Herzog Calls on Netanyahu to Defend Rivlin During Fiery Knesset Session

Opposition leader demands prime minister condemn 'incitement campaign' against Rivlin. In response, Netanyahu challenges Herzog to condemn Breaking the Silence.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Isaac Herzog at Knesset ceremony marking 20th anniversary of Rabin's assassination. October 26, 2015.
Isaac Herzog at Knesset ceremony marking 20th anniversary of Rabin's assassination. October 26, 2015. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Knesset session called by the opposition Wednesday broke up after an acerbic confrontation broke out between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition chairman Isaac Herzog. After a vitriolic exchange between Herzog and Netanyahu, lawmakers began to applaud and Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein stopped the session.

Herzog called on Netanyahu, in a speech Wednesday, to publicly come to the defense of Present Reuven Rivlin following the recent campaign waged against him. Herzog's comments come after Netanyahu had failed to say a thing on the subject in his latest speech.

"I address you and demand of you in the name of a large Israeli public to get behind a podium and declare that Reuven Rivlin is your president and that he is an Israeli patriot, and that those who incite against him will not be cleansed," Herzog said at a Knesset session convened at the request of 40 MKs, minutes after Netanyahu spoke. "Since the incitement campaign began on the channel to which you gave an extended interview, your supporters in Israel need to hear you say it wholeheartedly."

Herzog demanded that Netanyahu order the Shin Bet chief to increase the security detail protecting Rivlin and call on the police chief to "stop those behind the incitement, whose names and pictures are on Facebook." Herzog added "You need to take action to save Israeli democracy."

The opposition chairman addressed Netanyahu and warned of a possible assassination attempt on Rivlin's life following the incitement against him. "20 years ago there were those who called to 'drive out Rabin with blood and fire' and you didn't see or hear it," Herzog said, "They said that Rabin was a traitor and you didn't hear or see it, and today we hear the same voices. A great multitude is screaming on Facebook 'Ruvi Rivlin isn't my president' and Ruvi Rivlin is colored in the colors of the Palestinian flag, and there are calls to physically harm him. You will not be able to claim that you didn't hear or see it."

At the end of Herzog's speech, Netanyahu asked for permission to respond and took to the podium. After a few sentences in which he rejected Herzog's claims that the poverty rate grew during his term as prime minister, Netanyahu turned to address Herzog's call that he come out against the attacks on Rivlin. Netanyahu said that he opposed the incitement against the president, but fell short of explicitly condemning the attacks against Rivlin.

"The lifeblood of democracy is criticism," Netanyahu said. "Piercing discussion – yes, but violent discourse and incitement – no. There is criticism against me as prime minister. There is criticism of the president and of the Knesset members. I oppose all incitement and all violent discourse aimed at the president or any other public official in the State of Israel. At the same time, I will protect the right of every Israeli to express his opinion. That is how democracy works."

"I have a request of you," Netanyahu addressed Herzog, "get up on this stage and condemn Breaking the Silence, an organization that is slandering IDF soldiers to audiences around the world and is working to tie the hands of the State of Israel from defending itself." At this point lawmakers began applauding.

Once Netanyahu finished speaking Herzog returned to the podium and responded to Netanyahu. "I noticed you compared yourself to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]," Herzog said, "just as Abu Mazen doesn't condemn, you don't condemn. You aren't condemning the terrible incitement against Israel's number one citizen. You don't condemn those who make threats to his life." At this point applause broke out again, which led Edelstein to call for a 10 minute recess.

After the recess ended and the discussion resumed, Edelstein said that he was aware that stopping a Knesset session was rare but that it was called for. "I will not stand by as our plenum as turned into a circus," Edelstein said. "The coalition members started it, and then the opposition members continued with it. I'm calling on the heads of all factions, put a stop to it. This is the only Knesset in which this has happened 10 times already. A budget is passed – applause, the opposition passes a law – applause, someone says something eloquently – applause. Enough is enough.

After Edelstein said his piece, Herzog returned to the podium and continued his response to Netanyahu. "Your game is so transparent. All you want is to continue the campaign of incitement you began after the elections, and say that this camp is outside the camp," Herzog said. "You do it really well. The president of the country isn't the person himself. The president is an institution and a symbol. You should have stood here and said 'I vehemently condemn the attacks on the state's president' but you didn't. Instead, you tied it to Breaking the Silence. What does Breaking the Silence have to do with it?"

Herzog added that the ethical use of military force is of utmost importance. Everyone agrees that this is so. Are army is moral and our president gets up in a conference in the U.S. and says so to the audience, but then your sidekick [Naftali] Bennet takes out an inciting video, which forgets how it begins and how it ends. Civil society organizations are what give us the power as a democracy that knows how to hear [different] voices. I have no doubt that Breaking the Silence have at times crossed the line, but we need to allow people who fought on the front lines to say what they have to say – and look into it in the right places. What is this 'mole' campaign? These are people who served in the IDF – I am appalled by their opinions but I would fight and die for their right to express it. Stop this incitement campaign and stop telling our people that they are under siege all the time, and that they must live by the sword. There is an alternative and we will replace you."

Before the confrontation between Herzog and Netanyahu broke out, the prime minister said in his speech that in contrast to the opposition's claims he took actions to reduce poverty. He charged that the previous minister of finance Yair Lapid failed to execute his job properly and that due to his policies the poverty rate rose during 2014. "We are now fixing it," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu spent only several minutes to discuss the issue of poverty and spent the rest of his speech discussing the natural gas plan and mostly diplomatic and security matters. Netanyahu said that he received the letter sent by the Knesset Finance Committee Eitan Cabel on the natural gas plan, in which he stated that most of the members of the committee called for the rejecting of the plan. "I'm afraid that it became a political discussion, but I don't see it as a political matter." He added that he would read Cabel's report tonight and give his reply tomorrow.

Netanyahu claimed that approving the natural gas plan and exporting natural gas to countries such as Cypress, Turkey and Egypt will free fund to be spent on social issues. "We will be able to generate profits for the state coffers, which will be used by us to – among other things – combat poverty – the income will do to education, health and social services for the citizens of Israel," Netanyahu said. "Without the natural gas plan we will be left with a small monopoly and the gas fields won't be developed. The plan leaves open the possibility that more gas fields will be developed and more off-shore platforms will be built and more investors will be drawn, which will create competition and will ensure Israeli energy security."

Netanyahu also commented on Israel's status on the international stage, and claimed that in contrast with the claims made by the opposition Israel isn't isolated. "In complete contrast to the portrayal of Israel as a rejected and isolated state – Israel outside of the UN is a popular, sought after and favored state," Netanyahu said. "In addition to the traditional policy of voting against Israel in international forums, the states themselves are moving closer. I told them that I expect that this movement closer to Israel, which one has to be blind not to see, would be expressed also in voting in the UN."

Netanyahu claimed that there are also developments with Arab nations too, which aren't always public. "This may also help with the relations with the Palestinians – maybe one day to achieve peace with those Palestinians when they want peace," Netanyahu said.

"Currently, it doesn't look like the Palestinians are interested in that. The Palestinian leadership continues to incite against Israel with lies regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque or imaginary executions," Netanyahu continued. "We are trying to lower the level of violence on the street and promote steps that will reduce the tensions as much as possible. We cannot achieve stability and security or a real peace of we accept the simplistic solution – get out of the territory, shut your eye and hope for the best. We will get Hamas or ISIS or both. Have we not built the country in the absence of peace? We did. We are respected when we stand our ground."

Herzog claimed in his speech that Netanyahu preferred to talk about diplomatic and security matter and shied away from discussing the state of the economy and the poverty report. "You want to be prime minster of cyber and fear and continue with poverty for the masses," Herzog said. "We have a prime minister that doesn't care about the citizens. Did you watch 'Magash Hakesef' [a three part documentary about the Israeli economy]? Listen to the person who was once your advisor - Prof. Yaron Zalika. See what he says about how the strong state transfers its money to those who are connected and how a citizen feels when he sees he is being robbed in broad daylight, and has nothing to do about it."

Herzog added "Why is it under your watch that the poor are getting poorer. Maybe your honor Mr. Economics can explain how a month after the budget is approved your government transfers billions to interest groups without any logic. Maybe you don't want less poor people – because if you did, you would take action to raise the salary of conscripts, raise the budget for government subsidized medicine, tended to manageable housing prices, and to lower the price of living. But you claimed you didn't have time for it. How do I know? Because you showed us that when you want something, you get it – apparently you didn't really want to lower the poverty rate. Atonement will only come when you vacate your position as prime minister."

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