The 17th Knesset was sworn in on Monday afternoon in the shadow of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that dampened spirits but did not spoil the festivities.
President Moshe Katsav opened the ceremony by extending condolences to the families of the victims in the attack and called on the government to fight terrorism while protecting the rights of Arab citizens.
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"We have to decide on issues such as the state's borders. Citizens have the right to oppose Knesset and government decisions but the objectors have to conduct their struggles via legal and legitimate means," said Katsav. "The route of the eastern border is of existential importance. We have to determine the map of national and security interests for the people of Israel through [reaching] a national consensus."
The next order of business was the swearing in of MK Shimon Peres (Kadima) - at 82 years the oldest member of Knesset - as acting speaker. Peres will hold the post until coalition talks end and a permanent speaker is elected.
"The period of terror is not eternal and negotiations will soon be resumed. We will succeed in reaching an agreement between the two sides. The alternative to this is a unilateral move," said Peres. "The composition of this Knesset shows the willingness of the great majority of the People of Israel to reach a resolution through fair compromise. Recognizing reality is the starting point for a diplomatic agreement," he said.
Several hours later, MKs David Tal (Kadima) and Colette Avital (Labor) were sworn in as deputy speakers.
The ceremony included the official swearing in of 118 MKs. The Knesset secretary read their names from a roll and called on them to fulfill their duties to the state. Two MKs who missed the ceremony, Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima), who was caught in traffic, and Eli Yishai (Shas), who was visiting terror victims in the hospital, were sworn in several hours later.
Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was due to take the prime minister's seat in the center of the plenum, but he left the chair vacant as a mark of respect to Ariel Sharon, who remains hospitalized after his January 4 stroke.
While the official ceremony proceeded according to plan, confusion and disorder overtook the Knesset halls and cafeteria as new MKs milled about, introducing themselves to political rivals and learning the layout of the Knesset.
"I introduced myself to one MK and asked who he was only to find out that he had been an MK for more than ten years. Then I walked in to what I thought was the Law Committee to ask a technical question and realized I was in the Finance Committee room," said one first-time Kadima MK. "It was an embarrassing way to start my time here."
A stenographer said she was baffled when new Labor MK Ami Ayalon approached her in the plenum and introduced himself.
"I guess it's nice, but I don't remember an MK ever doing that," she said. "It looked like he was introducing himself to everyone. He was very excited."
The 17th Knesset has 41 first-time MKs.
"I will give you some advice," said Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who has served in the past five Knessets. "Don't try to find a new way, don't try to find shortcuts. Look to the past, what we have done and what we have accomplished. Follow in the path of the veterans."
Many, however, expressed concern over the lack of veteran MK leadership to guide the new members.
"There is no one to take them by the hand and show them the ropes," said a committee spokeswoman. "There is a general feeling of emptiness over the loss of Sharon's leadership. But there is a also a feeling that this Knesset will lack real leaders to guide the new lawmakers," she said.
The Knesset's first session took place less than an hour after the swearing-in ceremony. Barely half of the MKs attended, including only a handful of rookie MKs.
"It doesn't look too good when none of the new MKs show up for your first session," said an official from the Knesset spokesman's office.
Another ill omen was the introduction by MK Zevulen Orlev (NU-NRP) of a bill to dissolve the Knesset. Orlev introduced the legislation along with 100 others that he prepared during the Knesset recess.
MK Ibrahim Sarsour (UAL-Ta'al) introduced a bill that would make it illegal to insult Moses or Muhammad.
During the session, MKs were chosen to serve temporary terms on the Knesset's two most prestigious committees, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Finance Committee. MK Taleb a-Sanaa (UAL-Ta'al) was one of those appointed to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, marking the second time a legislator from an Arab party will serve on the panel.