Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power as Israel’s prime minister ended on Sunday with parliament approving a new government of change.
led by nationalist Naftali Bennett, an improbable scenario few Israelis once could have imagined. He will lead an unprecedented coalition of parties which was approved with a razor-thin majority of 60-59.
Mr Bennett will be prime minister until September 2023 as part of a power-sharing deal. Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host.
Meanwhile, In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result, after four inconclusive elections in two years.
U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett and Lapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries.
“My administration is fully committed to working with the new Israeli government to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region,” Biden said in a statement.
However, representatives of the Palestinians have reacted dismissively to Israel’s new government.
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital,” a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said.
“It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back,” said a spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.
“I am here celebrating the end of an era in Israel,” said Erez Biezuner in Rabin Square. “We want them to succeed and to unite us again,” he added, as flag-waving supporters of the new government sang and danced around him.
After the vote, Mr Netanyahu walked over to Mr Bennett and shook his hand.
Though still combative, Netanyahu 71, 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 hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians and to focus instead on domestic reforms.
Bennett thanked the former prime minister for his “lengthy and achievement-filled service.”
But little love has been lost between the two men, Bennett 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.
Netanyahu – widely known as ‘Bibi’ – was Israel’s longest-serving leader, serving as prime minister since 2009 after a first term from 1996 to 1999.
The most 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.
But he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory, and by an ongoing corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.
His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhanded political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival.
He hoped to prevail on the back of Israel’s world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout but was dogged by opponents who called him “Crime Minister” and accused him of earlier mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
What will the new government be like?
In appearance, Mr Bennett’s government will be unlike any which has preceded it in Israel’s 73-year history.
The alliance contains parties that have vast ideological differences, and perhaps most significantly includes the first independent Arab party to be part of a potential ruling coalition, Raam. It is also expected to have a record number of nine female ministers.
The inclusion of Raam and left-wing non-Arab Israeli parties means there could be friction on issues such as Israeli policies towards Palestinians – Yamina and another right-wing party, New Hope, are staunch supporters of Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for instance.
There could also be difficulties over social policies – while some parties want to advance gay rights, such as recognising same-sex marriages, Raam, an Islamist party, is against this.
In addition, some parties want to relax religious restrictions more extensively than Yamina – a national-religious party – will likely allow.
Mr Bennett has indicated his government would focus on areas where an agreement was possible, like economic issues or the coronavirus pandemic, while avoiding more contentious matters.
“Nobody will have to give up their ideology,” he recently said, “but all will have to postpone the realisation of some of their dreams… We’ll focus on what can be achieved, rather than arguing about what cannot.”
But the new Cabinet, which met for the first time late on Sunday, faces huge foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian militants in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and post-pandemic economic recovery.
Bennett listed as priorities reforms in education, health, cutting red tape to grow businesses and lower housing costs. Coalition leaders have said it would pass a two-year budget to help stabilise the country’s finances.
Addressing parliament, Bennett echoed Netanyahu’s call for the United States not to return to the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers, a deal abrogated by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
Thanking Biden for his “years of commitment to Israel’s security”, and for “standing by Israel” during fighting with Hamas’s militants in Gaza last month, Bennett said his government would pursue good relations with U.S. Democrats and Republicans alike.
Both Bennett and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis.