After a record 12 years under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel enters a new era by voting in a motley coalition united by animosity towards "Bibi" and installing his one-time protege as PM.

Party leaders of the proposed new coalition government pose for a picture at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem June 13, 2021.
Party leaders of the proposed new coalition government pose for a picture at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem June 13, 2021. (Reuters)

Israel's Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, has secured enough votes in the Knesset to take over as the country's new prime minister.

After a record 12 years under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel entered a new era on Sunday, voting in a motley coalition united by animosity towards "Bibi" and installing his one-time protege Naftali Bennett as prime minister.

Sixty members of the Knesset voted in favour of the ideologically divided alliance and 59 against, with one abstention.

Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years, after which coalition architect, centrist Yair Lapid, is set to take over.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government.

If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.

The country's deep divisions were on vivid display as Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.

READ MORE: Israel's Bennet and Lapid reach coalition deal to oust Netanyahu

Bennett's speech mostly dwelled 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 maintain Netanyahu's confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the US for its decades of support for Israel.

Netanyahu, speaking after him, vowed to return to power. He predicted the incoming government would be weak on 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 topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” he said.

READ MORE: Arab party in a coalition with Israel's far-right isn't making history

Return to normalcy?

The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day military blitz on Gaza last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.

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

He called off a planned speech to parliament, instead saying he was ashamed that his 86-year-old mother had to witness the raucous behaviour of his opponents. In a brief speech, he asked for "forgiveness from my mother.”

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

Bye, bye Bibi

On the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice, the telegenic Netanyahu has become the face of Israel. Serving in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and since 2009 winning four more terms in succession, he has been a polarising figure, both abroad and at home.

Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his 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.

Celebrations by his opponents to mark the end of the Netanyahu era began late on Saturday outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year, where a black banner stretched across a wall read: "Bye Bye, Bibi, Bye bye". 

Demonstrators sang, beat drums and danced.

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 Israel 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 clinched 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 Israel's world-beating inoculation campaign, were enough to grant Netanyahu's Likud party enough votes to secure him a sixth term in office.

Bennett has drawn anger from within the right-wing camp for breaking a campaign pledge by joining forces with Lapid. He has countered that another election - a likely outcome if no government were formed - would have been a disaster for Israel.

"This is a sad morning, because of the theft of votes and the fact Israel is getting a government based on one thing - a lie," Ofir Akunis, an outgoing minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, told Army Radio.

Both Bennett and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.

Their cabinet faces huge foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinians in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and economic recovery following the pandemic.

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.

READ MORE: A Post-Netanyahu Israel is unlikely to bring respite for Palestinians

Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by PM Bennett.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

"This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital."

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas spokesperson

"Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back."

US President Joe Biden

"On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations."

Benny Gantz, Israeli Defence Minister

"With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel's security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man."

Chuck Schumer, US Senate majority leader

"So, there's a new administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace."

Mansour Abbas, Arab member of new Israeli government

"We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government."

Sebastian Kurz, Chancellor of Austria

"Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel's side."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel 

"Germany and Israel are connected by a unique friendship that we want to strengthen further. With this in mind, I look forward to working closely with you [PM Naftali Bennett]".

Source: TRTWorld and agencies