Netanyahu era ends as Naftali Bennett sworn-in as Israel’s new PM

Israel’s 36th government was sworn in Sunday evening, in an historic vote, with Yamina leader Naftali Bennett becoming the country’s new prime minister. The Knesset thus ended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-years in office, following four inconclusive general elections in the past two and a half years. 60 Knesset members voted in favor of the new cabinet, with 59 voting against it, confirming the first-ever government to officially include an Arab party (Ra’am). Ra’am lawmaker Saeed Alharomi abstained from the vote.

Immediately after the vote of confidence, members of Netanyahu’s government vacated the seats on the government table in the parliament’s plenum, with Netanyahu leaving his chair, to be replaced by Bennett.

Following the vote, the cabinet ministers were sworn in, with Bennett going first. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was sworn in second. Lapid was the one to receive the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin a month ago to establish the new government, after Netanyahu was unable to do so. According to the rotation deal with Bennett, Lapid will serve two years as alternate prime minister and as foreign minister, replacing Bennett later on as premier.

The new government includes 28 ministers from Yamina, Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu, Blue and White, Israeli Labor and Meretz. The Islamic party Ra’am is part of the new coalition, but will not hold a ministerial portfolio. Before the vote of confidence in the government, Yesh Atid legislator Mickey Levy was elected to replace Likud’s Yariv Levin as Knesset speaker.

Bennett is Israel’s first religiously observant premier. He is also the leader of the smallest faction ever to be appointed to the position, with only six legislators (a seventh Yamina Knesset member voted against Bennett). At 49, Bennett is the country’s second-youngest prime minister. Netanyahu was just 46 the first time he assumed the role in 1996.

When Bennett started his speech to the plenum introducing his new government, Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich and other rightwing parliamentarians shouted, “Shame” at him and waved posters of victims of terrorism. Ushers of the Knesset then removed them from the plenum. Bennett responded by saying, “I am proud that I can sit in a government with people with very different views,” adding that they seemed to have a problem with losing power. Addressing Likud and Religious Zionism members, Bennett added, “The loud tone of the screams is the same as the failure to govern during your term in office.”

Netanyahu had used his final speech as prime minister to criticize the Joe Biden administration’s planned return to the Iran nuclear deal, and said Bennett was incapable of standing up to Washington.

“The administration in Washington asked me not to discuss our disagreement on Iran publicly, but with all due respect, I can’t do that,” Netanyahu said, claiming that Bennett lacks “the international stature, the knowledge, the government or the public’s trust to be taken seriously when fighting the Iranian threat.”

“An Israeli prime minister has to be able to say no to the president of the US on matters that endanger our existence. I’ll be happy if this doesn’t come true, but from the moment the US returns to the Iran Deal, this government will not approve operations against Iran to stop their armament,” he added.

“I will fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it,” he concluded.

President Biden congratulated Bennett this evening on forming a new government, saying, “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. Israel has no better friend than the United States.” Bennett responded on Twitter, saying: “Thank you Mr. President! I look forward to working with you to strengthen the ties between our two nations.”

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