Naftali Bennett was sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister on Sunday, after winning a confidence vote with the narrowest of margins, just 60 votes to 59. His victory ends a 12-year grip on power by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader.
After four elections in two years, Bennett’s incoming government breaks a long political deadlock and ushers in the most diverse coalition Israel has ever seen, including the first Arab party to serve in the government. In his speech before the Knesset confidence vote, Bennett celebrated the diversity and warned of polarization within the country.
“Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise. Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us,” Bennett said. “I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own.”
Bennett became the premier as the leader of Yamina, a right-wing party with only seven seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, making him the only prime minister in the country’s history with such a small faction. By contrast, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats in March’s election. Once again, however, Netanyahu could not cobble together a governing coalition with a majority of the 120 members of Knesset.
US President Joe Biden on Sunday congratulated Bennett in his first statement about the political situation in Israel, saying he looked forward to working with the new prime minister.
Biden also spoke with Bennett on the phone, according to a readout of the call from the White House. “The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran,” the White House said.
“The President also conveyed that his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.”
A statement from Bennett’s office said the two leaders “emphasized the importance of the alliance between Israel and the United States, as well as their commitment to strengthening ties between the two countries, and maintaining the security of the State of Israel.
During the call, Bennett also expressed appreciation for Biden’s “support for Israel during the recent operation in Gaza,” according to the readout.
‘We’ll be back soon’
During the debate ahead of the swearing-in, Netanyahu had assailed the coalition that ousted him from the Prime Minister’s Office after a record 12 consecutive years, calling it a “weak” and “dangerous” government.
Long considered the “magician” of Israeli politics, Netanyahu had survived years of challenges to his power, outlasting and outmaneuvering his opponents. But on this night, he had too many opponents who wanted to see him gone.
After touting his accomplishments throughout his years in office, Netanyahu assailed his rivals.
“You call yourself the guardians of democracy, but you are so afraid of democracy that you are ready to pass fascist laws against my candidacy – the language of North Korea and Iran – in order to maintain your regime,” he said, referring to speculation that the new government would impose term limits or make it illegal for someone who has been indicted to be Prime Minister.
Warning that the new government would not stand up to Iran, Netanyahu warned his internal rivals and outside enemies, “We’ll be back soon.”
Bennett’s path to victory seemed all but lost during 11 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants last month, when Netanyahu appeared to scuttle any chances of the opposition parties forming a government to replace him. But Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party which holds 17 seats, forged the agreements between the different parties that led to the end of Netanyahu’s grip on power. The arrangement places Bennett at the head of a coalition that includes right-wing, left-wing, and Arab parties, united largely by their desire to dethrone Netanyahu.
These disparate interests will challenge the coalition to find common ground on key issues, such as what policy to pursue with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or how to manage the relationship with Gaza. The international community, including the United States, are pushing for the renewal of a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, but this government is ill-equipped to handle such negotiations, since two of the parties are vocally opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Instead, Bennett will focus on domestic issues during his two years as prime minister, before he hands the reins to Lapid according to their coalition agreement. These will include the relationship between religion and state, the cost of living, and quality of life issues. Israel also has not passed a budget since March 2018; the newly anointed government has three months to enact one or the Knesset will dissolve and the country will once again head to elections by law.
Yet the neophyte administration will have no choice but to deal with some of the thornier issues. In East Jerusalem, the eviction of several Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is still awaiting a High Court decision. The final ruling was delayed in an attempt to avert tension and violence in Jerusalem last month, but it nevertheless sparked a chain of escalation that led to more than a week of conflict between Israel and Gaza, leaving hundreds dead, most of them Palestinians.
Throughout his political career, Israel’s new prime minister has served as the defense minister, economy minister, education minister and more. But it was always under Netanyahu, and Bennett began his political career as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. In replacing his former boss, Bennett has already etched his name into the country’s political history, especially after years of unprecedented political stalemate.
Bennett’s success and political survival ultimately depend on his ability to forge compromise between the different parties in the coalition, even if only on a narrow domestic agenda. If not, he risks ending his time as prime minister shortly after it begins.
CNN’s Amir Tal and Hadas Gold contributed to this report.