JERUSALEM — Israelis awoke to a new prime minister for the first time in 12 years on Monday, as Naftali Bennett won parliament’s support and removed longstanding leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the afternoon, the two met for a brief handover meeting, but without the typical ceremonial ceremony that usually precedes a change of administration – a hint of Netanyahu’s ongoing anger and hatred toward the new government.
The Knesset barely accepted the new Bennett-led coalition government on Sunday, putting an end to Netanyahu’s historic 12-year tenure.
Netanyahu did not perform a formal handover ceremony with Bennett because he feels “cheated” by the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid coalition and “doesn’t want to give even the tiniest credibility to this subject,” according to David Bitan, a Likud legislator.
Bennett is part of a coalition that comprises three parties led by MPs who were formerly Netanyahu loyalists. The three leaders fought with Netanyahu over his personality and leadership style, while sharing his strong views on many subjects.
Bennett will serve as premier for the first two years of the term under a coalition agreement, after which Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the coalition’s architect, would take over.
The new administration took office on Monday morning after being sworn in late on Sunday. President Reuven Rivlin, who will leave office next month, invited Bennett, Lapid, and the rest of the Cabinet for a portrait of the new administration at his official house in Jerusalem. After then, neither Bennett nor Lapid said anything to the press.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu held the first gathering of the political opposition, urging his allies to demonstrate “iron discipline” in order to oust “this dangerous leftist administration, the fraud government.”
Netanyahu feels he was duped since his Likud Party is still the majority party in parliament and many of his erstwhile allies have deserted him.
The lawmaker is still on trial for corruption. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, and his new role as the opposition leader has no legal implications for the trial, which is anticipated to drag on for months, if not years. However, since stepping down as prime minister, he has lost a significant political platform, which he used to combat the allegations by lashing out at cops, prosecutors, and the media, as well as mobilizing his fans.
With a new administration in place, Netanyahu appears to have given up prospects of staging another election, which may result in a coalition of supporters willing to offer him immunity from prosecution.
Following a two-year period of political stagnation in which the country conducted four stalemate elections, world leaders greeted Bennett in his new capacity.
In a Hebrew tweet, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Bennett, saying he “looks forward to seeing you and expanding the strategic partnerships between our nations.” Modi has good relationships with Netanyahu. Modi also expressed his “deep respect” for Netanyahu’s leadership.
The United Arab Emirates said it was looking forward to “working together to advance regional peace, strengthen tolerance and coexistence, and embark on a new era of cooperation in technology, trade, and investment,” as part of the so-called Abraham Accords orchestrated by the Trump administration last year.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and “addressed the exceptional connection between the United States and Israel,” according to Lapid “He expressed himself on Twitter.
Lapid told diplomats during a handover ceremony at the International Ministry in Jerusalem that Israel’s foreign ties have been subjected to “disgraceful neglect” in recent years. He promised to repair ties with Jordan, the European Union, the Democratic Party in the United States, and American Jews, which Lapid said had worsened under Netanyahu.
“By focusing solely on Republicans and sacrificing Israel’s nonpartisan status, the outgoing administration made a grave risk,” Lapid added. He said, “The most crucial connection, and the one that has to be worked on more than any other,” is Israel’s connection with American Jews.
Lapid, though, echoed Bennett’s words from Sunday, saying Israel is opposed to a return to a nuclear agreement established between world powers and Iran that US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from. Negotiators are currently attempting to resurrect the agreement, and Lapid stated that Israel will “prevent the danger of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons by all means necessary.”
Bennett, 49, was elected prime minister by a 60-59 vote in the Knesset on Sunday, ending a tumultuous legislative session. The motion succeeded despite an abstention by a coalition member from the Islamist Raam party, who was carried by ambulance from the hospital to the parliament building to cast her vote.
Bennett faces a difficult task in keeping the shaky coalition together, and he has stated that bridging the various rifts that divide Israeli society is his top priority.
In the 120-member Knesset, his ultranationalist Yamina party won only seven members in the March elections. Bennett, on the other hand, positioned himself as a kingmaker by refusing to commit to Netanyahu or his opponents. Even when one of his religious-nationalist party’s members defected to oppose the new coalition agreement, he was appointed Premier.
To his fans, Netanyahu is a world leader who is uniquely qualified to guide Israel through its severe security issues.
To his detractors, however, he has become a divisive and autocratic leader who has used divide-and-rule tactics to exacerbate the many schisms in Israeli society, including tensions between Jews and Arabs, as well as within the Jewish majority between his religious and nationalist base and his more secular and dovish opponents. Some questioned his competence to continue in office while facing charges.