Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the Western world’s longest-serving leaders, has been ousted after failing to find a way to overcome the fragile government coalition united only by its desire to end his reign.
Mr. Netanyahu entered the Israeli parliament as prime minister on Sunday afternoon and left as Leader of the Opposition, a role that he may not be able to hang onto if he is convicted of corruption in a trial now underway in Jerusalem. His departure ends two full years of political paralysis that even prevented the parliament from passing a budget.
He had been prime minster for four terms since he was first elected in 1993 – continuously since 2009 – and dominated Israeli politics for a generation.
His replacement is ultranationalist Naftali Bennett, 49, a long-time ally turned foe – who, with the help of Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, banged together an unlikely coalition of eight parties that was highly unusual even by the typically madcap standards of Israeli governing alliances.
For the first time since Israel’s founding in 1948, the government includes an Islamist party – the United Arab List. And for one of the first times since the 1970s, it excludes any of the ultra-Orthodox parties that more often than not made Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party beholden to the far-right agenda on issues ranging from Palestinian statehood to conscription of Orthodox Jews into the military (neither happened).
The vote of confidence in the new government came at about 9 p.m. local time in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, after a series of sometimes bitter speeches from party leaders. The Change coalition, as it’s known, won the approval of 60 Knesset members, with 59 against, giving it a one-seat majority in the 120-seat chamber.
The defection of a single member of the ruling coalition would deprive Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid, who by agreement will replace Mr. Bennett as prime minister in two years, of their majority. Its collapse would trigger another election – there have been four since 2019, each inconclusive – theoretically giving Mr. Netanyahu, 71, a shot at redemption.
Unlike former U.S. president Donald Trump, his closest international ally, Mr. Netanyahu respected the vote and exited peacefully, though ungraciously. In his final Knesset speech, he said, “If we are destined to be in the opposition, we will do it with our heads held high until we bring down this dangerous government,” adding that Mr. Bennett had perpetrated the “greatest fraud in Israel’s history” by having initially ruled out a government with Mr. Lapid – only to reverse course.
Last week, Mr. Netanyahu accused his opponents of selling out to the left – in truth, most of the parties in the new government occupy the centre-right and far-right of the political spectrum, making it ideologically similar to the Likud-led coalition.
Mr. Netanyahu belied his image as the ultimate political magician by failing to find defectors in spite of putting enormous pressure on several Knesset members who he thought were wavering. A few members were even assigned extra security after receiving anonymous death threats.
Millions of Israelis, especially those in liberal-minded Tel Aviv, were glad to see Mr. Netanyahu go. On Saturday night, about 2,000 people gathered in front of his official residence on Jerusalem’s Smolenskin Street to chant “Bibi ciao, Bibi ciao, ciao, ciao” (or ”goodbye Bibi,” the veteran leader’s nickname), inspired by the Italian revolutionary song Bella Ciao.
Political commentators expect Mr. Netanyahu to cling to his position as Opposition Leader and Likud chairman for as long as he can, all the more since he is currently under trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust – charges he denies.
“Mr. Netanyahu wants to continue to appear as a defendant with as much political power and political clout [as possible], and even the potential to return one day to the prime minister’s office,” Yohanan Plesner, a former Knesset member who is president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, told media via Zoom on Sunday. “He believes this provides him with leverage vis-à-vis the judge and Attorney-General.”
Mr. Netanyahu had been trying to pass legislation that would make him, as a sitting prime minister, immune from prosecution. Now that he is out of government, he will have no extraordinary protection. Bribery convictions carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, and three years for fraud and breach of trust.
Mr. Netanyahu has been losing political and popular favour for several years, reflected in his inability to form a majority government since 2019. The stalemate hobbled the government as it tried to fight the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the security front, he appears to have misjudged Hamas’s fighting ability and popularity among Palestinians. But his hardline stance with the Palestinians, denying them statehood while allowing the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was broadly supported within Israel and more or less tolerated internationally.
In a comment piece published Sunday, the Haaretz newspaper said “He was the first to recognize the fatigue of world leaders, as well as that of Arab dictators, over the Palestinian issue…Netanyahu won in the international arena by reversing the diplomatic paradigm of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
But Mr. Netanyahu this year won points – and international kudos – for one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world.
Few political commentators think the Bennett-Lapid government will modify Mr. Netanyahu’s Palestinian policies in the short- to medium-term, or reverse his opposition of the Iranian nuclear deal. Tackling broad ideological and policy issues could prove divisive for the coalition, accelerating its demise.”In terms of security policy, I cannot see any deviation from the past,” Mr. Plesner said.
Instead the new government is expected to devote its early energies to passing a budget – it has 140 days to do so – shore up the economy and stabilize the country’s finances, which are coming under strain as the budget deficit rises.
Mr. Bennett has considerable government experience – in the last decade, he has been minister of the economy, religious services, diaspora affairs, education and defence in various Likud-led governments.
Mr. Bennett created the far-right New Right party – now the Yamina alliance – in 2018, breaking ranks with Mr. Netanyahu. The party opposes Palestinian statehood and advocates the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank – deemed illegal under international law – and annexing much of the region.
Mr. Bennett, a self-made tech millionaire, was born in Haifa in 1972 to American parents and lived briefly in San Francisco and Montreal in his youth. His political fortunes were on a rollercoaster ride in the last decade. At one point, he commanded a dozen seats in the Knesset but now has only six. Still, those six were enough to make him instrumental in putting Mr. Lapid’s much bigger party over the top, allowing it to create a governing coalition and rewarding him with the prime minister’s title.
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