Is the Knesset Speaker Looking Too Far Ahead?

Joy pervaded the Knesset last week as news spread that a report of legislator Amnon Rubinstein’s death was untrue.

The rejoicing provided testimony to the respect and affection felt for Rubinstein, who was very much alive in a hospital after suffering a minor stroke.

But there were those in the Knesset whose happiness at Rubinstein’s “return from the dead” was enhanced by the large amounts of egg on the face of Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who had first announced, based on an anonymous phone call, that the former education minister had passed away.

They wouldn’t admit it on the record, of course. But privately, several legislators criticized the haste with which the neophyte speaker had ascended the rostrum to deliver the sad tidings and to praise and pray for the soul of the “departed” legislator.

In the weeks since he became speaker, Burg has unsettled some Knesset colleagues with what they view as his attempts to use the podium for personal goals.

Indeed, Burg, who has been very successful in generating headlines since the elections, is already being spoken of as a possible future challenger to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

For this reason, Barak himself was probably among those who smiled to himself over Burg’s gaffe.

Barak, the no-nonsense former army commander dubbed “Little Napoleon” by some of his officers, has engendered much muttering within his One Israel bloc and among coalition allies with his autocratic style of political leadership.

Burg, however, until recently chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is one person whose aspirations and political ambitions Barak has not succeeded in steamrolling.

Passed over by the new premier in the scramble for Cabinet seats, the popular Burg put forward his candidacy for Knesset speaker, knowing full well that Barak had earmarked this generally ceremonial post for one of his own party loyalists, Shalom Simchon, a moshav movement leader.

Burg easily defeated Barak’s candidate, winning Knesset approval from more than 100 members in the 120-seat legislature.

He received the massive show of support both because he is personally well liked and because it gave some legislators a chance to take a potshot at what they consider the autocratic style of the new prime minister.

In his own swipe at Barak, Burg spoke pointedly in his July 6 acceptance speech of the boons of “collective wisdom” as opposed to the “dictatorship of the individual.”

But what is his future agenda?

Plainly, he does not see the Knesset speakership as a demotion for him or a sign of decline in his long-term political fortunes-just as he did not see the Jewish Agency chairmanship in that light.

Burg, 44, is the son of Yosef Burg, a former head of the National Religious Party who served in the Knesset for 40 years.

Though raised within the ideology of the NRP, which espouses the ambitions of Jewish settlers, Avraham Burg is a political dove.

He first came to prominence in 1982 as the founder and leader of a grass-roots protest movement against the war in Lebanon.

In 1984 he was named adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Diaspora affairs.

First elected to the Knesset in 1988, Burg took over the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, the principal recipient of funds for Israel raised by the Diaspora’s central fund-raising establishment, in February 1995.

Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin was in power at the time, but Burg, despite his high standing in his party’s primaries, had been passed over for a place in the Cabinet.

His response was not to sit and mope, but to move sideways.

Election to one of the Jewish Agency’s high-ranking posts is generally seen among pundits here as a sign that the candidate has, in effect, given up the domestic political rat race.

Burg was determined to be the exception-and he succeeded in doing so.

His tenure at the agency was characterized by a steady effort at cost-cutting and streamlining that attracted little attention inside Israel but won plaudits from donors and fund raisers among Diaspora Jewry.

Burg’s record of good husbandry helped shore up his credentials as a serious political figure-more than “just a glib mouth,” as his critics sometimes depict him.

His ability to combine his own Orthodoxy with an outspoken commitment to religious pluralism further strengthened his standing in communities abroad — and within his own party at home.

As an old and close friend of Yossi Beilin, Burg backed Beilin in the four-way 1997 leadership battle that took place in the Labor Party, which now forms the backbone of the One Israel bloc.

However, unlike Beilin, who is now justice minister, Burg did not always jump to attention at Barak’s every command once that battle was decided and Barak took over at the party helm.

Burg was critical of Barak’s manner-and he did not hide his feelings.

And Barak, say those who know him, is not one to forget, or forgive.

That is perhaps why he refused to name Burg to his Cabinet, despite Burg’s remarkably successful return from his Jewish Agency post to place No. 4 in the Labor primaries last year.

Burg came close to saying outright, in the lean months of 1998 when Barak looked to be helplessly trailing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he himself might make a better and more electable leader for the party.

In light of Barak’s subsequent sweeping victory, of course, such talk, even such thoughts, carry no resonance.

But from the lofty elevation of the speaker’s chair, Burg can now afford to be patient.

He can also afford to be loyal, or at least seem to be. The speaker does not traditionally make critical remarks about anyone, certainly about the prime minister.

But Burg can be counted on to make his presence felt in other ways. Already, he has embarked on a schedule of personal engagements-including his recent meeting with the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, Ahmed Karia, also known as Abu Alaa.

Burg had invited his Palestinian counterpart to visit the Knesset, a move that generated international media coverage.

In addition, Burg has launched a campaign to improve the rules of decorum in the often-fractious Knesset, issuing bans on smoking, cell phones and sexual harassment. He has also ordered all signs in the Parliament to be posted in Arabic as well as Hebrew.

The Knesset speakership, like the Jewish Agency chairmanship, is traditionally seen as an honorable step down for politicians.

There is, however, one exception in Israeli history. When Yitzhak Shamir was shunted into the speakership by Premier Menachem Begin, all the commentators eulogized Shamir as a man whose political career was over.

But when Begin quit in 1983, Shamir — by then foreign minister — stepped into his shoes, and stayed in them for close to a decade.

Burg, though much humbled by his gaffe last week, can be confidently expected to follow that path – and pop up as the man of the moment should the present prime minister slip or falter.