Israel’s 22nd Knesset was being sworn in on Thursday in a ceremony almost identical to the swearing in of the 21st Knesset just five months ago, and with the prospect of a third election in under a year looming amid a logjam in coalition talks.
Not only was the pomp and ceremony of the parliament’s first day back similar, but almost all of the MKs from the outgoing Knesset were returning, with the incoming crop including just 17 lawmakers freshly elected in September’s vote, a record low.
However, absent from the ceremony were the Joint List alliance of four Arab-majority parties, whose 13 members said they would stay away from the swearing-in ceremony to protest what the party calls the government’s failure to address rising levels of violence in Arab towns. The Arab sector was holding a day-long strike Thursday to protest the violence.
Adding to the possible drama, with no coalition in place due to the political deadlock, the Knesset ceremony took place hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman to discuss the latter’s proposal for a unity government.
The premier himself, meanwhile, was attending the swearing-in while his lawyers presented his defense on the second day of a pre-indictment hearing over the pending criminal charges against him.
One notable difference from the last swearing in earlier this year, however, and perhaps the most significant, was the absence of a vote confirming the identity of the speaker who will preside over the 22nd Knesset.
Instead of voting to reelect Yuli Edelstein for a fourth term immediately after the swearing-in ceremony, as was done for his third term in April, the vote will be postponed until after a government is sworn in, Knesset officials confirmed to The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
With the makeup of the next government still unknown due to the political deadlock in the wake of September’s election, which saw Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White parties almost evenly matched and neither bloc with a viable path to a majority, Edelstein will serve as acting speaker in the interim days, weeks or months between the swearing in of the Knesset and the government.
Until 2012, the Knesset speaker would automatically end his role with the inauguration of the new Knesset. From the inauguration of the Knesset to the establishment of a government, the person who served as a temporary speaker was the “Knesset elder,” the longest serving MK.
A change in the law, however, means that the previous speaker now serves as interim chair of the Knesset until a new speaker is elected, which must take place by the swearing-in of the new government.
“In 2015 and April 2019, Edelstein was elected at the Knesset inauguration because it was clear that a government would be formed and that he had wall-to-wall support. This time, as is well known, the political situation is different, so it is assessed in the political system that the choice of the speaker will come along with the swearing-in of the government,” a spokesperson for the Speaker’s Office said.
The decision to postpone the vote comes after reports that Blue and White intends to replace Edelstein as speaker with a candidate from within the party, former welfare minister Meir Cohen, if the centrist faction heads the next government. Party sources said that if Blue and White leader Benny Gantz becomes the next prime minister, they fear a Knesset speaker loyal to his rival Netanyahu could thwart their legislative agenda.
Responding to the decision to postpone the vote on the speaker, Blue and White told The Times of Israel, “As the largest party in the Knesset, Blue and White has yet to decide which positions it will ask to obtain in the 22nd Knesset.”