Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his fourth term as Prime Minister of Israel late Thursday night, presiding over a cabinet of 20, after a raucous Knesset session culminated in the ministers’ swearing-in. Lest there be any uncertainty about whether Israel really is both a Jewish and a democratic country, the Israeli Parliament session featured empassioned addresses by Arab legislators.
The session also featured a disgusted speech by Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog, who denounced the country’s newly-elected leader and refused to join the government, calling it a “circus” because its platform rejects the Socialist Worker views of the party that controlled Israel from 1948 until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977.
Herzog’s address was a frontal and personal attack on both Netanyahu and the entire concept of cross-party cooperation in the national interest:
“This is not the government the people wanted,” Herzog said. Facing Netanyahu directly, he went on: “Your partners swindled you. What you created was a circus. Your mentors Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin would have been embarrassed of you. Your way is not my way. My way is the way of the Labor movement that founded this country. Give the Foreign Ministry to one of your MKs. No decent leader would join your circus,” as reported by Gil Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post.
No doubt Bibi has very thick skin, but it would be hard for any human being, even a politician, to forget that personal insult, delivered in front of the entire government and, via the press, the rest of the world.
The “swindling” that Herzog denounced was in fact a long negotiation with each person who wound up as a Cabinet official – and with several others who did not wind up as such – over who would hold which office.
After oaths had been administered, Netanyahu explained to the Knesset that this lengthy game of musical chairs was necessitated by Israeli’s system of parliamentary elections, which fractures power in the hands of numerous small parties, each of which then has the right to extort as high a price as possible for its support of a coalition.
Netanyahu called for change of this system Thursday night. Though both his own Likud party and Herzog’s “Zionist Union” – the two largest parties – would benefit from such reform, it’s hard to see how sufficient support for it could be found across all these criss-crossing party lines.
Still, there is some hope for progress on some fronts. Ayelet Shaked will take over as Justice Minister, and she takes office with an ambitious plan to reform the Israeli Supreme Court – long seen by many as a profoundly anti-democratic institution that rejects Knesset-passed laws whenever a majority of its 15 justices disagrees with them.
Likud plans to introduce a bill in the Knesset that will, among other things, require a modest super-majority of the Supreme Court’s justices, rather than a bare majority, before a law could be struck down.
It will be interesting to see whether, if the Knesset adopts such legislation, the Supreme Court strikes that down.