Israel votes in new government amid parliament chaos, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year rule

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
ABIR SULTAN | AFP | Getty Images

Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, approved its new government on Sunday — and a new prime minister for the first time in 12 years — in a razor-thin 60-59 vote.

The vote, ringing in the leadership of a very diverse and cobbled-together coalition of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties , ousted Israel’s longest-serving leader Benjamin Netanyahu. It also spared Israel from the prospect of a fifth election in less than two years.

Now, after putting up a fight and trying several political options to remain in power , Netanyahu will move aside and Israeli tech millionaire and lawmaker Naftali Bennett, who many describe as more right-wing than his predecessor, will take the premiership.

Sunday’s Knesset vote was marred by chaos and jeering, as some right-wing lawmakers including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party hurled insults at Bennett, calling him a “traitor” and a “liar” for allying with leftist and Arab parties. At least four politicians were kicked out of the session by the speaker, Yariv Levin.

Bennett, formerly an aide to Netanyahu, continued his pre-vote speech amid the heckling, praising Netanyahu as having “worked hard and faithfully for the state of Israel.” But he also pressed on the need for new leadership.

“We stopped the train before the abyss,” Mr. Bennett said. “The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the people, to stop, to stop this madness.”

In a statement, U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett and other leaders of the new government and cabinet.

“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations. Israel has no better friend than the United States.  The bond that unites our people is evidence of our shared values and decades of close cooperation and as we continue to strengthen our partnership, the United States remains unwavering in its support for Israel’s security.”

The right-wing 71-year-old’s leadership, in its 12th year, has been a lightning rod and a longtime dividing line in Israeli society. One Israel expert told CNBC that the country’s last election in March — its fourth in less than two years due to the complex and polarized nature of Israeli politics — really came down to whether the country wanted “Bibi or no Bibi,” using the outgoing prime minister’s popular nickname.

Addressing the Knesset in English, acknowledging his party’s shift into the opposition, Netanyahu said: “We’ll be back soon.”

“If we have to be in opposition, we will do this standing tall — until we bring down this dangerous government and return to lead the state,” he said in a defiant address, saying that he spoke for millions of Israelis who voted for him.

A combination of file photos shows Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in Jerusalem May 14, 2018 and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid delivering a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2021.
Ammar Awad; Amir Cohen | Reuters

He also slammed legislation proposed by the new government that would limit a prime minister’s term to eight years, four years less than his reign.

Netanyahu himself is facing several charges of corruption, which he denies. He had been examining ways to avoid prosecution, which would have been much easier had he remained in power. Meanwhile, he can still remain the leader of the Likud party.

The outgoing prime minister drew international criticism and attention for his heavy-handed military action against Gaza in May, during which Israeli airstrikes killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, in response to rocket volleys from Hamas that killed 12 in Israel over the course of the fighting.

The new coalition now taking power has been led by the centrist lawmaker Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor and one-time finance minister and head of the Yesh Atid party, and his unlikely governing partner Naftali Bennett, who leads the minority party Yamina.

It’s highly unusual for the leader of a minority party to become prime minister, but that’s what was necessary for Bennett to join Lapid’s coalition — and his alliance with Lapid was the only way the coalition would gain enough party seats in the Knesset to have a majority.

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So the arrangement for Lapid and Bennett rests on the agreement that Bennett becomes prime minister, with the centrist Lapid as foreign minister, until 2023. At that point, if the alliance of parties survives, Lapid will take over the premiership.

It’s also the first time in Israeli history that its government includes an Arab party, which will aim to represent the country’s 21% Arab minority.

The government is expected to focus on social and economic issues that are more likely to foster consensus among its varied members than divisive ones like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian statehood.

But serious challenges lie ahead. The fragile coalition between Lapid and Bennett, and the parties whose support they had to secure to achieve the magic number of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset is a risk to itself, analysts say. The only thing seemingly holding it together is a common desire to unseat Netanyahu. But because of its incredibly slim majority of 61 seats in the 120-person parliament, all it would take is one defection for the government to collapse.

And given the sometimes extreme divergence in views among the parties within it, particularly between Israel’s right-wing and Islamist politicians, this risk of gridlock and collapse remains a constant threat.

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