Head to Head / Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Why Shouldn't MKs Postpone Their Recess?

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, two of whose children participated in the demonstrations on Saturday night, is opposed to the initiative to put off the recess and is waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present a plan to extricate the middle class from the crisis.

At the end of this week, the Knesset is due to adjourn for its summer recess - a period of some two months until after the fall holidays. In the wake of the social protests of the past few weeks, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and the head of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni, have proposed that the recess be canceled. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, two of whose children participated in the demonstrations on Saturday night, is opposed to the initiative to put off the recess and is waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present a plan to extricate the middle class from the crisis.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, why do members of the Knesset have to begin their recess now, right in the middle of the tent-dwellers' protests? Will the break not harm the Knesset's ability to respond to the public discourse?

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.
Emil Salman

I am damned if I do and I am damned if I don't. During most of the year, the Knesset is not at the top of the public's list of priorities. The Knesset is something that people look down upon. Today when MKs are ejected from every public protest and are being turned into outcasts, the Knesset must not allow itself to be dragged along, or to deteriorate into a situation where others dictate what it should do and it does not operate according to its own agenda. The revolt is breaking down boundaries and is perhaps evolving into the first social revolution in Israel. The Knesset is not the one that is supposed to provide the answers to the protest. It can declare its lack of confidence in the government, it can accept or reject proposals made by the government. But the Knesset decided on the recess according to the law and today if we change its agenda, this could also be seen as weakness. The Knesset takes care of itself, not of society.

And what if the MKs want to make speeches during the recess, or to force the prime minister and his ministers to give explanations to the public? Will that be possible?

The Knesset can convene at any time at the request of the government; it can convene within 48 hours at the request of 25 MKs. The Knesset can convene because of any event that its speaker considers to be of public significance. When the Knesset is on recess, it is not 'annulled' for three months. It does not strike during its recess.

Would cancellation of the recess drag the plenum's meetings into an atmosphere of cheap populism?

The imperative that the Knesset should function according to demands that have no limitations leads us to think that it has lost its place in Israeli discourse and has become something that is dragged along rather than showing the way. The Knesset is the only body that represents the public. Being dragged into populism will not give it greater prestige, nor will it 'elevate' the protest. That is why, for example, during the recess before elections the Knesset refrains from holding meetings because arguments at times of elections do no good. The Knesset could turn into an election platform.

Of course, if the Knesset decides to alter its order of priorities - for example, to change its mind about the budget proposal - it will be able to convene immediately and to discuss it. But if the opposition factions want to express a lack of confidence in the government every day - that is a political act and not something intended to glorify the name of the Knesset.

It is expressly at a time like this when the government is trying to introduce a social treaty in which the Histadrut labor federation, the workers and other elements in the economy play a part, that playing the political card will not help at all. Instead of leading to enhancement of the Knesset's name, we could reach a stage where the MKs will try to come up with political declarations that will serve them in the future.

The prime minister called on members of the Likud to help in "carrying the stretcher" - to explain the government's policies in the media and offer their support. Will you also, as a Likud member, join the campaign?

I am serving as Knesset speaker and the speaker is a political person. I, of course, voted for Benjamin Netanyahu because I am a member of the Likud. He is an extremely talented man, but he also needs to do some reckoning with himself about the economic and social processes afoot in our country. This situation is the result of the policies of many governments. I recall, for example, an instance where the chairman of the Labor Party at the time, who previously had been chairman of the Histadrut, chose to be minister of defense and not minister of finance despite the fact that he had the choice.

Netanyahu knows that sometimes, as prime minister, you get credit that you don't deserve, and sometimes you have to take responsibility for something that was not your fault. Every prime minister is responsible during his term of office also for the acts of the governments that preceded his. It cannot be ignored that, under Likud rule, the free market was like a lion released from its cage. A lion like that can turn on and hurt its owners and family.

I am active on the social side. I believe we can express our political point of view only after expressing our social message. The masses of Likud voters live in this country and among its people, but very often they also have difficulties. Something has happened during Netanyhau's watch. We could have said that he is not responsible for some of the things, but this watch places responsibility on him. As a Likud member who does not attend fancy parties with tycoons and tries to distinguish between money and power, I think we would do well if we conduct a reckoning for ourselves about the path of the Likud [concerning whether] we are obliged to support privatization or market forces.

Two of your children participated on Saturday in the protests against the government.

My four children and their partners work. They all belong to the middle class. All of them earn more than NIS 19,000 per month. But their children go to nursery schools. Their rent or mortgage is a big burden. It is true that they voted Likud but they decided to go out on the streets and say: "Gentlemen, the social order justifies a new set of priorities." I know the prime minister is also trying to examine and weigh up a new set of priorities.

In view of the widespread protests, will Netanyahu be able to bring solutions, or has the public protest harmed his image in a way that will not enable him to gain the people's trust?

When the prime minister comes up against a crisis and has to deal with it, and he has the ability to deal with it, he ends up having gained from it. If he convinces people that he is serious, that he understands the crisis and will act toward resolving it - he will succeed in his mission. Netanyahu is a serious person. I am sure he is capable of pulling Israel out of the crisis. I just hope that the public will have faith in him.