At Knesset swearing-in, Rivlin urges lawmakers to shed politics of division

As MKs take their vows of office for second time this year, president and Knesset speaker entreat leaders to bridge their differences and find path to unity government

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The 22nd Knesset was sworn in Thursday afternoon in an official ceremony in Jerusalem, as lawmakers were warned to find a way to form a unity government or face the wrath of the electorate.

The extraordinary swearing-in came only five months after the previous such ceremony and with the very real prospect that this Knesset’s tenure, too, will be short-lived.

Opening the pomp-filled proceedings, President Reuven Rivlin urged legislators to put their disagreements aside and find common ground in the interest of the Israeli people.

“Forming a government is not only the wish of the people. More than ever, in times like these, it is an economic and security need the likes of which we have not known for many years,” he said.

He entreated the MKs to form a broad government that “will allow us to put the disagreements between us to one side and to work on finding areas of agreement. To work for the people of Israel, its economy, its security.”

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

“The eyes of the nation are upon you, small parties and large. Elections are the most expensive reality show in town — NIS 1.7 billion (~$500 million). You must remember that each season, the ratings are likely to drop, while the result remains the same.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tasked by Rivlin with forming a government last week, has thus far failed to garner support from across the aisle and unity talks with chief rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party have stalled, leading to widespread speculation that a third round of elections may need to be called.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of the rest of the factions in the 22nd Knesset pose for a group picture during the opening ceremony of the newly election parliament, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Rivlin, who took a proactive role in trying to broker a unity deal, said he found himself in a unique position of influence.

“There are singular moments in the life of a people when the president is required as part of his statesman’s position to intervene, to act to stabilize and reorient a system that is struggling to return to its tracks,” he said.

The most recent election, while “a badge of honor” for Israeli citizenry, was also “a red card from Israeli citizens to their elected officials,” he said, referring to the means by which soccer players are disciplined for misconduct.

“A red card for populism, for a political system that feeds on picking away at the differences between us and that sees all our fears, of one another, as something to exploit.”

In the days following the election, Rivlin suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement. And Blue and White has said it will not agree to a government led by Netanyahu so long as he faces the prospect of criminal proceedings in three cases.

Netanyahu’s pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a united bloc of 55 MKs has also been a major obstacle to Blue and White, which seeks to form a centrist, secularist-leaning coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

Speaking after Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud drew a parallel between the current polarization in political discourse and the historic internal rifts within the Jewish people that brought down its ancient kingdoms.

“The attempt to establish in Israel a sovereign Jewish state has failed twice,” he said. “Twice the beginning was promising, twice the failure was bitter.

“This is the third attempt… its success is dependent on us and us alone: in our ability to live united, in our hope for a joint future, in our belief that despite all disagreements — we are not separate tribes but one people.”

He too urged an arrangement that would unite, rather than sunder. And he called on all sides not to overlook any of the country’s communities.

MKs at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

He said, “The people of Israel will not forgive us if we fall into the chasm of another election campaign… we will all bear [the blame].”

While most MKs were sworn in during the ceremony, the members of the Joint List boycotted the ceremony as part of a general strike in the Arab Israeli community that was called to protest a lack of policing.

As he was sworn in as an MK, Yamina’s Matan Kahana became the 1000th Knesset member in Israel’s history.

Due to the September election’s proximity to the previous vote in April, there were only eight MKs being sworn in who had never served in the Knesset before, a record low.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and his no. 2 Yair Lapid (R) are seen at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

The inauguration ceremony ended with the singing of the national anthem, “Hatikva.” Party leaders then made their way to the Chagall Hall for the traditional photo of faction heads and a festive toast to the new lawmakers.

Earlier in the day Blue and White No. 2, Yair Lapid, announced that he would give up on his rotation deal with party leader Benny Gantz whereby they would share the premiership, if that were a prerequisite for joining a unity government with the Likud party.

The Likud party had accused Lapid of preventing any progress in unity talks with Blue and White due to an ostensible unwillingness to give up on sharing the premiership.

Netanyahu’s Likud party announced that it may hold leadership primaries, prompting his Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar to declare that he is “ready” to vie for the top Likud spot.

Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

Lapid is regarded with particular hostility by Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, whose leaders have frequently cited the possibility of a prime minister Lapid as a core element of their opposition to a coalition partnership with Blue and White. Lapid has long battled to raise conscription levels in the ultra-Orthodox community. Gantz is regarded as less hostile to ultra-Orthodox interests, but has indicated a preference for a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Avigdor Liberman, who is pushing for a Likud-Blue and White coalition along with his own Yisrael Beytenu party, praised Lapid’s decision to forgo a chance at being prime minister, calling it “an important and noble step.”

Liberman met earlier Thursday with Netanyahu, in unity talks that produced no breakthrough, and then sat for one-on-one talks in the Knesset with Lapid.

Despite his legal woes Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin last week with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, and was given 28 days to do so. Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority without the other.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Likud and Blue and White have accused each other of intransigence in the coalition talks and claimed that the other side was pushing the country toward an unprecedented third election in under a year.

If nothing changes in the party’s positions, Netanyahu is now expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance.

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