(photo credit: Associated Press)
A brief show of harmony Thursday that saw MK Dalia Itzik unanimously elected as the Knesset's first woman speaker was soon shattered as MKs greeted the new government with a tumultuous session.
Following a debate that raged more than seven hours and spilled into the hallways of the building, the Knesset eventually voted 65-49 (with six absentees) to approve the coalition agreement and ministerial appointments, confirming Ehud Olmert as prime minister, heading a 67-strong coalition comprising Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Gil Pensioners Party.
"The MKs have given their opinion of the coalition agreement," Olmert said after the vote. "I want to thank everyone - both the supporters and those that oppose us."
Olmert had said earlier in the day that his government's main priority was carrying out his "convergence" plan for a dramatic pullout from most of the West Bank, calling in "Zionism's lifeline." He said the major settlement blocs would remain Israel's forever.
"The continuation of scattered settlements throughout the West Bank creates an inseparable mix of populations that will threaten the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state," he told the Knesset. "The borders of Israel that will be formed in the coming years will be significantly different from the territories that the state of Israel holds today."
The coalition faces more immediate battles as ministers jockey for security cabinet posts, calls grow on the Right for a referendum on any further pullback, and a mid-June deadline looms for the passage of the 2006 state budget.
Olmert described the fiery Knesset session as part of "the perils of the democratic nature of the parliament in Israel."
Among the most outspoken such opponents of the new government was the Likud's Gidon Sa'ar, who vowed to "fight our battle with this government in any way possible." Sa'ar heckled Olmert's opening speech to the House and nearly managed to thwart Thursday's vote by demanding access to what he claimed was a secret written agreement between Olmert and Minister of Development of the Negev and Galilee Shimon Peres.
Although backed by several other Likud and United Torah Judaism MKs, Sa'ar's request was overruled; Itzik's first important call was insisting that the vote take place as planned.
"We have been tasked with restoring respect to this House after it was penalized by the public during the elections," she said during her opening address. But the speaker was quickly tasked with restoring calm as Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman likened Arab MKs who have met with Hamas representatives to World War II collaborators.
"In World War II, not only criminals were killed. Those who collaborated with criminals were killed as well," said Lieberman. "I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in this House... Arab MKs who collaborate with the enemy and met with Hamas should be dealt with."
Lieberman's speech was interrupted by outraged calls from Arab MKs, who said he had "crossed all red lines."
"If anyone should be put on trial, it is mafiosi such as [Lieberman]," said Hadash chairman Muhammad Barakei.
The exchange soon spread from the plenum to the Ethics Committee, where Ibrahim Sarsur (United Arab List-Ta'al) filed an official complaint against Lieberman's "grave, racist comments."
Over the past month, various Arab MKs have met with Hamas parliamentarians. Taleb a-Sanaa (UAL-Ta'al), who took part in the first meetings, said he lost his spot on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee due to his decision to meet with Hamas.
In addition to the opposition from parties left outside the government, Olmert faced a last minute protest from Kadima MKs Marina Solodkin and Majalli Whbee who claimed that the new cabinet lacked representatives from minority communities.
"Kadima received votes from the new immigrants of Israel largely based on the campaign promise that I was to be appointed immigration minister," said Solodkin, who walked out of the final vote in protest.
Despite the day's protests, Olmert will head a coalition of four parties - Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Gil Pensioners Party - with 67 MKs. The swearing-in ceremony Thursday allowed Olmert to meet his first deadline by creating a coalition within the 21 days allocated to him by law.
Over the next several months Olmert will be tasked with several other deadlines, most notably the state budget. According to the Basic Law: Knesset, Olmert will need to pass a budget within 45 days. If the Knesset fails to do so, it will be dissolved and the country will face another round of elections.
Earlier Thursday, Olmert told the Knesset that the convergence plan was the cornerstone of his agenda for the new government.
Calling the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank a "prelude" to his convergence plan, he promised that the major settlement blocs in the West Bank would always be a part of Israel.
"The achievements of the settlement movement in main concentrations will forever be an integral part of the sovereign state of Israel, along with Jerusalem, our united capital," said Olmert, who also warned the Knesset to take the threat of a nuclear Iran to heart.
Hosting the new ministers for the traditional photograph at Beit Hanassi, President Moshe Katsav said he believed this government would bring about national consensus and give Israelis from all sectors a sense of belonging and a sense of partnership. He expressed the hope that the Olmert government would serve a full term.