WASHINGTON – Israel on Sunday swore in a new government, ending the 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and making Naftali Bennett, the head of a small, religious ultranationalist party, the new leader of the Jewish state.
Bennett will be prime minister for two years, under an unlikely power-sharing agreement among eight political parties with little in common other than wanting to end the tumultuous tenure of Netanyahu. Bennett is a former Netanyahu ally who served as his defense minister in 2019 and 2020.
Then, Bennett, 49, will be replaced for two years by Yair Lapid, 57, a one-time finance minister and former TV news anchor who brokered the deal to oust Netanyahu.
Lapid won the second-biggest vote total behind Netanyahu’s Likud party last March, the fourth indecisive Israeli election in the last two years.
Netanyahu, who has attempted to thwart the eight-party coalition that is ousting him, will remain as the opposition leader, but also is on trial on corruption charges.
The new governing coalition also marks the first time that an Arab party, the Islamist Ra’am party, has joined the Israeli governing coalition. It is seeking new spending programs for Arabs in Israel, who account for about 20% of its population.
At the same time, for the first time since 1977, with two short exceptions, the ultra-Orthodox parties will not be part of the government. They formed a strong foundation for Netanyahu’s governments, and their absence could thwart the influence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis on religious and family law and the Orthodox Jewish community’s exemption from compulsory military service.
Netanyahu oversaw a 12-day air war with Hamas in Gaza last month in his last significant role as the Israeli leader. It was speculated within Israel that the fight against Hamas, viewed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, could derail attempts to oust him. The opposition parties, however, resumed negotiations to form an anti-Netanyahu alliance shortly after a May 21 cease-fire.
Bennett’s takeover could shift the government toward the political center, with the coalition of governing parties holding a mix of views from the left, center and right.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in all four rounds of voting, but never was able to collect the 61 votes to form a government.
He has vowed opposition to the new governing coalition and said it could collapse if one of the eight parties bolts on any key issue.