The Israeli Knesset returned for the winter session on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, with a ceremony that included speeches by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Opposition Leader Shelly Yachimovich from the Labor Party. The Knesset has three important bills that it will continue to forward in the new session that lasts until March 2014; the referendum, governance and haredi military draft bills.
The opening ceremony which started Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. Israel time had 1000 guests in attendance to hear the President and Prime Minister speak. Speaker of the Knesset Edelstein gave the introductory remarks followed by President Peres' address. The President commended the success and growth of the country, stating; "the population has multiplied by 12 and the economy has grown 40-fold."
Peres spoke of Iran, explaining it; "is a threat to world peace, it destabilizes the region and threatens Israel. The world must judge Iran by deeds and not words, even if the words sound sweet to ears used to hearing [former president] Ahmadinejad." He also addressed the current peace talks, saying; "As Jews we are obligated to seek peace and not wait for miracles to bring it about," and that an agreement is "not only a strategic, security and economic interest, but also a moral call enshrined in our heritage."
Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech was the main event of the opening ceremony; he addressed the major issues the country will face throughout the winter session, primarily speaking of the Iranian nuclear threat and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but also outlining the domestic agenda, all the major laws to be examined and passed in the upcoming session.
The Prime Minister spent a large part of his speech discussing Iran's nuclear capability. Speaking of Iran's nuclear threat, Netanyahu warned; "The entire region will be endangered, as will the world. However, there is no doubt that we will be Iran's first target. The Iranians say this out loud. We will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons." It was a message that Netanyahu has been repeating in a major address at the United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 1 and his speech at Bar-Ilan University on Oct. 6 at the Israel Towards 2020 Conference at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Netanyahu has been urging world leaders not to lift the sanctions against Iran, because their new softer rhetoric and charm offensive, until their nuclear program is completely dismantled, and he continued with that message in his Knesset opening remarks. Netanyahu emphasized; "Harsh economic sanctions against Iran have been applied. Iran's economy is reaching breaking point. But Iran has still not abandoned its program. But it has changed its tactics as to how to get it."
Continuing the Prime Minister stressed; "Iran can quickly enrich uranium at 3.5% to 90% - which is necessary for a nuclear weapon. Iran is currently willing to give up on 20% - which is no longer important, in exchange for serious easing of sanctions. Iran is willing to give a little to get a lot, if not everything. It would be a historical mistake to lift the sanctions, just before they are really effective. International pressure is what brought the Iranians to a level of concessions."
The Prime Minister also reiterated that the most important stumbling block and step towards a peace agreement is that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Netanyahu stated; "How is it that when the Palestinians demand that we recognize their nationhood that they refuse to recognize ours. The Jewish people have been in existence for 4,000 years. Why do we not deserve recognition?" Continuing he said; "The question is not why we are raising this point, but why the Palestinians continue to delay an agreement over this." Tied to recognition, Netanyahu said there would be "no right of return [for Palestinians] and ending any national demands on the territory and sovereignty of Israel. This is essential for real peace."
Netanyahu also spoke at length on the peace talks at his Bar-Ilan University address last Sunday. The Prime Minister reiterated also that maintaining Israel's security is an essential element of any agreement, saying; "We are working very hard to end the conflict with the Palestinians. I am not fooling myself into believing that this will be easy, but I am determined to come to an agreement that will not sacrifice Israel's national interests in order to get a nice headline in the newspaper, or to receive international applause."
In summation the Prime Minister emphasized the two basic demands for peace; "We want a real peace and not an agreement that will disappear after signing. Peace must be based on security and mutual recognition."
Besides the main issues of Iran and the peace talks, the Prime Minister also spoke of the unrest in other regions of the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Syria's chemical weapons dismantling make a comparison to Iran and their unwillingness to completely dismantle their uranium enrichment program. Netanyahu questioned; "What would be the international reaction if Syria only agreed to dismantle 20 percent of its capacity? This is exactly Iran's suggestion."
PM Netanyahu said, that the unrest and common enemies have led to a rapprochement between Israel and some of the Arab nations in the region, explaining; "Many nations in the area have a strong desire to get rid of Iran's and Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaida's impact. This is an important development - even historic. For the first time in Israel's existence, there is an understanding in the Arab world, that Israel is not the enemy of the Arabs. On many issues, we are united."
Netanyahu also delved into domestic issues and the Knesset winter agenda. When discussing the controversial Haredi draft law, he resolved; "We will divide the burden of defending the country among all parts of the population, while ensuring the unity of the people."
Speaking of the economy, he stated; "Israeli citizens know to appreciate the fact that amid the regional instability, our security has improved, and against a world economic crisis, our economy continues to grow." He also applauded the success of the country's tech industry, saying; "We are in the top 5 cyber powers in the world."
Netanyahu also emphasized dealing with illegal African migrants in to the country would be a major concern during the winter agenda. Netanyahu explained the successes in stopping illegal migrants from entering and the future work still to be done to rid the country of remaining migrants, commenting; "We have stopped the infiltration problem completely. Israel is the only western country that has overcome illegal infiltration, which would have hurt Israel's Jewish and Democratic character. I am aware of the suffering of south Tel Aviv and in southern Israel. I promise, we will make sure to get those that have already infiltrated out of the country."
The Knesset will continue will important legislation that was initiated during the summer term, which have already passed through their first reading. The most objected bill is the Peri Bill, the haredi draft law that will end Haredi, ultra-Orthodox military exceptions. The law faces opposition from the Knesset's ultra-Orthodox parties. The law would force the haredi into the military by 2017; it increases enlistment ages from 18 to 21, and military service for women from 24 to 28 months, while yeshiva students' service went up from 15 months to 17 months. There will still be exemptions for those 22 and over at the time the law is enacted, where they can defer their service until 24, but can then bypass service completely.
The law will mostly apply to youth that are under 18 by the time the law is enacted; they will be allowed deferments to study until they turn 21, they will have to enlist and will be required to enter the military after their deferment. There is a criminal punishment for evading the draft beginning in 2017, and Yeshivas who do not force their students to enlist will face monetary penalties. The law however, does not spell an end to all exemptions, 1800 of the best yeshiva students will be completely exempt, while there are 8000 students eligible each year.
The National Referendum Basic Law is a revised version of the 2010 Referendum Law. The revisions turned the present law into a Basic Law; making it a constitutional law, and much more difficult to repeal; 61 MKs would have to vote in favor to end the law. It would guarantee that there would absolutely be a vote in the event of a peace deal. The vote would occur after the cabinet and Knesset would approve any agreement with the Palestinians.
The Governance Bill is also a divisive legislation, but this bill faces opposition from the liberal and the smaller and Arab parties in the Knesset that would be the most affected, even Prime Minister Netanyahu does not completely support the proposed legislation. The bill will most notably raise the electoral threshold from two percent to four percent forcing parties to merge if they want to maintain representation before the next election.
The bill repeals the "Mofaz Law," and withholds state funds to these factions if they form close to elections, granting funding only if they form a faction prior to the official campaign. It also sets the maximum cabinet minister posts to 18, plus the prime minister and four deputy ministers and each minister has to hold only one portfolio. There are also new rules introduced regarding the toppling of a government and no confidence votes making it more difficult to dispose of a government midterm. Additionally more time will be given for a budget to pass, with 100 days after an election.
The Knesset's opening will also be marked by other ceremonies through until Wednesday, Oct. 16. After the opening ceremony, there was a dedication ceremony for a display honoring the 33 Members of the Knesset that were recipients of the Israel Prize. On Tuesday, Oct. 15 there will be a ceremony "marking the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War." While on Wednesday, Oct. 16 there will be a memorial for the 18th anniversary of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination based on the Jewish calendar date.
PM Netanyahu concluded his address, stating; "Israel continues to be a success story - more than ever." Despite the internal differences and conflicts the country faces, that needs be the overriding mantra as the Knesset enters a challenging new session governing the 65 year-old democracy.
- Excerpt from PM Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech at the Start of the Knesset Winter Session, Oct. 14, 2013