Israel’s new parliament sworn in under special coronavirus conditions

Instead of a full Knesset, the normally festive occasion turns somber under coronavirus shadow as members sworn in three at a time.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

To an almost empty parliament hall, the members of Israel’s Knesset were sworn into office Monday as the country faced a two-edged crisis of trying to stave off a fourth round of national elections and fighting to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

With emergency health regulations banning gatherings of more than 10 people, Knesset members elected in the March 2 national vote were sworn in three at a time, starting with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz, who earlier in the day was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin to try and form a new government.

Veteran Israeli journalist Barak Ravid called it “an awkward moment” as Netanyahu, Gantz, Knesset speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yuli Edelstein and President Reuven Rivlin were the only dignitaries in the plenary hall separated by distance due to the coronavirus crisis.

After Edelstein read the oath of office – “I pledge myself to bear allegiance to the State of Israel and faithfully to discharge my mandate in the Knesset -” each replied “I so pledge.”

There were no handshakes and the two left the plenum as the next three members were led in by Knesset staff to repeat the process as Rivlin, himself a former Knesset member from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, observed, and a Knesset stenographer, the only other person present, recorded the official minutes as the voices echoed in the nearly empty 120-seat chamber.

Some Knesset members greeted the Knesset ushers with an elbow-bump on their way in, while others used the Indian namaste greeting towards Edelstein and Rivlin to conform with health directives to avoid body contact that could spread the coronavirus.

Broadcast on national television, the normally lively and festive swearing-in ceremony should have seen all 120 members present and called one after the other. The inaugural session is carried out with some pomp and dignity, but is known for often being interspersed with catcalls and insults as the politicians show their colors.

This time the ongoing battle against the coronavirus pandemic took precedence, with care taken to maintain distance between all present and no more than 10 people in the Knesset hall at a time.

The results the March 2 election, Israel’s third in the past year, left no clear winner. However, a majority of the political parties told Rivlin they recommended Gantz as having the best chance of forming a new government and avoiding the nightmare of a fourth trip to the polls for Israelis.

Despite 61 members of the Knesset recommending him, opposition leader Gantz has his hands full to cobble together a workable coalition before the 28-day deadline arrives.

His bid to form a minority government with less than 61 seats depends on support from the outside by the 15 members of the Joint List of Arab parties.

Those parties are not expected to sit in the government and their list of demands might be hard for members of Gantz’s party to accept.