Israel swears in new government, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year rule

Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure as Israeli prime minister has come to an end, as the country’s parliament on Sunday approved a new coalition government led by right-wing nationalist Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, the head of an ultranationalist party that controls six seats in the 120-seat Knesset, was sworn in as prime minister after the parliament backed the new coalition government by a razor-thin margin of 60 votes to 59.

Bennett will lead an unlikely alliance of left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties, as well as a party that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel, who account for 21 percent of the country’s population. The parties have little in common apart from a desire to unseat Netanyahu.

Under a rotational agreement, Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years, after which he will be replaced by centrist leader Yair Lapid, the chief architect of the new government.

They plan largely to avoid sweeping moves on issues such as policy towards Palestinians in the occupied territories while they focus on domestic reforms. But with little to no prospect of resuming any sort of fair peace negotiations, many Palestinians are unmoved by the change of administration, saying Bennett will likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.

End of an era

Netanyahu, who served for 12 years as prime minister, sat silently during the vote on Sunday. After the new government was approved, he stood up to leave the chamber, before turning around and shaking Bennett’s hand. A dejected Netanyahu, wearing a black medical mask, then briefly sat in the opposition leader’s chair before walking out.

Netanyahu, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, failed to form a government after Israel’s March 23 election, its fourth in two years.

He remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving Netanyahu an opening to return to power.

His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhanded political tactics and subjection of state interests to his political survival.

The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display earlier on Sunday as Bennett, a former settler leader and hard-right religious nationalist who has called for the annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, addressed parliament ahead of the vote.

He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.

More anti-Iran rhetoric

Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to efforts by the United States to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

“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.”

Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the US for its decades of support for Israel.

Netanyahu, speaking after him, promised to return to power and predicted the incoming government would be weak on Iran and give in to US demands to make concessions to the Palestinians.

“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.

Both Netanyahu and Bennett’s remarks did not mention the plight of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.

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