Wednesday’s Knesset mayhem was branded by Speaker of the House Reuven Rivlin as the tensest session the Knesset has experienced since the debates over the Germany compensation agreement in 1952. Many on both the left and the right (albeit for different reasoning) viewed the session, in which 14 MKs were physically removed, as a low point in Israeli democracy. As one of the few people who watched the entire two hour and forty five minute session live, I can tell you that MK Zoabi used the same tactic in the Knesset as the organizers of the flotilla did at sea – playing the democratic game.  Once again, Israel portrayed herself as overly passionate and violent.  Once again, we were played by brilliant anti-Israel PR.

Speaker of the House Rivlin tried to prepare for MK Zoabi’s return to Knesset.  Rivlin is one of the smartest politicians today. He knew that the Knesset motion on the “Israeli reaction to the Gaza Flotilla” on the day MK Zoabi was to return to the Knesset building was a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, his plan to minimize the anticipated disorder would fail.

The controversial “443 Bill” that would bypass a standing Supreme Court order to open the 443 highway to Palestinian traffic was co-sponsored by several hard-line Likud and other coalition MKs. Prime Minister Netanyahu along with hard-line Minister Ya’alon came in to vote against the bill, forcing the sponsoring MKs to disappear for a few hours.

Before the motion on the Gaza Flotilla, Netanyahu left and took all the government ministers and deputy ministers with him. Rivlin saw on his computer that MK Zoabi had entered the building and was probably on her way to the plenum. Rivlin merged the Arab and Jewish MKs’ motions on the subject of the Flotilla; this would shorten the debate on the motion. Of his nine deputies, he needed to place a Likud MK capable of balancing the debate. Deputy Speaker Carmel Shama, a moderate Likud MK, was the logical choice. Rivlin welcomed the first motion sponsor to the podium, handed the reins to Shama and went to his chambers to watch the debate on his television screen, ready to return if need be. This would allow him the upper hand of entering as the policeman later in the session.

Counter to what the media has shown you in a series of edited clips, MK Miri Regev’s message in Arabic to MK Zoabi, “Go back to Gaza, you traitor,” was said without the presence of Zoabi. Zoabi entered during the motion’s second speech, by MK Nachman Shai. Rivlin opted to call MK Regev to the podium first because she was the only Likud MK of the 10 speakers on the motion, and he wanted to make sure her speech was over by the time Zoabi would reach the plenum. MK Zoabi’s entrance ignited the session, and Deputy Speaker Shama had a tough time containing the room.

What Shama and Rivlin had not taken into account was that the Kadima MKs would initiate the fight. Kadima, a moderate center-left party, is an opposition ally of Balad; Rivlin didn’t think he would need to restrain them. Even in the 1952 Knesset fiasco the opposition MKs all took the same position. Deputy Speaker Shama regained order temporarily when he put up MK Bareka (Chadash). The silence was short lived when the more moderate Arab MK gave his full support to MK Zoabi; the Jewish MKs united in disrupting his speech.

You can read the full account of the session in my June 2 blog, but the short version is as follows.  The atmosphere was icy during the next four speeches of coalition MKs. The pandemonium grew during Arab MK Tzartur’s (Ra’am-Ta’al) speech. It was hard to make out most of what he said, other than his support of Zoabi. MK Oron’s (Meretz) speech brought silence, as both groups were curious about the Meretz leader’s official position.  Arab Labor MK Magadla gave an uneventful speech before the Arab MKs boycotted MK Ben-Ari’s (National Union) speech. MK Zachalka, the chairman of MK Zoabi’s Balad party missed his turn to speak because he was out of the room due to the boycott and didn’t make it back until Deputy Defense Minister Vilnai had started presenting the government’s official position to the Knesset.

Mistake number one, and Shama’s biggest error of the session, was allowing Zachalka a turn to speak after the government’s response. Until this point, however tense the session was, Shama was able to maintain order by following the proper Knesset protocol. Zachalka’s boycott of Ben-Ari’s speech and subsequent loss of his own turn to speak was a gift. Shama chose to reject it, and that was the tipping point. At least MK Tibi had the day off, or it could have been worse.

MK Zachalka’s speech was by far the most provocative of the night. He said nothing new, but he poured the lighter fluid on the flame, and the session exploded. Three MKs were thrown out during his speech and the fourth was thrown out shortly after it. Instead of calling a recess, Shama allowed 13 MKs to utilize the “one-minute clause” which would allow them to suggest which committee the motion should be sent to. All 13 MKs used their time to keep the discussion going, and they all went a great deal over their one minute limit. Shama’s failure to keep the MKs to their one minute, mistake number two, resulted in increased tension, particularly from the Kadima MKs. MK Ben-Ari, who surprisingly was among the best behaved, was thrown out during one of the Arab MKs’ “one minute speeches”.

It was Meretz MK Ilan Gilon who caused the most trouble when he attacked both sides, enraging every MK in the room. Gilon refused to get off the podium and the Deputy Speaker shut off the podium microphone to get him to step down. It was Gilon’s speech that almost brought the Knesset to blows.

Deputy Minister Vilnai demanded Deputy Shama end the debate immediately and call a vote. Deputy Shama chose to split the two motions for the vote. The Arab side of the motion was defeated 10-36. The Jewish side of the motion was passed 26-21 and was sent to the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee for a closed door hearing, which would exclude all Arab MKs. This decision did not help matters.

The third mistake was the Deputy Speaker allowing MK Zoabi her five minutes at the end of the motion to respond to the allegations made against her. Knesset protocols afford an MK accused of something during another MK’s speech five minutes to respond. Unlike others, I support giving MK Zoabi that right as long as she is an MK; however, the timing was horrific. Shama threw out another three MKs before an all-out brawl broke out; forcing him to call for a recess, and security took over.

MK Zoabi should have been allowed time to respond.  However, Shama could have delayed her response to a later time or called a recess before her response in order to give everybody in the room time to calm down. I am a supporter of the current Knesset protocols, but, just as the MKs find loopholes to allow themselves more time at the podium, deputy speakers can, within the bounds of protocol, find ways to avoid unprofessional, reputation-harming disorder, especially when it’s being broadcast live.

Speaker Rivlin came in and revealed he had watched the whole session. He gave his support to Deputy Shama, called for emergency protocols and threw out seven MKs before MK Zoabi had a chance to say one word. In the first minute of Zoabi’s speech MK Danon became the 14th MK to be thrown out of the debate.

MK Zoabi played the democratic game. She knew she would be able to give her speech at the end of the motion as long as she didn’t get thrown out. She sat quietly in her seat, practically smirking, allowing her fellow Arab MKs to defend her during earlier commotions, and stood poised and restrained at the podium while pandemonium surrounded her. She knew her speech would cause the response that it did. MK Zachalka also provoked the Jewish MKs to cause chaos, using the standing and the power Israel’s democracy grants each MK, speaking at the podium in the shrine of Israel’s democracy.

Speakers Rivlin and Shama tried to contain the situation, but the MKs in the room played right into the Arabs MKs’ hands, as did Israel with the Flotilla. Both failures were a result of a lack of strategy for neutralizing the obvious anti-Israel PR games. Zoabi and Zachalka wanted the pictures and headlines they received on Wednesday, so that those events would accompany the Israel-as-violent-occupier headlines and pictures surrounding the Flotilla affair. Israel is too concerned about protecting those who oppose its policy. I believe it is time Israel begins playing the democratic game to its own advantage.

Another lesson learned is that those who choose to preach to both sides like Meretz MK Gilon will cause both sides to turn on each other.

A side effect of last week’s events, and the question as we look ahead to this week’s Knesset session, is if the rift developed between the Jewish and Arab opposition parties can be mended, or if Kadima will face increased pressure to join a national-unity government with few Kadima ministers.

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