'Unbelievable,' 'Disgrace': Likud Lawmakers Erupt Over Knesset Speech in Arabic

The flare-up came during the vote on the Electricity Law, which seeks to connect Israelis in unrecognized Bedouin villages to basic infrastructure, and which passed 61 to 0 after an opposition boycott

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Knesset members during Wednesday's debate.
Knesset members during Wednesday's debate.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Knesset is often the scene of shouting, heckling and exchanging verbal insults. But the eruption on Wednesday morning from the ranks of Likud, the largest opposition party led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn’t about legislation or policy, but over a speech given in Arabic.

The incident occurred after the passage of a hotly debated bill, commonly called the Electricity Law, which has to do with connecting tens of thousands of Arab-Israelis living in unrecognized villages in southern Israel to key infrastructures like electricity, water and telephone lines.

When the subject was raised in the Knesset session, chaired by MK Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List, the bill's sponsor Walid Taha of Abbas’s party delivered a speech partly in Arabic, one of Israel’s official languages. Taha also exchanged words in Arabic with Abbas in between his remarks. As he spoke, Likud MK David Amsalem shouted, “You are in the Knesset! You need to speak Hebrew!”

Walid Taha at the Knesset, on Wednesday.Credit: Knesset TV

By law, Knesset members may speak from the podium in either Hebrew or Arabic. Arab Israeli members, who represent Israel’s largest minority – 20 percent of the population – usually give speeches in Hebrew. But on this occasion Taha, who fought for months to see the Electricity Bill become law, chose to address his mostly Arabic-speaking constituency.

Amsalem’s angry remarks were followed by a torrent of furious reactions from other Likud members of Knesset.

“Disgraceful!” tweeted MK Miri Regev. “This morning in the Knesset of Israel, MK Walid Taha delivers his speech on the Electricity Law in Arabic. (Prime Minister Naftali) Bennett sits, amused in the plenum, allowing this shameful act in the Knesset to go ahead.” 

Walid Taha of the United Arab List speaks in the Knesset, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

MK Miki Zohar called the event “unbelievable” on Twitter and said “I heard Walid Taha explain the Electricity Law in Arabic on the podium and I felt as if I had been elected to the Palestinian parliament.”

Following the vote on the bill, which passed 61 to 0 after the Likud-led opposition refused to participate in what Netanyahu termed a “farce,” the session deteriorated into extended shouting and finger-pointing. Opposition members directed their remarks at Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, saying “Shame on you!” and “Leave!” Bennett responded by calling the lawmakers “thugs," on Twitter and promised he would not allow them to "burn the country.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor party, said in response to the bill’s passage that she is “proud” to see the government take action to connect Israelis to basic infrastructure. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of Meretz called “the opposition’s tantrum” over Taha’s speech “further proof of why it’s so good to have a different government in power.”

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