Don’t test us.”

Meanwhile, in regard to the 2021 state budget, which has continued to be delayed, Gantz said “Let it be clear to anyone trying to challenge us … It’s not a political thing or a personal thing, but a national emergency requiring a budget be approved.”

He is "very concerned about the disintegration of the professional system in the Ministry of Finance and the attempt to impose a personal agenda on the professional levels," Gantz said, adding that "Whoever tries to drag us into the abyss will find us blocking it. All options on the table and all government alternatives will be explored. I suggest not to try us."

If MKs fail to pass a budget by December 23, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and a new election will be called. 

But even more than the coronavirus, the Knesset’s defining characteristic over the past several months has been the complete distrust between the governing coalition’s two main partners, Likud and Kahol Lavan. MKs have trouble advancing legislation because each party vetoes the other’s bills. For the same reason, committees have trouble overturning controversial coronavirus regulations even if one of the two parties supports doing so