Israel's Knesset votes in new government; Naftali Bennett named prime minister

·6 min read

Israel's parliament approved a new government on Sunday, ending the record 12-year tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and swearing in a fragile, diverse coalition that has promised to break the country's political gridlock.

The change came by the slimmest of margins, with 60 votes in favor and 59 opposed in Israel's 120-member Knesset. One member abstained.

Far-right politician Naftali Bennett, who once worked for Netanyahu, becomes Israel's new prime minister for two years in a coalition agreement that includes eight separate parties and is led by Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid.

Lapid will serve as foreign minister and become prime minister after Bennett's two-year stint.

"It really is the end of an era," said Ihan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

The remarkable vote came amid heightened tensions, daily protests and threats of violence against those seeking Netanyahu's ouster. On Sunday, the incoming prime minister was heckled throughout his opening speech, prompting security to remove several far-right and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers aligned with Netanyahu from the plenum hall.

In his speech, Bennett focused mostly on domestic issues, such as repairing Israel's economy.

“We will forge forward on that which we agree, and there is much we agree on, transport, education and so on, and what separates us we will leave to the side,” Bennett said. He also promised a “new page” in relations with Israel’s Arab sector.

Israel’s Arab citizens make up about 20% of the population but have suffered from discrimination, poverty and lack of opportunities. Netanyahu has often tried portray Arab politicians as terrorist sympathizers, though he also courted the same Arab party in a failed effort to remain in power after March 23 elections.

Bennett highlighted one possible flashpoint with the United States, embracing the same hardline Netanyahu took against the Iran nuclear agreement, which the Biden administration is trying to revive. Bennett said its renewal would be a mistake.

“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to maintain Netanyahu's confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

But Bennett also promised to take a less partisan approach to relations with the U.S., after years in which Netanyahu aligned himself closely with Republicans in Washington.

“My government will make an effort to deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties -- bipartisan,” Bennett said. “If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust and mutual respect.”

President Joe Biden, who has known Netanyahu for decades, said he welcomed the new government and looked forward to working with Bennett. The two men spoke by phone after Sunday's results.

"The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran," the White House said in a readout of the call. "The president also conveyed that his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians."

Learn more: Who is Naftali Bennet, Israel’s next prime minister if Benjamin Netanyahu is ousted?

Netanyahu's future

Sunday's vote relegates Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister who is sometimes known as "King Bibi," to an opposition figure and increases his legal jeopardy as he battles corruption charges in an ongoing criminal trial. He has labeled the charges a "witch hunt" and tried to use the prime minister's office to win legal immunity from the Knesset.

In his speech to parliament, Netanyahu vowed to remain the leader of his conservative Likud party and work to derail the new coalition government, which would force a new election and possibly return him to power.

"If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” he said. He said he would “continue the great mission of my life: ensuring the security of Israel.”

The coalition is an odd-bedfellows alliance that includes right-wing factions, center-left parties and, for the first time in Israeli politics, an Arab party.

"It is a watershed moment," said Osamah Khalil, a historian of U.S. foreign relations and the modern Middle East at Syracuse University. It may be a "Nixon goes to China" pivot in Israeli politics – making it easier for future Israeli politicians to join forces with Arab parties after the hard-line Bennett took that first step, he added.

Netanyahu's allies said they would stand firmly behind him.

"We are now entering a new era of being a strong and militant opposition," the outgoing minister of community affairs from Likud, Tzachi Hanegbi, told USA TODAY in the Knesset. "Fortunately, we (Likud) have good experience with coming back from the opposition."

The new government "isn't very harmonious," he said, and may be vulnerable to collapse, though not imminently.

"We already see a time bomb that, when it explodes, will lead to new elections," Hanegbi said.

Turning the page from political 'crisis'?

Bennett and Lapid have agreed not to pursue contentious policies that divide them, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to instead focus on domestic matters.

“The government will work for all the Israeli public – religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, Arab – without exception, as one,” Bennett said Friday. “We will work together, out of partnership and national responsibility, and I believe we will succeed.”

The incoming minister of environment, Tamar Zandberg, told USA TODAY at the Knesset that the new ruling coalition would turn a corner from Netanyahu's divisive rule.

“We have seen two years of crisis – democratic crisis, constitutional crisis – with corruption, with hatred, violence in the streets, and we believe we can only try to do better," Zandberg said. She said it was hard to predict how long the coalition would last, but felt its members had a "good spirit" binding them together for now.

The head of the Islamist party in the coalition said his faction would work to advance the interests of Israel's Palestinian citizens.

Mansour Abbas said Sunday that his Raam party was making great sacrifices for the sake of his constituents and will try “to advance a dialogue that will bring about better, new, principled relations for all citizens of the state: Jews and Arabs.”

Raam is the first Arab party to join an Israeli government, and Abbas said the partnership in the new government “will also bridge the gaps on the national level and the religious level.”

Now what? What it means for Biden and the U.S.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Netanyahu out, Bennett in: Israel's Knesset elects new government

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