Israel swears in new parliament after divisive election

Israeli PM Netanyahu faces test to reconcile demands of ultra-Orthodox religious parties with those of secular factions.

Inauguration ceremony of Israel''s 21st Knesset
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend an inauguration ceremony of Israel's 21st Knesset in Jerusalem [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]

Members of Israel’s 21st Knesset (parliament) were sworn in on Tuesday, three weeks after a volatile general election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a governing coalition. He has until mid-May to form a government, with a possible extension of a further two weeks.

After being sworn in, the prime minister, who faced criticism during the campaign for comments seen as demonising Palestinian citizens of Israel, said: “We shall continue to act for the benefit of every Israeli citizen without exception.”

Netanyahu also faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.

The attorney general has announced he intends to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing.

But Netanyahu would be entitled to remain in office until his trial and any subsequent appeals are exhausted.

Ultra-Orthodox and secular divide

Opening the session, Rivlin called for unity following a particularly divisive election.

“We have passed a difficult election period. We slandered and we were slandered,” he said. “Now enough: We need to climb up, put down the election swords and clean the dirt. Political considerations can no longer be the only compass.”

Netanyahu’s outgoing government was considered the most right-wing in Israel‘s history and his next is expected to be at least as hawkish, if not more so.

His support comes mainly from the nationalist right and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, whose demands may be difficult to reconcile with those of secular factions over matters of religion and state.

Among the issues likely to be tackled in the incoming parliament is the fierce debate over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should perform mandatory military service.

The strengthening of the two ultra-Orthodox parties – to a combined 16 seats from 13 in the outgoing parliament – increased their clout and their opposition to the draft is central to their demands in the ongoing coalition negotiations.

Netanyahu's next government is expected to be as hawkish, if not more so, than the outgoing one [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]
Netanyahu’s next government is expected to be as hawkish, if not more so, than the outgoing one [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]

Disagreement on the issue contributed to Israel holding early elections.

Reporting from Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said the coalition building, which was on pause during the Passover holiday, has to factor in some important points.

“One of those is the fact that one of the key potential members of the Israeli coalition is the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is secularist,” he said.

“It doesn’t like the policies and the demands being made by the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, which have done better in this election than they did in the last election,” he continued.

“It wants to see more separation between religion and state, with the leader of that party, the former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman saying he won’t join a government which accedes to too many of those demands.”

In addition, Netanyahu made a last-minute pledge in the run-up to the elections to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that could end remaining hopes for a two-state solution if done on a large scale.

Coalition governments the norm

No single party has ever won a majority of 61 seats out of 120, making coalition governments the norm.

The number of female MPs has declined from 35 in the last Knesset – which was a record – to 29 in the new one, now making up about a quarter of the parliament.

There are 12 non-Jewish MPs, 10 of them are Palestinian with Israeli citizenship and two Druze.

The new Knesset has a record number of five members from the LGBT community, up from just two in the previous Knesset.

The right-wing Likud party tied with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party in the April 9 general election, both receiving 35 seats in parliament. There are 11 factions in the new parliament.

The right-wing bloc that includes Likud has a 10-seat advantage over the centre-left bloc, which gave Netanyahu the support he needed to be named prime minister-designate by Rivlin.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies