At Knesset swearing-in ceremony, it’s a family affair
Reporter's Notebook

At Knesset swearing-in ceremony, it’s a family affair

Accompanied by their relatives, Israel's fresh batch of lawmakers practice light politicking before settling down to the serious business of parliament

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett with one of his daughters at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony, Feb. 5, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett with one of his daughters at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony, Feb. 5, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

At 27, Stav Shaffir might be the new Knesset’s youngest member, but she knows how to act like a veteran politician.

During the fancy Knesset reception for the incoming parliamentarians on Tuesday before the official swearing-in ceremony, Shaffir (Labor)  spots her grandparents, who have just arrived. She runs over to them, gives them a quick hug, and then pulls them into the crowd after her, in search of a TV crew. Finding a cameraman, she gives the grandparents considerably longer hugs. Nice footage for the next family video, sure, but  it also made her look sweet and likable on TV.

“I’m happy. I’m sure she’ll achieve a lot,” Shaffir’s grandmother Rutie tells me afterwards. She’d been happy when she heard that “Stavi” had made it into the Knesset. Because of the honor of being a parliamentarian? Not exactly. “Because she got what she wanted. What’s important to me is that she does what’s good for her.”

Only the 48 first-time MKs were invited to bring their extended families to the event. Otherwise, there would not have been enough space for everyone. Imagine if returning United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler had brought his 14 children and who-knows-how-many grandchildren. That’s not a joke: Eichler himself says he cannot remember precisely how many grandkids he has.

Maryland native Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) brought his wife, mother and four children. “I guess he won’t be able to help as much with the homework anymore. That’s too bad because the kids prefer to do their homework with him,” says wife Dena, dressed in a long black dress. “I expect he’ll have a schedule so we can know in advance when he’ll be around and make arrangements accordingly,” she adds. “We already know that he’ll be working late on Monday and Tuesday nights, so on these days we’ll get up early and have breakfast all together, as opposed to having dinner.”

The new lawmaker himself says he can’t wait to get started. “I feel at home,” he says,  between television interviews, and looks it. “This is exciting, invigorating and a real responsibility. And I’ll take it really seriously,” he pledges. “I’ll be the Knesset member who spends the most time here, past midnight, to get things done.”

Lipman already has plans for his first bill: to ensure general studies are taught in Haredi schools. But nothing insensitive to the ultra-Orthodox worldview, he clarifies. He also wants to ease the conversion process for Russian-speaking Israelis who are not halachically Jewish. “I’ve been in Russia, this issue is very close to my heart,” he says.

A red carpet was laid out for the opening of the 19th Knesset today, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A red carpet laid out for the opening of the 19th Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After about two hours of hugging, backslapping, and congratulating across party lines, the parliamentarians and their guests leave the overcrowded hall and walk toward the Knesset Plaza, outside the parliament building, to wait for the ceremonious arrival of President Shimon Peres.

Most line up near the red carpet to wait for Peres’s grand entrance — a motorcade heralded by officials on horseback — but Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid’s) prefers to wait on the sidelines, and grab a cigarette along with Yaakov Peri (also Yesh Atid) and Moshe Mizrachi (Labor).

On the grass nearby, outgoing coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and his wife push a green stroller with their newborn, while Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett lifts one of his daughters onto his shoulders for a better view. The IDF band is playing Jewish classics that would not sound out of place at an Orthodox wedding.

“My advice for Naftali? That he always acts on his principles. That he always stays with his principles,” Bennett’s American father Jim tells me. Understandably, Jim is ready to gush about his son’s meteoric rise in politics, but he’s careful enough to avoid discussing coalition issues. “He’ll be good at whatever he does.”

Still, knowing him as only a father can, which portfolio would suit the boy, I ask. “Naftali is very talented in many areas,” Jim responds diplomatically. “He’s very good at motivating people, and he has very good organizational skills.”

Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid seen posing with her family at the Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid (second from right) seen posing with her family at the Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As the approaching horses’ trot becomes audible, protesters outside the Knesset gates raise their voices, but it’s difficult to hear what they want. All afternoon, Israel’s national student union and other civic groups have greeted MKs and visitors with flowers and fliers. Most of the activists welcomed the politicians and their entourages in a friendly manner, wishing only to remind them that they “work for the people.” One banner blares that “Israel’s [natural] gas is for Israelis,” and another warns Yair Lapid against joining a coalition with Jewish Home because “only an agreement [with the Palestinians] helps the middle class.”

Standing nearby, Efrat resident Shemtov Hava, wearing light blue jeans and a cardigan, says that Israel needs a prime minister who is not a politician but an educator. I ask him if he has someone in mind. Yes, he does: himself.

Back to the elected politicians. Peres’s shiny black Audi has entered the Knesset Plaza. The president gets out and, the national anthem plays, and he inspects the Knesset’s honor guard, like a foreign dignitary on a state visit. He also lays a wreath to commemorate Israel’s fallen soldiers.

Now we move into the parliament, to the plenum, and the swearing-in ceremony itself. Singer Kobi Aflalo kicks off the festivities with a rendition of “Sea of Mercy.” Then the speeches begin.

Peres talks about Israel’s foreign and domestic challenges: the urgent need to pass a new budget, equality in sharing the national burden, social justice, the importance of peace, and the threat from Iran.

“Democracy is not only the right to be equal but the equal right to be different,” he says with typical rhetorical gusto. “There is no place for discrimination. Not religious discrimination, not ethnic, not national, and not gender-based discrimination. Our nation suffered from racism. We will not allow racism in our country.”

Israel is a geographically small country, which means it requires a “greatness of mind,” he tells the new and old MKs. “Our foundation is the Ten Commandments. Our vision is the edge of science. Carry with you a vision of a better world, for each of us individually and collectively.”

The next item on the agenda: Labor MK Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer is being sworn in as acting Knesset speaker. Until a new government is formed, that role is traditionally filled by the longest-serving lawmaker, and Ben-Eliezer, 77, has been an MK since 1984. Another song follows, and a video clip from Israel’s founding in 1948. Ben-Eliezer takes the stage, and says that the 19th Knesset should focus on social justice but also show the world that Israel is serious about peace with its neighbors.

The MKs now begin the formal swearing-in process. Ben-Eliezer reads out the oath, which requires them to swear allegiance to the State of Israel, and to honorably discharge their duties as member of the Knesset.

The new parliamentarians rise one after the other and declare, “I so commit!”

The opening session of Israel's 19th Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The opening session of Israel’s 19th Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Once more the national anthem plays, and the official business of the day is over. Next is a celebratory toast — with more speeches — and group photos in the nearby Chagall Hall.

By now, three and half hours in, some of the younger guests seem to have lost patience. Bennett’s two oldest, 5 and 7, pull on mommy’s skirt, begging to go home. “They’re usually not like that, they’re amazing children,” grandmother Myrna tells me. “But they’re hungry and for them it’s boring.”

Apparently not only for them. Shortly after the Bennett family (minus one MK) leave the premises, many more VIPs decide they have better things to do than listen to Ben-Eliezer, again, outgoing Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, and other orators.

A little later, Aryeh Deri, the Shas MK-turned-convict-turned-Shas MK, heads out as well, at the same time as Sara Netanyahu. The two shmooze for a while, including kidding about the distribution of cabinet seats.

At the end of the conversation, Sara Netanyahu smiles and wishes Deri “a good Knesset,” before getting into the back of a silver-grey Audi, and driving off into the night. Her husband, the prime minister, has just taken the podium.

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