Joint List MKs spark outcry in Knesset ceremony with oath to fight ‘occupation’

During swearing-in process, Arab lawmakers substitute traditional commitment to serve Israel and the Knesset with pledges to fight ‘apartheid,’ ‘racism’

Joint List MK Sami Abu Shehadeh during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Joint List MK Sami Abu Shehadeh during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Members of the Arab-majority Joint List alliance sparked an outcry on Tuesday at the new Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony when they substituted the traditional commitment to serve Israel and the Knesset with commitments to fight “apartheid,” “the occupation” and “racism.”

The standard oath of office for lawmakers beginning Knesset terms states: “I commit to be faithful to the State of Israel and to fulfill with devotion my cause in the Knesset.”

During the swearing-in ceremony, the names of lawmakers are called and they state, “I commit.”

But in a move proposed by Hadash MK Ofer Cassif, four of the Joint List’s six MKs each brought their own wordings.

“I commit to fighting against the occupation,” said Hadash’s Aida Touma-Suleiman.

Cassif said, “I commit to fighting against racism and racists.”

The alterations were met with loud protestations and anger from other lawmakers. Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud disqualified the declarations and the MKs were escorted out of the plenum for disrupting proceedings.

They will need to give the proper declaration at a later time or be denied some of their rights as MKs and may forfeit their salaries until they are officially sworn in.

The Joint List is made up of the Hadash, Balad and Ta’al parties. MKs Ayman Odeh, Touma-Suleiman and Cassif of Hadash and Sami Abu Shehadeh of Balad all added various causes to their commitments statements. Ta’al’s two MKs, Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi, did not take part.

On Monday, the Joint List refrained from endorsing any candidate for prime minister. Odeh told President Reuven Rivlin that, while he respects Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the party could not endorse him due to his potential partnerships with right-wing parties.

Following the previous election, the Joint List endorsed Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who then reneged on his central campaign pledged and entered an ill-fated unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Support for the Joint List dropped during the March 23 election. It won six seats and the Islamist Ra’am party, which split from the Joint List ahead of the election, won four. In the last election cycle, the unified alliance won 15 seats.

Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at party headquarters, in the city of Shfar’am, on elections night, on March 23, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90

The statements by the Arab lawmakers were not the only unusual aspect of the new Knesset’s first day.

The 24th Knesset was sworn in with the prospect of yet another election looming following the fourth inconclusive parliamentary polls in two years.

The ceremony, usually a festive event, was a muted and somewhat dour affair, as the country remains gripped by an ongoing political crisis that shows little sign of abating.

The ceremony was held after Rivlin tasked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, with forming a government, while saying he was doing so reluctantly — noting the apparently slim prospects for any party leader to assemble a coalition and the incumbent prime minister’s ongoing corruption trial, which was taking place concurrently across town in Jerusalem.

Speaking from the rostrum, a sometimes emotional Rivlin noted the changing nature of Israeli society, which he said went from a “clear majority that shares a value system and relatively homogenous beliefs” to one divided along tribal lines — secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.

Those divides, he said, were painfully exposed during the past year’s pandemic and must be bridged.

Rivlin then implored lawmakers to display leadership, bridge ideological divides and give Israelis a stable government after over two years of political turmoil.

President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 24th Knesset, on April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

The apparent tensions between Rivlin and Netanyahu cast a shadow over elements of the Knesset ceremony as well, with the president absent from the customary sit-down with the prime minister, Knesset speaker and Supreme Court chief justice. Rivlin also did not take part in the traditional photograph of party leaders.

As the ceremony was being held, protests took place outside the building against the entry into the Knesset of the extremist Noam faction as part of the Religious Zionism party, which seeks to curb LGBT and women’s rights.

Unlike the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset last year, which was held under strict social distancing rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all lawmakers were in the plenum for the ceremony.

The relaxed rules come after Israel has fully vaccinated over half of its population.

Also Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office announced that he had decided to indict former Joint List lawmaker Hanin Zoabi of Balad on fraud charges.

Zoabi is accused of forging documents that were submitted to the State Comptroller between 2013 and 2016. She is suspected of systematically deceiving the ombudsman by misrepresenting the source of millions of shekels the party had received.

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