Knesset approves new coalition in Israel, ending long Netanyahu rule

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

Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned staunch rival, becomes prime minister, presiding over a diverse and fragile coalition made up of eight parties with deep ideological differences. Netanyahu remains the head of the Likud party and will serve as the leader of the opposition.

Sunday’s vote, passed by a 60-59 margin, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis in which the country held four elections.

THIS IS A LAST MINUTE UPDATE. The previous AP story follows below.

JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel is set to swear in a new government Sunday that will send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.

Naftali Bennett, leader of a small ultranationalist party, will take over as prime minister. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of political parties of the right, left and center.

All eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by being part of the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and the new elections, but do not agree on anything else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the United States without launching any major initiatives.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to strongly oppose the new government. If only one faction escapes, it could lose its majority and risk collapse, giving it a chance to return to power.

The deep divisions of the country were vividly displayed as Bennett addressed parliament before the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and booed loudly by Netanyahu supporters, several of whom were escorted off-camera.

Bennett’s speech focused primarily on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to US efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to uphold Netanyahu’s confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

However, Bennett thanked President Joe Biden and the United States for their decades of support for Israel.

Netanyahu, speaking after him, promised to return to power. He predicted that the incoming government would be weak towards 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 overthrow this dangerous government and lead the country back on our way,” he said.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.

“Although he has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said. Each part of the coalition will want to show that they can deliver, and for that they need “time and achievements.”

Still, Netanyahu “will continue to cast a shadow,” Plesner said. He hopes the incoming opposition leader will take advantage of the events and propose legislation that members of the right-wing coalition would like to support but cannot, all to shame and undermine them.

Meanwhile, the new government promises a return to normalcy after two tumultuous years of four elections, an 11-day war in Gaza last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was brought under control in Gaza. largely for a successful vaccination campaign.

The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a centrist politician who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.

He canceled a planned speech in parliament, instead saying he was embarrassed that his 86-year-old mother had to witness the strident behavior of her opponents. In a short speech, he asked for “my mother’s forgiveness.”

“I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead, she, along with all the citizens of Israel, is ashamed of you and clearly remembers why it is time to replace you,” he said.

The new government is expected to win a narrow majority in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later tonight.

It is unclear whether Netanyahu will move out of the official residence. He attacked the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a stalwart of the right and then associating with the left.

Netanyahu supporters have staged angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their relatives. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.

Netanyahu has condemned the incitement and noted that he, too, has been a target.

His place in Israel’s history is secure, having been prime minister for a total of 15 years, longer than anyone else, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu began his long term in defiance of the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction while unsuccessfully trying to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally became even more unstable when Netanyahu campaigned vigorously against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in a speech to the US Congress.

But he suffered little or no consequences from those clashes and was amply rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped negotiate normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the United States from the Iran deal.

Netanyahu has presented himself as a world-class statesman, showing off his close ties to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that have long rejected Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians.

But it has had a much colder reception from the Biden administration and is seen to have undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide and rule strategy that exacerbated divisions in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.

In November 2019, he was charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He rejected calls to resign and instead lashed out at the media, the judiciary, and law enforcement, even going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating a coup attempt. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country asking him to resign.

Netanyahu remains popular with hardline nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would have a good chance of forming a coalition that is further to the right and more stable than the government that is about to be sworn in.