Israel’s parliament on Sunday narrowly approved a new coalition government, ending the historic 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sending the polarising leader into the opposition.
Naftali Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu turned rival, became prime minister after the 60-59 vote. Promising to try to heal a divided nation, Bennett will preside over a diverse and fragile coalition comprised of eight parties with deep ideological differences.
But the 71-year-old Netanyahu made clear he has no intention of exiting the political stage. “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,” he said.
The vote, capping a stormy parliamentary session, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis in which the country held four deadlocked elections. Those votesfocusedlargelyonNetanyahu’s divisive rule and his fitness to remain in office while on trial for corruption charges.
To his supporters, Netanyahu is a global statesman uniquely capable of leading the country through its many security challenges.
But to his critics, he has become a polarising and autocratic leader who used divide-and-rule tactics to aggravate the many rifts in Israeli society. Those include tensions between Jews and Arabs, and within the Jewish majority between his religious and nationalist base and his more secular and dovish opponents.
Outside the Knesset, hundreds of protesters watching the vote on a large screen erupted into applause when the new government was approved. Thousands of people, many waving Israeli flags, gathered in central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate.
“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations,” he said in a statement after a G-7 meeting in England wrapped up. He said his administration is fullycommittedtoworkingwith thenewgovernment“toadvance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, andpeople throughoutthebroaderregion.”
Bennetttweeted:“Thankyou Mr. President! I look forward to working with you to strengthen the ties between our two nations.”
Muchof theoppositiontoNetanyahu was personal. Three of the eight parties in the new government, including Bennett’s Yamina, are headed by former Netanyahu allies who share his hardline ideology but had deep personal disputes with him.
Bennett, 49, is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu whose small party is popular with religious Jews and West Bank settlers. Asheaddressedtheraucous debate, he was repeatedly heckled and shouted down by Netanyahu’s supporters. Some wereremovedfromthechamber.
Bennett, an observant Jew, noted that the ancient Jewish peopletwicelosttheirhomeland in biblical times due to bitter infighting.
“Thistime, atthedecisivemoment, wehavetakenresponsibility,” he said. “To continue on in this way — more elections, more hatred, more vitriolic posts on Facebook — is just not an option. Therefore we stopped the train, a moment before it barreled into the abyss.”
The new Cabinet met briefly, and Bennett recited a prayer for new beginnings and said it was time to mend rifts. “Citizens of Israel are all looking to us now, and the burden of proof is upon us,” he said.
Bennett, amillionaireformer high-tech entrepreneur, faces a tough test maintaining an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.
The coalition, including a small Islamist faction that is making history as the first Arab party to sit in a coalition, agree on little beyond their opposition to Netanyahu. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks tor educe tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the U.S. without launching any major initiatives.