An era has ended and another just begun in Israel, the historically volatile swathe of the Middle East.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s record 12-year run as the country’s Prime Minister ended on Sunday with the Knesset (parliament) approving a new “government of change”, helmed by the nationalist Naftali Bennett.
It is, even at the mildest estimation, an improbable scenario, of a kind that few Israelis could have imagined.
The fragility of the new arrangement is underscored by the waferthin 60-59 vote of confidence that the new coalition in Tel Aviv ~ of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties ~ secured. The parties have little in common save the singular objective to remove Netanyahu who has contested as many as four elections in the span of a little more than a year and is currently fighting corruption charges in court.
In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result.
A seemingly confident Netanyahu said he would be back sooner than expected.
“If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it,” he told parliament before Bennett was sworn in.
The new government largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on international issues, pre-eminently the policy towards the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms. Palestinians were by and large 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 Netanyahu.
Going by the terms of the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and hightech millionaire, will be replaced as Prime Minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, a popular former television host. With his far-right Yamina party winning only six of parliament’s 120 seats in the last election, Bennett’s ascension to the premiership has been described as a political jaw-dropper.
He had once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and had a rocky relationship with him as defence minister. Although they are both right-wingers, Bennett spurned Netanyahu’s call after the March 23 election to join him.
The response of the United States of America to the rather quirky change of guard is critical in the overall construct. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s change, President Biden has congratulated Bennett and Lapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries. Netanyahu ~ widely known as ‘Bibi’ ~ was Israel’s longest-serving leader, and was Prime Minister since 2009.
The dominant Israeli politician of his generation, he had become the face of Israel on the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice.
He used his global stature to resist calls for Palestinian statehood, describing it as a danger to Israel’s security. Instead, he sought to bypass the Palestinian issue by forging diplomatic deals with regional Arab states, on the back of shared fears of Iran.
For all that, he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory.