Talk of a National Unity Government? Not This Time

In the past decade, the unity government question became an integral part of the inaugural session, alongside the president’s address and the flower in the lapel. No longer

The Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 29, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The most obvious difference in the opening of the 21st Knesset’s inaugural session was the near-total absence of the usual “unity government yes-or-no” talk. After the 2009 election, Likud held parallel talks with Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni; with  the Labor Party, under Ehud Barak, and with right-wing parties. In 2013 the brothers alliance formed by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) blazed the trail, while in 2015 Isaac Herzog of Zionist Union put up his tent outside the prime minister’s Balfour Street home and waited for an invitation from Netanyahu.

In the past decade, the unity government question became an integral part of the inaugural session, alongside the president’s address and the flower in the lapel. No longer. Not when planted in the black space are the disgraceful seeds of the senior suspect escaping justice and the Knesset, the symbol of Israeli democracy and sovereignty, has been turned into a private legal defense wall.

Party leaders take a picture with Knesser Speaker Yuli Edelstein, President Rivlin and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 29, 2019.
Emil Salman

As long as Netanyahu remains a criminal defendant —  before or after a pretrial hearing, with or without immunity — Kahol Lavan, in whole or in part, will not join a coalition led by him. The alliance’s leaders are agreed on this.

The differences between them are of style, not substance. Benny Gantz was statesmanlike, not to mention a little sleepy, when he addressed his new party’s 34 legislators. Lapid started at 200 kilometers an hour, saying, “Netanyahu was elected for incitement and divisiveness; there is no ugly lie that he hasn’t told. Bibi is systematically ripping apart the nation. That’s what he lives on” — and that’s just a sample. It appears that Lapid will be the opposition chairman and Gantz its CEO.

President Reuven Rivlin’s speech sounded mostly like a pep talk to a dragging opposition (“You lost the leadership but not your place and your rights in this nation”) and a civics lesson for the evolving coalition. (“Your responsibility is to stop trying to eliminate your rivals and let go of victimhood and govern all the types of citizens and communities that live here with respect and love.”) He tried to encourage the former, while actually pleading with the latter. 

No less important was his request/plea to stop the “confrontation” between the legislative and the judiciary branches and finally pass a Basic Law on legislation. What Yariv Levin (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Union of Right-Wing Parties) are planning is not a confrontation, but an assassination. 

And when Netanyahu told his Likud colleagues to postpone their summer vacation plans because a “blitz” of legislation is expected, he was referring primarily to sewing the cloak that will shield him from the talons of the law.

Exactly one year ago, Yuli Edelstein appeared to be history. The scheme concocted by Netanyahu with the help of Miri Regev to humiliate and belittle the longtime Knesset speaker at the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony generated an atomic explosion in the already-tense relations between Edelstein and Netanyahu.

The Knesset speaker had been added, officially and practically, to Balfour Street’s bank of targets, to the list of the hated. He was preparing himself emotionally for his forced departure from the speaker’s job, as had happened to his predecessor, Rivlin.

In the meantime, an early election was called and Edelstein came in first in the Likud primary. The party’s members had had their say. Even Netanyahu, vengeful and drunk with power, couldn’t ignore the result. He preferred not to open a front against Edelstein and with gritted teeth was forced to offer him another term in the position that brings him within reach of the President’s Residence in July 2022.

A Knesset with neither Haneen Zoabi nor Oren Hazan (and, for now, also without Itamar Ben-Gvir) promises to be quieter and more civilized. That’s good news. Perhaps children will now be able to watch the Knesset broadcasts without their parents having to jerk them away from the screen as if were showing a snuff film.

But a few awkward moments were inevitable. The first was provided by former broadcaster Miki Haimovich, the highest-placed woman on the Kahol Lavan slate. Haimovich, a devoted vegan, asked the Knesset director to replace the leather on her seat in the plenum with a non-animal material. For the festive session she made do with a symbolic act, putting a cotton cloth on her chair to separate her body from the slaughtered animal. It was as ridiculous as eating a schnitzel in a tofu sandwich.