After a long election process and a subsequent exhausting coalition negotiation, the 33rd government of Israel was sworn in on Monday, officially kicking off Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's third term at the helm. As of Tuesday, the members of the 33rd government were already hard at work.
An overwhelming majority of the Knesset plenum approved the new 68-member coalition on Monday. All the members of coalition parties Yisrael-Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnuah voted in favor, while 48 opposition MKs voted against. Four opposition MKs did not attend the vote.
Shortly after the vote, the prime minister and the 21 cabinet ministers took the podium one by one and took an oath.
Especially joyous was the family of newly sworn-in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose son had completed his military service hours before the ceremony.
Clearing the table
"This is the third time that I have had to honor of opening the first cabinet meeting of a new government," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he addressed his ministers shortly after the swearing-in ceremony. "I have to tell you that I am truly moved. I do not take this for granted. I take nothing here for granted. The responsibility on our shoulders is great. We are in the midst of a challenging time — there is a plethora of dangers, accompanied by the expectations of the Israeli people. We have a responsibility and a right."
"Today we are sitting at a new cabinet table, but we are also clearing the table," Netanyahu said. "We are putting our differences aside and working together. There are excellent people here — talented, experienced, fresh. The only way for us to succeed is by cooperating with one another and showing unity."
The cabinet also made its first decision during this meeting, determining the identities of the ministers who will man the political-security cabinet. The prime minister will head the cabinet, and the prestigious forum will include Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Commerce and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Homefront Defense Minister Gilad Erdan.
The cabinet ministers also approved the appointments of eight deputy ministers: Ofir Akunis, Zeev Elkin, Eli Ben-Dahan, Danny Danon, Avi Wortzman, Tzipi Hotovely, Mickey Levy and Faina Kirshenbaum. They also voted to extend the terms of both incumbent chief rabbis by four months, until a vote can be held to determine their replacement.
In addition, a 135-day deadline was set for approving the national budget.
The highlight of the evening was when, upon completing their first cabinet meeting, the ministers went to the President's Residence and posed for the traditional photo.
"You are faced with many challenges," President Shimon Peres told the ministers. "Above all, you need to stand firm in the face of the Iranian threat and make a supreme effort to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The responsibility is on your shoulders. The people of Israel are raising their eyes to you."
Netanyahu thanked the president and said: "We intend to bring important changes to the State of Israel. I believe that we will bring new tidings."
"Assembling the coalition was difficult"
Earlier Monday, when Netanyahu presented his new coalition and outlined its founding principles, the debate in the Knesset hall became quite rowdy at times, and rife with interjections. Haredi MKs belonging to the United Torah Judaism faction exited the room when Bennett, the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi which they see as responsible for their exclusion from the coalition, was introduced. "A Jew doesn’t uproot a Jew," they called out before leaving the hall.
"The task of assembling [the coalition] was difficult, like solving a Rubik's Cube," Netanyahu said in his address, calling the puzzle by its Hebrew name — Hungarian Cube — in a veiled reference to Lapid, of Hungarian descent, who posed the most challenging demands during the coalition talks. "It took a lot of Israeli resourcefulness to put it all together. You don't always know whether a certain square has fallen into the right position."
The prime minister stressed that the new coalition comprised both fresh and veteran legislators — a combination that would ensure big changes. He focused mainly on increasing the participation in military and national service, reducing the cost of living and increasing the housing supply.
Alongside the new government's domestic plans, the prime minister explained that "the top priority, of the utmost importance, will be preserving Israel's security and the safety of its citizens."
"The threats are greater than ever," Netanyahu said. "They may even be greater than they have been since the establishment of the state. Iran is moving ahead with its race toward a nuclear weapon. Iran is continuing to enrich uranium for the purpose of building a bomb. Syria is breaking apart and leaking some of the most lethal chemical weapons in existence. Terror organizations are clamoring for these weapons like predators fighting over a carcass. Israel will take all the necessary steps to prevent these weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists."
Netanyahu also touched on the diplomatic process, saying that "the government will act to advance peace and stability in the region. If there is a Palestinian partner who is willing to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be willing to strike a historic compromise that would end the conflict once and for all. Israel cannot be the only one asked to make concessions." He added that the government was committed to preserving the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Addressing the upcoming visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu said that "this will be an opportunity to express our gratitude to Obama for deepening our cooperation on issues pertaining to security, strategy and intelligence over the last four years; for continuing American aid in dealing with our enormous security needs, while the U.S. faces its own economic difficulties; appreciation for the support in the development of the Iron Dome [missile defense system]; for standing up for Israel at the U.N. and for many other things, not all of which I can divulge."
In conclusion, Netanyahu said, "I promise that we will never forget the great responsibility resting on our shoulders — to fully realize the vision of our forefathers, to be a free nation, in our country and to ensure the future of our people."
"You are a rich, satiated leadership"
Incoming Opposition Leader Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) criticized the new coalition on Monday, arguing that "at the end of all this bargaining, you can call it anything but new politics," referencing Lapid's campaign promise to introduce a new, better type of politics into the Israeli government. "We saw the same battles over ministerial and deputy minister appointments; the same alliances of convenience."
Yachimovich declared that the national debate over the Zionist vision has been launched, adding that there already were two states for two peoples — the rich and the needy. She said that the politicians making up the new coalition only served to drive the point home. Referring to the earnings of newly appointed Science Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), she said that "he said in an interview that he was middle class. But someone who earned 2.3 million shekels last year is not middle class."
She later addressed Netanyahu, Lapid, Bennett and Livni, saying that "you are a rich, satiated leadership. You come from pedigreed families, and you never had to struggle to make a living."