The excitement in the air was palpable at the swearing- in of the 20th Knesset Tuesday, with nearly a third of the MKs becoming legislators for the first time.
Veteran and freshman lawmakers brought their families along to watch them pledge allegiance to the Knesset, and the non-MK seats were packed with judges, chief rabbis, and other dignitaries, both foreign and local.
On their way in to the building, all the MKs were given MK credentials and ribbons to pin to their lapels.
New Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin walked in with an exploded Kassam rocket casing, which he planned to put in his office, saying that he wants to remind himself of where he came from – Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Gaza border – and the people he will represent.
The Likud’s Miki Zohar arrived at the Knesset after visiting his parents’ graves. His father, who died when he was five years old, was a member of the Kiryat Gat City Council and ran for the Knesset 30 years ago but didn’t get in.
Zohar was deputy mayor of Kiryat Gat and became an MK on Tuesday, seeing it as a fulfillment of his father’s goals.
Zohar later stole Shas chairman Arye Deri’s thunder during the swearing-in. When Knesset secretary Yardena Maller-Horowitz called “Arye Deri,” the MK insisted that his full name, “Arye Machlouf Deri,” be used. Deri started using “Machlouf” during the election campaign to make a statement about being Sephardi. Soon after, though, it became clear that Deri wasn’t the only Machlouf in the House, when Maller- Horowitz called Zohar by his full first name, Machlouf.
MK Oren Hazan (Likud) was the star of the day, with people lining up to take selfies with him. Hazan, a new MK, is the son of former MK Yehiel Hazan, who was caught double- voting – both in his name and in another MK’s name – in 2003, and then attempting to tamper with the evidence.
Shortly after the election, Channel 2 News reported that the younger Hazan used to run a casino in Bulgaria, where gambling is legal, unlike in Israel. Since then, Hazan’s legend grew, to the point that on Monday night, the satirical TV program Eretz Nehederet featured an impression of him.
After an election campaign full of ad hominem attacks and highlighting of divisions on ethnic lines, all of the speeches the MKs heard told them to heal the wounds inflicted in recent months.
Another recurring theme was that the lawmakers are not in the Knesset for themselves but to represent the public.
“During the election,” President Reuven Rivlin recounted, “it seems there were times that the drama occurred between politicians and other politicians, between the politicians and the media, between campaigners and spin doctors, between ‘them,’ ‘you,’ and ‘us.’ “Now the clashes have ended, and the time has come to return focus to the main actors, the citizens of the State of Israel. Not you seated here, whether victors or losers, but them, those who have sent you here as public servants,” Rivlin reminded the new MKs.
The public’s trust, he added, is one of a democracy’s greatest assets, and it is in the hands of each and every lawmaker.
MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union), who, as longest-serving MK, was interim speaker for two hours until Yuli Edelstein was reconfirmed as Knesset Speaker, dedicated his speech to calling for unity.
“Israeli democracy does not incite, it does not condemn, and it does not oppose those who take it seriously and believe in it as a tool to bring change,” he said. “It does not oppose, it respects masses of kibbutzniks who go to their dining rooms filled with ideology to vote. It does not oppose, it respects masses of settlers who go to vote filled with ideological excitement. It does not oppose, it respects masses of haredim filled with faith and ideology who vote.
And it does not oppose, it respects masses of Arabs who go en masse to vote.”
“These are all the beloved sons of Israeli democracy, who are wanted and appreciated,” Peretz added.
The veteran MK said “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a universal message accepted by all monotheistic religions, and that everyone should remember it and defend that value.
“The ethnic demon, the ultranationalist demon, and many others grow secretly, sponsored by darkness and waiting for a sign, a spark that will be lit with a word of incitement, discrimination or a hateful and racist expression,” Peretz warned.
In a break from the plenum meeting, during which new MKs and their guests were served wine to make a toast to the new Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminisced about how much had changed since he first became an MK in 1988: The Cold War was still on, the Berlin Wall was still up, and the Internet barely existed.
“Much has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t changed – the feeling that an elected emissary has when he gets the sublime privilege of serving the public,” he said.
Netanyahu said he is the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens, whether they voted for him or not, and that his door is open to the representatives of all parties elected to the Knesset.
“Our first mission is to nurse the wounds and unite around the missions that are important to all citizens,” Netanyahu added, referring specifically to lowering the cost of living and housing prices.
Edelstein was reelected by 103 MKs. Seven from the Joint List abstained, and Likud MK Silvan Shalom accidentally pressed the button opposing but announced it was a mistake and soon after tweeted wishing the “new-old Knesset speaker” good luck.
The speaker recounted his first time visiting the Knesset, a year after moving to Israel from the Soviet Union. He was invited to the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee to talk about his time as a Prisoner of Zion.
“I say a prayer that this Knesset will bring good news to the people of Israel, that the bad spirit that went through us, of slander and polarization, will be replaced with a spirit of solidarity,” he said.
Edelstein told the MKs that their new title does not mean being power hungry, and demanded they be on their best behavior.
“This is not a position of power, but of servitude. You should see the job as fulfilling a mission of serving the public which elected you – and those who didn’t. I implore you to examine yourselves closely so that you do not accidentally dishonor the Knesset in your actions or your speech. Most MKs are wonderful, dedicated people, but one or two who go the wrong way can make the entire parliament smell rotten. I won’t let anyone harm the Knesset’s honor,” he warned.
Despite the calls for unity, several Joint List MKs walked out of the plenum before the singing of “Hatikva,” though they did so quietly and not demonstratively. Lawmakers from Hadash, one of the parties in the Joint List, remained in the hall and stood for the anthem but did not sing.
The MKs oppose the mention of a “Jewish soul” and references to the return to Zion in the national anthem, calling it exclusionary.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh explained that not singing was his “way of protesting an anthem that does not represent me and is, to me, another symbol of [Israeli Arabs’] exclusion. I mostly make sure to deal with content and with people and not with symbols, but this day is all about symbolism and ceremony, so it was important to everyone in the faction to show, in his or her way, opposition to the racism and exclusion in the ceremony.”
Also Tuesday, the Knesset’s Organizing Committee, a temporary body led by MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) that will exist until a new government is formed, voted for the Knesset to go on its usual Passover and Independence Day recess, beginning Wednesday and ending on May 4. All factions voted in favor, except for the Zionist Union.
“We came here to work,” MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) explained on Twitter.
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