The Israeli parliament has elected a new government, ending the 12-year grip on power by right-wing and five-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after four elections and two years of political paralysis.
The vote marks a historic change in Jewish state leadership, with the longest-serving prime minister being replaced by Naftali Bennett, an ultra-nationalist whose Yamina party controls just six seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Bennett will begin his first premiership at the head of an eight-party coalition stretching from the left to the far right and backed by the backing of an Islamist party. It will be the first time in Israeli history that an Arab party has shared power with a Zionist government. The coalition has a one-seat majority and political analysts are pessimistic about its long-term survival.
In his inaugural address, Bennett warned that Israel’s political mudslinging was weakening the country. “I am proud of the ability to sit with people with very different views to mine,” he said, laughed at by Netanyahu’s allies, who called him a “criminal” and “liar.” “Continuing this way – more elections, more hate, more vitriol on Facebook – is just not an option,” he added.
Netanyahu’s ouster marks at the very least a break in the reign of the 71-year-old flag-bearer of the Israeli right wing, who has led Israel for 15 years for the past 25 years and remains the country’s most popular leader despite failing to establish a form a government coalition.
After military service in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and a stint in the US, first as an adviser and then at the Israeli embassy, Netanyahu began his political career in 1996 with a winning campaign against the Oslo Accords. He returned to office in 2009, clashing repeatedly with US President Barack Obama, first over the Palestinian issue and then, eventually, over talks to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu reaped the benefits of the Israeli right-wing’s 40-year drive to support American Christian evangelicals under President Donald Trump, who relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, strengthened the Jewish state’s claim to the disputed city, and in 2018 dismantled the nuclear weapons. tore up an agreement that Iran had signed with world powers three years earlier.
Iranians celebrated Israel’s new “weak and weak government,” Netanyahu told the Knesset on Sunday, warning that Bennett would yield to US pressure on issues ranging from settlements to renewing the nuclear deal.
“The public will not forget this massive fraud,” he said of the new government, mocking Bennett in front of his party’s six seats, saying he was “a prime minister at the head of a pin”.
Netanyahu’s years will be marked by his racist attacks on the Palestinian citizens of Israel and his roguery of the Israeli left as traitors to Zionism. His rule has been accompanied by a swing to the right for the majority of Israelis and leaves a legacy of bitterness that Bennett has promised to restore. Netanyahu called “fascist” plans for a law with a term limit that would bar him from running again.
Netanyahu stands in opposition as a criminal defendant amid pending trial on three corruption charges. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and dismissed the trial as a politically motivated witch hunt intended to end his premiership.
Bennett, a 49-year-old tech millionaire who sees himself as more right-wing than Netanyahu, will serve as prime minister for two years and is then expected to step down to make way for Yair Lapid, a former TV host who led the centrist Yesh Atid and pulled the coalition. together to oust Netanyahu. The deputy prime minister dropped his own speech over the bickering.
For Israelis, who have seen four elections since April 2019 — three ended in a stalemate, while one yielded a short-lived unity government — the vote will at least mean a brief respite from the political deadlock. Political analysts are already predicting the coalition’s demise over a wide range of disagreements, including gay rights, the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and even the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to marry freely.
Coalition formation among Netanyahu’s rivals was punctuated by a fortnight of communal fighting in Israel, accompanied by an 11-day aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip to contain the Palestinian militant group Hamas and widespread uprisings in the occupied West Bank.
Opposition leaders — four of the parties are led by people personally cared for by Netanyahu and subsequently betrayed in some way — have assembled the coalition with just 38 minutes left before a deadline that would have led to new elections.
It includes the Ra’am Islamist Party, which represents the traditional Muslim voice among Israel’s 2 million Palestinian citizens. It joins the government in exchange for billions of dollars in investment for one of the most impoverished sections of Israeli society.