Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power is set to end on Sunday when the parliament votes on a new government, ushering in an administration that has pledged to heal a nation bitterly divided over the departure of the country’s longest-serving leader.
Netanyahu, 71, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, failed to form a government after Israel’s March 23 election, its fourth in two years.
The new cabinet, which will be sworn in after a Knesset confidence vote it is expected to win, was cobbled together by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire, will serve as prime minister for two years before Lapid, a former popular TV host, takes over.
They will head a government that comprises parties from across the political spectrum, including for the first time one that represents the 21-percent minority comprising Palestinian citizens of Israel. They plan largely to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy towards the Palestinians while they focus on domestic reforms.
With little to no prospect of progress towards resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel, many Palestinians will be unmoved by the change of administration, saying Bennett will likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
Sunday’s crucial Knesset session began at 4pm local time (13:00 GMT).
In a speech interrupted by raucous boos, Bennett promised the new government would “represent all of Israel”.
He said the country, after the series of inconclusive elections, had been thrown “into a maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting”.
“The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the population, to stop, to stop this madness,” he said to angry shouts of “liar” and “criminal” from right-wing opponents.
Netanyahu, true to his reputation as Israel’s “Mr Security”, charged that “Iran is celebrating” the prospect of what he labelled a “dangerous” and weak left-wing government.
Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his era began late on Saturday outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests against the right-wing leader for the past year, where a black banner stretched across a wall read: “Bye-bye, Bibi, Bye-bye,” and demonstrators sang, beat drums and danced.
“For us, this is a big night and tomorrow will be even a bigger day. I am almost crying. We fought peacefully for this (Netanyahu’s departure) and the day has come,” said protester Ofir Robinski.
“We are celebrating a year of civil fights,” said Maya Arieli, a protester from Petach Tikva in central Israel. “Everybody told us that it won’t work. But, tomorrow a new government is going to be in Israel finally, and it proves that the civil fight works.”
Netanyahu, who served his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, won four more terms in succession from 2009 onwards. The face of Israel on the international stage, he has been a polarising figure, both abroad and at home.
Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his hard-core supporters and loathed by critics. His ongoing corruption trial, on charges he denies, has only deepened the chasm.
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. Some have dubbed him “Crime Minister” and have accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
But for Netanyahu’s large and loyal voter base, the departure of “King Bibi” as some call him, may be difficult to accept. His supporters are angered by what they see as the country turning its back on a leader dedicated to its security and a bulwark against international pressure for any steps that could lead to a Palestinian state, even as he promoted diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
None of those moves, however, nor the role he played in securing COVID-19 vaccines for the country’s record inoculation campaign, were enough to give Netanyahu’s Likud party enough votes to secure him a sixth term in office.
‘The greatest fraud’?
Bennett has drawn anger from within the right-wing camp for breaking a campaign pledge by joining forces with Lapid.
Netanyahu has called the prospective coalition “the greatest election fraud in the history” of Israel, and his Likud party said the accusations refer to Bennett entering a coalition that “doesn’t reflect the will of the voters”.
Bennett justified the move by saying another election, which would likely be called were no government formed, would have been a disaster for Israel.
Both he and Lapid say they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.
Their cabinet faces considerable diplomatic, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian groups in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
On top of that, their patchwork coalition of parties commands only a razor-thin majority in parliament, 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and will still have to contend with Netanyahu – who is sure to be a combative head of the opposition.
And no one is ruling out a Netanyahu comeback.