Israel gets new PM Naftali Bennett as Benjamin Netanyahu era ends

Joseph KraussAAP
VideoNaftali Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu turned rival, became prime minister after a 60-59 vote

Israel’s parliament has narrowly approved a new coalition government, ending the historic 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Naftali Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu turned rival, became prime minister after the 60-59 vote on Sunday.

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 had 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.

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Naftali Bennett
Camera IconIsrael's new prime minister Naftali Bennett (R) has been sworn in, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: AP

The vote, capping a stormy parliamentary session, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis in which the country held four deadlocked elections.

Those votes focused largely on Netanyahu’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 gathered in central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate.

Joe Biden
Camera IconUS President Joe Biden says there was 'genuine enthusiasm' for his engagement at the G7 summit. Credit: AP

US President Joe Biden quickly congratulated the new government.

“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 G7 meeting in England wrapped up.

He said his administration was fully committed to working with the new government “to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region”.

“Thank you Mr. President! I look forward to working with you to strengthen the ties between our two nations,” Bennett responed on Twitter.

Bennett, 49, is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu whose small party is popular with religious Jews and West Bank settlers.

As he addressed the raucous debate, he was repeatedly heckled and shouted down by Netanyahu’s supporters accusing him of betrayal.

Naftali Bennett
Camera IconNaftali Bennett is set to end Netanyahu's 12-year run as Israeli prime minister. Credit: EPA

Bennett, a millionaire former high-tech entrepreneur, faces a tough test maintaining an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and centre.

The new leader, who like Netanyahu opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, made little mention of the Palestinians beyond threatening a tough response to violence.

He also vowed, like Netanyahu, to oppose US-led efforts to restore the international nuclear accord with Iran.

“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” he said. “Israel is not party to the agreement and will maintain full freedom to act.”

But he also thanked Biden for his support of Israel.

The driving force behind the Israeli coalition is centrist Yair Lapid, a former TV host who will become prime minister in two years in a rotation agreement with Bennett, if the government lasts.

Netanyahu’s place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years - more than any other, including the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

But his reputation as a political magician has faded, particularly since he was indicted in 2019 for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.

He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup.

Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies calling on him to resign.

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