Israel's new Knesset members sworn in empty parliament building

The traditionally festive swearing-in ceremony for the Knesset's incoming members was tainted by tight biosecurity measures and an unending political crisis.

al-monitor Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) are seen at the sparsely attended opening ceremony of the 23rd Knesset in West Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Topics covered

coronavirus, reuven rivlin, benny gantz, benjamin netanyahu, unity government, israeli elections, israeli politics, knesset members, knesset

Mar 17, 2020

The headlines used words like "delusional," "surreal" and "sad" for the March 16 swearing-in ceremony of Israel’s 23rd Knesset amid coronavirus precautions and political deadlock. Israel faces two major crises at once with the spread of the coronavirus and its leaders' inability to form a government after three rounds of elections in the span of a single year.

The outbreak is clearly taking a toll on the worst political crises Israel has known since its founding. Anyone at the Knesset could see the breakdown in the country’s parliamentary system up close. Two weeks after a very impassioned and stormy election campaign came to a close, there is still no clear decision. It is as though the campaigning rages unabated.

On Tuesday at noon, a few hours before the ceremony took place, President Reuven Rivlin tasked the chairman of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, with forming a new government. The chances he will be able to cobble together a minority government are slim. Gantz received the mandate to form a government after 61 Knesset members rallied around him with the ultimate purpose of replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a bizarre coalition, unlike anything ever seen before in the Knesset. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which spent years waging racist campaigns against Israel’s Arab population and its leaders, joined forces with the Joint List, including its most radical faction Balad, which rejects the notion of Israel as a Jewish state.

Gantz could form a minority government, at least on paper, but within his own party there are at least two Knesset members — Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser — who are vehemently opposed to it. In contrast, Netanyahu’s bloc remains stable and cohesive. When Gantz called the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties to ask for a meeting, they refused. So did Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who demanded that Gantz first renounce the support that he just received from Balad. Meanwhile, negotiations are underway behind the scenes to form a unity government, with the position of prime minister rotating between Netanyahu and Gantz.

The mood is heavy and the divisions run deep. The hostility between Netanyahu and Gantz hasn’t diminished in the least since the election.

In the background, the coronavirus is raging across the country. Some 200,000 citizens have already been put on unpaid leave or fired, leaving them without a source of income right before Passover. The educational system has been shut down, as have large swathes of the economy. Israel is facing one of the gravest medical, economic and social crises it has ever seen. Under normal circumstances, such an emergency would have immediately produced a unity government. But this time, the rifts and divisions run so deep and the polarization is so extreme that neither bloc is willing to put its differences aside and work toward what the majority of Israelis want, according to all the polls: a national unity government.

The images coming from the Knesset this week, with the coronavirus crisis still developing, illustrated how the Israeli political system has ground to a halt. They show how it is incapable of rising above itself. Leaders from both sides of the political divide are unable to put their egos, mutual loathing and ambitions aside to do what is necessary.

What is normally a happy ceremony turned into a depressing event. The Knesset building itself was scrubbed and disinfected. Anyone entering had their temperatures taken first. Knesset members could not bring their families. Instead, the newly elected parliamentarians were sworn in three at a time before a virtually empty plenum. Speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to allow the new Knesset to replace him with the support of the 61-member coalition as the first step of deposing Netanyahu in yet another bizarre moment that pushed the boundaries of parliamentary democracy to their limits. Edelstein was the first to be sworn in, followed by Netanyahu and Gantz. In attendance were President Reuven Rivlin and President of the Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, who sat together in the plenum.

Israelis are exhausted after all the elections that forced us to sharpen our differences. … The people of Israel have always argued, but now they are tired and worried. We need a respite. We need healing,” said Rivlin in his speech. He sounded desperate. Three Knesset members at a time were then led into the cavernous hall, where they were quickly sworn in and left. For most of them, it was their third ceremony in less than a year.

Meanwhile, the coalition to replace Netanyahu was hard at work behind the scenes. The newly sworn-in members submitted three pieces of legislation designed to remove Netanyahu from the political system. They included a term limit of two for prime ministers, a prohibition on a Knesset member under indictment from forming a government and a law forcing any lawmaker to step down upon indictment. Senior members of the Blue and White Party explained to Al-Monitor that the moves are intended to pressure Netanyahu during the negotiations to form a unity government.

Everything that happened in the Knesset that day held a sense of alienation. In conversations with ministers and backbenchers alike, no one could predict how the political crisis would end. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, one of the four members of the Blue and White party’s leadership accused Netanyahu of preventing the formation of a unity government because he wants a fourth round of elections. As if in response, a senior Likud minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The animosity that the Blue and White Party and Liberman feel toward Netanyahu breaks every record. They are prepared to collaborate with Knesset members who support terrorism, even if it means tearing the political system apart. They have no minority government, and they know it.”

Amid this political tailspin, Netanyahu continued to manage the coronavirus crisis. During a late-night cabinet meeting by phone, the government approved emergency regulations to allow the Shin Bet to track the cell phones of people diagnosed with the coronavirus as well as people who spent time with them over the past two weeks. This extreme step, a violation of privacy, should have been overseen by the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services. However, with the Knesset paralyzed, Netanyahu decided that the country couldn’t wait. The move came under sharp criticism from the left along with accusations that the prime minister pushed to postpone his trial, which was scheduled to begin the following day. Following instructions by Justice Minister Amir Ohana to limit the activity of the justice system, the judges assigned to Netanyahu’s trial pushed it to May 24. While senior officials in the justice system made it quite clear that the state attorney general had approved Netanyahu’s proposal to monitor coronavirus patients and that it was the judges themselves who decided to postpone his trial, these explanations are not convincing to Netanyahu’s rivals, who claim that the prime minister is taking advantage of the crisis to escape justice.

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