President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday addressed lawmakers at the inaugural session of the 21st Knesset, adopting a tone of less-than-gentle admonishment after an election campaign in which he said politicians had “worked overtime in the service of delegitimization, hatred and slurs.”
Speaking at the opening induction ceremony for the incoming MKs, Rivlin began his address by quoting the late prime minister Menachem Begin’s call for “hatred and vilification to subside and mutual respect to increase.” The president, in turn, urged the lawmakers of the new parliament to “put down the cudgels of elections and clean up the mess.”
After a tumultuous election campaign, the president told the Knesset and assembled dignitaries, “Political considerations can no longer be the only guide. This is not only what is expected of you, it is what every citizen of Israel demands and requires of you, our leaders, every member of this house.
“This was a difficult election campaign. We have disparaged and been disparaged. We have distorted. We have worked overtime in the service of delegitimization, hatred and execration. Now, it’s over. Enough,” Rivlin said in an apparent pushback at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist rhetoric.
Critics have charged that Netanyahu throughout the campaign sowed seeds of discord, with rhetoric against Arab Israelis and leftists, as well as embracing divisive policies such as the nation-state law, which gives Judaism an enhanced standing in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
Rivlin, a former Likud hawk whose public views have softened since he became president, has criticized Netanyahu in the past.
The Likud party won 35 seats in Israel’s parliament, the same as rival Blue and White. But Rivlin chose Netanyahu to form the next government after he received backing from 65 of the 120 Knesset members.
Nonetheless, giving voice to concerns that Netanyahu will form a narrow right-wing and religious government that serves the interests only of its constituents, Rivlin said, “Now is the time to fight for our common home where secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Jews and Arabs — yes, they are called Arabs and there is nothing wrong with saying it — right and left, can find themselves equal.”
In a direct message to Netanyahu, Rivlin added, “To those who will form the next government, let me say this: One should lose gracefully and one should win gracefully. You are not in the opposition. You have held the keys of power and leadership for a long time. As such, your responsibility is to ease up on destroying your opponents, to ease up on the feeling of being a victim, and to govern all citizens and communities who live here with respect and love.”
In a message to the Knesset members, specifically the record 49 rookies who were sworn in Tuesday, Rivlin ordered: “Perform your duty with reverence for those who sent you here. Remember, the eyes of the people are on you.”
Since becoming president in 2014 Rivlin has often emerged as a voice of moderation. In March he spoke out in defense of state institutions after Netanyahu lashed out at police over his numerous criminal investigations, and defended the free press after the premier attacked its legitimacy. He has praisedanti-corruption protests — largely aimed at Netanyahu — as essential for democracy.
At the opening of last year’s winter session, Rivlin defended the judicial system and the media, saying government attempts to undermine them amounted to a “coup” against the pillars of Israeli democracy and lambasted attempts to “weaken the gatekeepers” of that democracy.
Concluding his remarks on Tuesday, Rivlin made a similar plea for MKs to protect, not destroy, the fragile balance that exists between the branches of Israel’s government.
“I cannot conclude my remarks without pleading with you to put an end to the dangerous clash between the legislature and the judiciary,” he said.
“We must strengthen the separation of powers, particularly that between the legislature and the judiciary, to maintain the dignity and the independence of each branch of government and to end the overlap and mutual erosion between them,” Rivlin added. “You, members of the Knesset, are in a position to add another vital brick in the wall protecting Israeli democracy and to ensure that the State of Israel continues to flourish as a Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish state.”
After Rivlin’s address, the MKs each swore allegiance to the State of Israel, and to honorably carry out their duties as member of the Knesset. The parliamentarians rose one after the other and declared, “I pledge!”
Nearly half of the freshman class hails from Benny Gantz’s fledgling Blue and White party, only 11 of whose 35 incoming MKs served in the previous Knesset (all as Yesh Atid MKs). The situation is almost exactly reversed for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which sees 12 new lawmakers out of 36.
The festivities of the day began in the morning when, upon entering the Knesset, the MKs new and old were each presented with a certificate congratulating them on their election to parliament and a rosette in the state’s colors to be worn on their lapels throughout the ceremony.
Rivlin made his entrance to the Knesset grounds with the usual Israeli version of pomp and circumstance, accompanied by an honor guard on horseback and the IDF military band, before meeting privately with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
In Edelstein’s own address, delivered immediately after Rivlin’s, the Knesset speaker urged MKs to act in the Knesset “as if our children and parents are watching us, and the public will be accountable.”
Echoing Rivlin’s words, he said, “We must always remember who sent us here, and to whom we are to be held accountable: to the citizens of Israel, they rightly demand that the discourse of the ‘losers’ and the ‘Winners’ will be replaced by the discourse of ‘partners,’ that is the only way we can succeed.”
More than 1,000 people attended the ceremony, most in the glass-enclosed public gallery. Among the guests were Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, the two chief rabbis, the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, and foreign diplomats. Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, notably entered after Rivlin had finished speaking.
All MKs from the Arab Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad parties exited the hall for the Hatikva anthem at the end of the ceremony, with MKs Ahmad Tibi and Osama Sa’adi also leaving during a recording of Israel’s first president David Ben Gurion declaring independence for the new state in 1948.
Three of the 120 people elected to serve in the Knesset — Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and Hadash-Ta’al’s Aida Touma-Suleiman and Youssef Jabarin — were absent from the ceremony. They will still need to swear their oaths of office before officially being considered MKs.
On the plenary floor, the MKs sat in accordance with their parties’ post-election blocs and relative strength. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism are now both sitting on the main coalition benches to the right of the hall, having each won eight seats and, subsequently, an upgrade from their previous seating at the back shared by coalition and opposition MKs. Their old seats will now be filled by the depleted Labor delegation — down from 24 seats to its worst-ever election result of just six, and thus demoted from the frontline opposition benches.
Netanyahu technically has 28 days to form a coalition, giving him until mid-May, and he may ask Rivlin for a two-week extension. Until then, the ministers from the 34th government act as an “interim government,” fulling their ministerial roles until a new government is sworn in. As well as the new and reelected MKs, all members of the current interim government are invited and expected to sit in the plenary, even if they are no longer Knesset members.