JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, famous for his ability to maneuver out of the tightest political binds, was unseated Sunday after 12 straight years in power by a brittle governing alliance whose ability to end years of political chaos will be challenged by stark internal divisions.
The two-headed government approved by parliament on Sunday coalesced around a desire to remove Netanyahu, the main defendant in a tangled corruption trial, from office. Religious Jewish nationalist Naftali Bennett, 49, a former Netanyahu ally who opposes Palestinian statehood and the Iran nuclear deal, will serve until August 2023. He’ll be replaced by centrist Yair Lapid, who was the main architect of this unlikely coalition and will lead the country through November 2025.
“This is the hour that the burden of leading the nation and the country passes, as in a relay race, to the next generation,” Bennett, a high-tech millionaire, said in a speech to parliament before the vote over the unrelenting heckling of Netanyahu allies in the plenum. Bennett, whose politics are further to the right than Netanyahu’s, has drawn the ire of nationalists for hooking up in government with leftist and Arab parties.
The new coalition will govern with the slimmest majorities — commanding 61 of parliament’s 120 seats — and runs the gamut of Israeli politics: secular and religious factions, hawks and doves, free marketeers and social democrats, and an Arab party for the first time in Israeli history. Survival could prove a challenge, given the conflicting ideologies. At the same time, the coalition’s raison d’etre — ousting Netanyahu — might prove to be the glue that holds it together to block any comeback bid he might make.
Netanyahu signaled such an intent in a speech to parliament before its vote of confidence in the new government.
“If we’re destined to be in the opposition, we will do it with our heads held high until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” he said.
“We’ll be back — soon,” he added in his American-accented English, cultivated during studies in the U.S.
Minutes after the vote, President Joe Biden — who’s had frostier relations with Netanyahu than predecessor Donald Trump did — congratulated Bennett and Lapid on the formation of a new government.
“My 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,” Biden said in a statement.
After four elections in two years and one short-lived and dysfunctional government, the disparate new coalition plans to focus on issues where common ground can be staked out. It’s set a target to approve a national budget — last done in 2018 — within 145 days, with a focus on reducing inequality, boosting employment in the nation’s booming tech sector, and bolstering policing in Arab areas suffering from higher levels of crime.
It has also pledged to immediately pursue a term-limit law to ensure that another run like Netanyahu’s never happens again. In all, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister governed for 15 years, including a three-year stint in the late 1990s.
Finding agreement on diplomatic and security issues, however, will be difficult given the breadth of political thought housed in a coalition with such a razor-thin majority. And some pressing regional issues may prove destabilizing. The U.S. is calling for reconstruction in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, pummeled by Israel in an 11-day conflict last month. Another impending test will be world powers’ efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
Palestinians were not encouraged by the changing of the guard. “Bennett’s government is built on occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid like Netanyahu’s government,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Netanyahu, 71, finds himself outside the halls of the power after former nationalist allies turned against him following more than two years of political turmoil closely linked to his legal woes. A world-lauded coronavirus vaccination drive couldn’t save him. Neither could diplomatic deals with four mostly Muslim states in the Persian Gulf and Africa, or close ties with Trump that yielded gifts including U.S. recognition of contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
As the installation of the new government looked increasingly likely, Netanyahu and his allies portrayed it as a menace to the country as they unsuccessfully tried to peel off defectors. Political discourse on social media grew more violent, prompting Israel’s internal security chief to take the rare step of warning against possibly harmful actions. Media reported that security details accompanying Bennett and his closest political ally were stepped up.
Netanyahu, commonly known as Bibi, holds a world view shaped by the history of Jewish persecution. His older brother, Yonatan, was killed leading the 1976 rescue of Israeli and Jewish hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe airport, and he’s described this personal loss as formative to his determination to combat terrorism.
Throughout his career, which included a stint as ambassador to the United Nations, Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s need to be strong to protect itself from regional enemies. This won him fierce loyalty from supporters who saw him as a guardian of Israel’s security but at times led to conflict with domestic opponents and world leaders who wanted him to do more to end Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and deplored his efforts to undermine the nuclear accord with Iran.
He also left a major stamp on the Israeli economy, turning it away from the centralized, state-dominated system established by Israel’s socialist founders toward a more liberalized, market-oriented Western model. Critics lashed out at him for dismantling the welfare state.
Given the vulnerability of the new government, Netanyahu’s fall from power may be just an interlude. With this government possibly one crisis away from crumbling, he’s still the country’s most recognizable politician — and he possesses an especially strong incentive to reclaim his old job. A return to power gives him the chance to suspend his trial by passing legislation shielding a sitting leader from prosecution.
He’s accused of illicitly accepting gifts from billionaire friends and trying to win sympathetic press coverage by shaping regulation to benefit media moguls — charges he denies.
Ultimately, the fate of any comeback could depend on whether allies see Netanyahu as impeding the right wing’s return to power, said Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“That would be his end,” Rahat said.