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A new government, a new prime minister: After 12 years, Israel is marking the end of the Netanyahu era. The new coalition was confirmed with a slim majority, but how long will it hold?
A special session of Israel's parliament approved the country's new coalition government with a razor-thin majority on Sunday evening, with 60 Knesset members voting in favor of the new government, 59 lawmakers opposing and one abstention.
After four elections and years of uncertainty, Israel now has a new government made up of a potentially fragile coalition of eight parties. Naftali Bennett, 49, the ultranationalist leader of the small Yamina party, has taken the helm as the country's new prime minister, ending the 12-year term of Israel's longest serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The new coalition is made up of former Netanyahu allies from the hard-line right wing, along with members of centrist parties, a dovish left-wing party and, for the first time, a small Arab party that represents a segment of Israel's Arab or Palestinian population. With eight parties in the coalition, just one disagreement between the various factions risks jeopardizing the government's stability.
"They have a lot of differences in terms of foreign affairs and security, the economy and religion and state," said Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. "The only thing that can bring them together are the 90% of things that governments are doing anyhow without ideological differences. That is everyday politics."
On Friday, the coalition agreements were signed by the eight parties including the centrist Yesh Atid party whose leader, Yair Lapid, was tasked by Israel's president to build the coalition.
"The Israeli public deserves a functioning and responsible government which places the good of the country at the top of its agenda. That's what this unity government has been formed to do," said Lapid in a joint statement with Bennett on Friday.
To secure Yamina's vital support, Lapid engineered a plan to share the premiership with Bennet, whose party supports settlement expansion and opposes a Palestinian state. In the first two years of this government, Lapid will be foreign minister and alternate prime minister. Bennett will hand over the premiership to Lapid in August 2023 for a further two years. That is, if the government lasts its full term — an issue that has divided analysts.
"Bennett and Lapid will have to work hard at keeping their government from missteps," said Nahum Barnea, a journalist with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "When a government has only 61 MKs [member of the Knesset], its test is its weakest link. Yesterday it failed to persuade the 61st MK to vote in favor of it. This government will have a hard time making decisions."
"This morning is the dawn of a new day. It is a morning of hard, sometimes Sisyphean work, to rebuild the ruins," said Ben Caspit in Maariv newspaper. "Netanyahu and Bibi-ism were not defeated by the left or by the right, but by sanity, or at least by the yearning for sanity. The wish of many Israelis to live in quiet, without incitement, without hatred — and mainly, without the endless lies that Netanyahu's legacy bequeathed to us."
The general outline shows that the government will focus on social and economic issues, in addition to passing the state budget and building new infrastructure like new hospitals and an airport. The agreement also aims to formulate legislation to limit the prime minister's time in office to two terms, or eight years. This would halt any potential plans by Benjamin Netanyahu to run for office once again.
On the more controversial internal issues like state and religion, the coalition agreement will maintain the status quo. However, some reforms are expected when it comes to the diversification of kosher food certification, for example. Several proposals have already drawn criticism from leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties, who as longtime allies of Netanyahu are now in the opposition for the first time in years.
The new prime minister has not minced words when addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran, even though they were not the focus of the coalition agreement. A well-known hard-liner, Bennett told the Knesset that Israel should "ensure its national interests in area C" — which makes up 60% of the occupied West Bank. He also warned Hamas in Gaza to keep the cease-fire, because if "Hamas will choose the way of violence against Israelis again, it will run into a wall of steel."
The recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza ended with an undefined cease-fire based on a "quiet for quiet" agreement, where both sides have agreed not to fire off any rockets. This could well become the first test for the new government, if it were to break.
On the Iranian nuclear deal, which is currently being renegotiated in Vienna, Bennett said that Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with nuclear weapons. "Israel is not a party to the agreement and will maintain full freedom to act," he said Sunday.
There is a sense of anticipation in the media and among the public that the new government will finally end 2 1/2 years of political turbulence. "Honestly, I never thought I would be so happy to have Naftali Bennett as Israel's next prime minister," said Adi Redman, a self-described supporter of the left-wing parties, at a busy outdoor market in Jerusalem. "I really feel it represents the many varieties that are in Israel right now."
Another passerby, Gal Nir, also said that she doesn't belong to "Team Bennett" but added that it's time for Netanyahu to go. "I am not going to gloat about it, but I think he has done enough. He's done some amazing things. I am not disrespecting anything he did, I just think that it's time for someone else to start moving things around here," said Nir.
Among right-wing voters, the mood is mixed regarding the new government. "I think we have to give it a chance. Myself, I voted for the right, so I am a little skeptical. But it's an interesting opportunity because it is a mix of everybody really," said Doron Ben Avraham, another market patron.
Netanyahu, who is standing trial for several corruption charges he has denied, intends to stay on as opposition leader of the Likud party, which remains the largest faction in the Knesset. It remains unclear whether he could be eventually denied parliamentary immunity.
"Israel without Netanyahu wouldn't be so different," said political scientist Gideon Rahat. "But the noises might be different in a sense of less populism, less attacks on the courts, on the media, on whoever does not agree with Netanyahu. So maybe, maybe politics will be a little calmer."
But the opposition will be on close watch and will seize any opportunity to weigh in on any controversial issues. In his combative speech at the Knesset on Sunday, Netanyahu already promised that he would be back sooner than expected.