Israel Gets New Government to End Netanyahu’s 12-Year Rule

Israel Gets New Government to End Netanyahu’s 12-Year Rule

Naftali Bennett’s eight-party coalition wins confidence vote in parliament

A new Israeli coalition government led by commando-turned-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run in power, but now faces the difficult tasks of reviving an economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and preserving a fragile cease-fire with Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Mr. Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party took over as prime minister Sunday after his new, wide-ranging coalition was backed by 60 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, ending months of stalemate. Fifty-nine lawmakers voted against his coalition and one abstained.

Mr. Bennett, 49, is taking power at a delicate moment in Israel’s history. Four inconclusive elections since 2019 have left the country deeply polarized, and Mr. Bennett and his allies must mend those rifts while confronting a swath of divisive issues, ranging from the construction of new settlements and empowering the country’s Arab citizens to state assistance for ultra-Orthodox Jews, if he is to keep his alliance intact.

“We will work together…to mend the rift in the nation and immediately get the country functioning normally again after a long period of paralysis,” Mr. Bennett said after the vote.

Mr. Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for more than a decade, driving the country’s security, diplomatic and economic policies. In recent years he made Iran the country’s top security priority and forged normalization deals with several Arab and Muslim states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He also halted peace negotiations with the Palestinians and helped to foster a world-class tech sector at home. After Sunday’s vote in Parliament, he vowed to quickly return as Israel’s leader.

The new government faces some immediate challenges. It is under pressure to boost the economy after several lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid-19, while also negotiating a longer-term truce with Hamas after the two sides fought a deadly 11-day conflict in May.

Israel’s economy contracted by 6.5% on an annualized basis the first quarter from the previous quarter, though the central bank predicts that it will expand by more than 6% over the entire year. There are several bright spots, including the country’s rapid Covid vaccination program and a flourishing tech industry. But other areas, notably tourism, are struggling and unemployment is still nearly three times the 3.4% level it was at before the pandemic.

To help pick up the pace of growth, the new government aims to bring more ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens into the economy through increased spending on education and job training, and intends to make large investments in infrastructure.

The new government also inherits a number of foreign policy challenges. Israel is engaged in a complex battle with Iran’s military proxies in Syria and elsewhere in the region and is also trying to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The government will also face an unstable and combustible period in Palestinian politics, as well as a softening of bipartisan support in Washington. Mr. Bennett has said his government will work to “shrink” its conflict with the Palestinians, rather than seek a final resolution.

Mr. Bennett and his partners, notably Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, pieced together a coalition from across the political spectrum, including an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history, after Mr. Netanyahu failed to form a government following the most recent vote in March.

Before the confidence vote that enabled his government to take office, Mr. Bennett asked those celebrating the end of Mr. Netanyahu’s premiership not to “dance on the pain of others.”

“We are not enemies; we are one people,” he said.

But in Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv, thousands danced and cheered as soon as the new coalition won the confidence vote. Videos from the scene showed many were wearing paraphernalia from more than two years of protests demanding Mr. Netanyahu leave office because of corruption allegations against him.

A small group gathered around Mr. Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem to show support for him.

U.S. President Biden in a statement congratulated Mr. Bennett and said his 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.”

Mr. Bennett replied quickly in a tweet, saying he looks forward to working with Mr. Biden “to strengthen the ties between our two nations.”

The two leaders subsequently spoke by telephone, with the White House saying Mr. Biden had expressed his intent to deepen cooperation between the two countries, and that they had agreed to consult closely on security matters, including the issue of Iran.

Mr. Bennett earlier said he would continue Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition to the U.S.’s return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which seeks to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.

While Israel’s new leader spoke of working with the Biden administration, the outgoing premier, Mr. Netanyahu, said what really mattered was knowing when to rebuff Washington. He said Mr. Bennett wasn’t strong enough to oppose Washington’s efforts to rejoin the Iran deal or stand up to demands to freeze settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

“The prime minister of Israel must be able to say no to the president of the United States in issues that threaten our existence,” Mr. Netanyahu said from the Knesset floor.

Mr. Netanyahu vowed to fight on as opposition leader to quickly topple the new government and return to power.

“With God’s help, it will be much sooner than you think,” Mr. Netanyahu told his fellow lawmakers, some of whom broke out in applause.

Indeed, the breadth of the tasks facing Mr. Bennett’s government and the difficulty of keeping his coalition intact are considerable.

“The main challenge will be to hold on,” said Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is the most heterogeneous government in the history of Israel.”

The disparate parties in the coalition are united in their opposition to Mr. Netanyahu. They accuse Israel’s longest-serving prime minister of putting his personal interests before the country. Mr. Netanyahu is currently battling corruption charges in court. He denies any wrongdoing.

The different parties have deep ideological differences, though, making for a potentially unwieldy alliance. They have said they wouldn’t try to solve major pre-existing issues and instead focus on improving the everyday lives of Israeli citizens.

The new coalition published Friday the terms of its agreements, which show it would focus primarily on rejuvenating the country’s ailing health, transportation and education systems and bringing down the cost of living. The eight parties also agreed to pass a law limiting prime ministers to two terms or eight years. It isn’t clear yet if the legislation would be retroactive, and whether it would prevent Mr. Netanyahu from running again for the office.

Mr. Bennett’s party controls seven seats in the Knesset compared with Mr. Lapid’s 17. But right-wing Jewish Israelis who previously supported Mr. Netanyahu’s governments might find him a more politically palatable candidate as prime minister. Born in Haifa to American parents, Mr. Bennett served as a commando in Israel’s military and later co-founded an antifraud software firm, making millions of dollars when it was sold.

He first entered the Knesset in 2013 and has served as a defense and education minister, in addition to a stint as one of Mr. Netanyahu’s aides.

Mr. Bennett isn’t necessarily the dominant figure in the new coalition. Mr. Lapid of Yesh Atid received the mandate to form a government last month after Mr. Netanyahu failed to do so, and then agreed to a deal with Mr. Bennett in which the latter would serve as prime minister for two years, followed by Mr. Lapid.

The coalition also divides power equally among the right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties, giving each bloc a veto. Additionally, Messrs. Bennett and Lapid won’t be able to fire ministers from each other’s blocs.

The new coalition includes two other right-wing parties, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu, as well as the left-wing Labor and Meretz, the centrist Blue and White and the Islamist party Ra’am.

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