Benjamin Netanyahu’s record 12-year run as Israel’s prime minister ended yesterday with parliament approving a new “government of change” led by nationalist Naftali Bennett.
But the razor-thin 60-59 vote of confidence in a coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties with little in common except for a desire to unseat Netanyahu, only underscored its likely fragility.
Addressing parliament before Bennett was sworn in, a combative Netanyahu said: “If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it.”
That will happen, 71-year-old Netanyahu added, “sooner than people think”.
The new government, formed after an inconclusive March 23 election, largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy towards the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms.
Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same Right-wing agenda as Likud party leader Netanyahu.
Israel’s longest-serving leader, Netanyahu was prime minister since 2009, after a first term from 1996 to 1999.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host, in 2023.
US President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett, Lapid and the rest of the new cabinet and said he looked forward to working with Bennett to strengthen the “close and enduring” relationship between their two countries.
“My administration is fully committed to working with the new Israeli government to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region,” Biden said.
Both abroad and at home, Netanyahu has been a polarising figure. Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his supporters and loathed by critics.
His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhand political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival. Some have dubbed him “Crime Minister” and have accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
Addressing parliament, Bennett echoed Netanyahu’s call for the US not to return to the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers, a deal abrogated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump.
“Renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake, an error that would again grant legitimisation to one of the darkest and violent regimes in the world,” Bennett said. “Israel will not allow Iran to equip itself with nuclear weapons.”
Both Bennett and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.