On water, walkouts and German in the Knesset

The Knesset witnessed quite a spectacle Wednesday, as members of the right-wing Jewish Home party walked out in protest during a speech by European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

Judging from Facebook posts written immediately after the walkout by Jewish Home’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, and Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, here’s what Schulz did wrong:

  • He claimed — erroneously — that Israelis use 70 liters of water per capita, while Palestinians get 17.
  • He suggested that Israel ease its blockade of Gaza.
  • He said these things in German.

While the decision to walk out was perhaps surprising — Schulz said he aimed to give a pro-Israel speech — the fact that Jewish Home would not appreciate his remarks was predictable.


It appears, first of all, that Schulz got his facts wrong on the water disparity. The Israeli NGO B’Tselem, which monitors Israeli military activity in the West Bank, says that as of 2008, Palestinian per capita water consumption was 84 liters per day. The figure for Gaza, according to a B’Tselem post from this month, is 70-90 liters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also criticized Schulz for getting the figures wrong.

But in a press release sent out today, B’Tselem noted that Palestinian water supply is significantly below levels recommended by the World Health Organization, and most of the water in Gaza is unclean.

(My guess is that Schulz got his data from statistics often trumpeted by Israel’s critics – roughly affirmed by B’Tselem — that Israel uses 73 percent of the water coming from West Bank aquifers, while the Palestinians use 17 percent, and West Bank settlements use another 10 percent. These figures are, of course, very different from the claim Schulz made.)

The water issue would hit home for Bennett and co. in any case, though, because it cuts to the core of their argument for the West Bank’s future. Bennett advocates Israeli annexation of the Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank and says Israel should focus on economic development there as opposed to establishing a Palestinian state. His argument is that full political rights are less important as long as the Palestinians have good quality of life. A major Palestinian lack of water would be a significant challenge to the idea that Palestinians could live well under Israeli rule.

The Gaza blockade is likewise a hot-button issue for Bennett. A fierce advocate for the settlements, he views Israel’s forced relocation of 8,000 Gaza settlers as a terrible crime that was met with constant Hamas rocket attacks. This is one of the main reasons why Bennett opposes an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank — and why he bristles at criticism of the blockade.

Both Bennett’s and Shaked’s posts said that they won’t accept criticisms like Schulz’s — and “certainly not in German.” The allusion to the Holocaust is clear, and for me at least, this recalled former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who would refuse to speak German to German diplomats and leaders. Begin was famous for frequent references to the Holocaust, and alluding to the Holocaust in arguments for a tough Israeli security policy has been commonplace on Israel’s right. (Netanyahu makes such references often in his push for a tougher policy on Iran’s nuclear program.) It’s no shock that Jewish Home, with its Begin-esque determination to hold onto the West Bank, would find criticism of Israel in German especially offensive.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.