Israel swears in new parliament under coronavirus shadow

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Ultra Orthodox Jews pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed coronavirus cases double in recent days, to around 200. On Saturday, the government said restaurants, malls, cinemas, gyms and daycare centers would close. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

JERUSALEM – Israel swore in its newly elected parliament on Monday under stringent restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak, in a surreal ceremony reflecting the country's unprecedented dual crisis in politics and public health.

Instead of the typical festive gathering of parliament's 120, the new lawmakers took the oath of office in groups of three over 40 staggered rounds, in keeping with a Health Ministry ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin presided over the unusual event after the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, was thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant.

The president, flanked by the Knesset speaker and secretary, opened the first session of parliament before an empty chamber save for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz. They sat several rows apart and made little eye contact, outnumbered by the three trumpeters in the hall who rang in the first session of parliament.

Rivlin called for unity and compromise from the two leaders, saying the Israeli people “are in need of rest, we are in need of healing" after three parliamentary elections in under a year.

After Netanyahu and Gantz were sworn in, they were ushered out of the hall and the lawmakers were brought in three-by-three for brief swearing-in ceremonies.

The event, coming two weeks after national elections, will give the country a new legislature. But Israel still seems a long way from establishing a stable government.

Rivlin on Monday formally designated Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, the task of forming a coalition after the retired military chief secured a slim majority of recommendations from incoming lawmakers.

Gantz promised to “do whatever it takes to form within as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government.”