First Session of 20th Knesset Begins

President urges parties to move on from election mudslinging, calls for speedy conclusion to coalition talks.

Ari Soffer ,

Reuven Rivlin
Reuven Rivlin
Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash 90

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opened the 20th Knesset Tuesday afternoon, welcoming MKs new and old and hailing the March 17 elections as a celebration of Israel's vibrant democracy.

"On the recent Election Day, Israel’s democracy once again proved that is it is strong, thriving, and unpredictable," said Rivlin.

"In Carmiel as in Nazareth, in Bnei Barak as in Tel Aviv, in Ariel as in Kochav Yair, in Nahal Oz, in Rahat, in Netivot, in Jerusalem, and across the country, millions of citizens of Israel, men and women, went out to assemble the pieces of the mosaic, that is the 20th Knesset of Israel."

Playing on the text of the prayers offered by Jews on the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), Rivlin added: "On the day of electoral judgment, they decided ‘Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony… who will be cast away and who will be uplifted.’

"It was decreed who would shape the face of this Knesset and its power, the face and future of the State of Israel for years to come."

"The task remains uncompleted as long as the new government has yet to be sworn in before the Knesset," he continued, referring to the ongoing, arduous coalition negotiations. "I urge all sides involved, to strive to conclude the coalition negotiations as soon as possible. The public infrastructure is suffering from paralysis for several long months, and we must allow it to return to full functionality. Each day that passes, exacts a higher price upon the Israeli people."

Rivlin also referenced the upcoming festival of Pesach (Passover), and its three primary Torah commandments of the Passover offering, Matza (unleavened bread) and Marror (bitter herbs).

"Similarly, this house also stands upon three things: being servants of the public, representing the changing face of Israel, and responsibility to make decisions," he told MKs, calling on them to move on from the mudslinging of the election campaign and focus on the important issues facing the State of Israel.

"During the elections, 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’," he said, in a reference to the "them or us" campaigning employed particularly by the election's two largest opponents, the Likud and Zionist Union parties.

"But now the clashes have ended, 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 the losers, but them.  They, who have sent you here, as public servants, and not as ‘chosen to be above the people’.

"Do not forget for one minute who sent you to this place; the public’s trust is the most dearest of assets in democracy. This trust is given now into the hands of each and every one of you."

In another Pesach analogy, Rivlin drew a comparison between the diverse nature of Israeli society and the parable of the "Four Sons" read during seder night, calling on MKs to "be awake to the dramatic cultural and demographic changes, which are altering unrecognizably the face of Israeli society."

"In order to appreciate this, it is enough to take a glimpse at the current make of the first grade in our school system, the changing mix of the students; secular, religious, Arab, haredi. 

"As time passes, we must come to terms with the fact that around the ‘Israeli Seder table’ sit at least four sons and daughters; Secular, Modern Orthodox, haredi, and Arab. 

"With the formation of this Knesset, I ask of you, not to see the Israeli mosaic we have here, as a something to fight against.  On the contrary, consider this as a challenge and a purpose, which obliges all of us to find a common language and vision."

Despite that call for a "common language", however, the vast majority of MKs from the anti-Zionist Arab Joint List party walked out of the session immediately after being sworn in, effectively boycotting the recital of Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah.

Joint List head MK Ayman Odeh and MK Dov Khenin - the only Jewish MK for the party - remained for the full session. Odeh, however, remained seated throughout the anthem.

Urging MKs to show responsibility, Rivlin concluded by emphasizing that, with elections now over, all MKs were expected to serve the interests of the wider Israeli public.

"You are not only making decisions for those who voted for you. You are making decisions for all the Israeli public," he said. "With the slightest of gesture, you can shape history, set and seal the fate and future of this people. 

"In this house, peace treaties and armistices were signed. Decisions were taken to tear many citizens from their homes. Decrees were made, and laws were passed that shaped our obligations, our rights, and our image as a people: The Basic Law: Human Rights, the law of obligatory education, of public healthcare. 

"In your hands, rests the opportunity to enact a constitution for the State of Israel."

Rivlin ended his address with a quote from the medieval codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides (Rambam) in his magnum opus, the Mishne Torah.

"This heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Opposition as it does on the Government. You, all of you, now 120 leaders of the people and its judges.

"Our sages taught: 'A judge should always see himself as if a sword is drawn on his neck. He should know whom he is judging, before Whom he is judging, and Who will ultimately exact retribution from him if he deviates from the path of truth,' (Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin 23:8). 

"In the name of the Israeli people, I pray that brotherhood and unity will be instilled between you, and you will, with humility, make wise and courageous decisions."