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The Media Line: Bennett Sworn in as Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu Heads to Opposition

Bennett Sworn in as Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu Heads to Opposition

Roller-coaster day at Knesset in Jerusalem makes history

By Uri Cohen / The Media Line

Israel’s parliament ushered in a new era on Sunday, approving a new government in a highly contentious confidence vote and bringing the curtain down, at least temporarily, on one of the most tumultuous and controversial periods in its history.

“This is a special moment. It’s a time when a baton is passed, when a sacred burden is transferred to the next generation,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in his maiden speech from the legislature’s podium, struggling to overcome shouts, interjections and protests from opposition members.

“People seeing you would think this is some national day of mourning,” he blasted lawmakers waving banners and signs, as parliamentary ushers escorted them out of the chamber for violating the parliament’s rules.

“It’s called democracy. Governments rise and fall. We’ll meet back here in four years, and you can try to get elected again. Nothing [untoward] happened,” Bennett said.

It was the rowdiest, most unruly Knesset session in recent memory.

Bennett, who chairs a tiny six-seat party and who just last year was voted out of parliament in one of the four inconclusive elections of the past 24 months, will replace Binyamin Netanyahu as Israel’s leader, heading a highly improbable coalition of far-right, centrist, far-left and Islamic parties.

Bennett in his speech thanked Netanyahu for his decades of service to the nation, noting that while the two men “had not seen eye to eye all the time,” the outgoing prime minister “deserved the Israeli people’s gratitude.

“Your plan for us all was to drag this country to election after election,” the new prime minister accused opposition lawmakers. “That’s how democracies crumble. We are torn from within, and at a moment when things get dangerously close to spiraling out of control, when everything we’ve built is threatening to come crashing down.

“We stopped the train a moment before the abyss,” Bennett said, adding that he was “proud to be able to sit with people with wholly different views.

“My friend [Yesh Atid party chairman] Yair Lapid demonstrated national responsibility, political generosity and patience. Without him we would not be here today,” he continued.

Bennett will rotate out of office in 26 months’ time, making the way for the previous opposition chair Lapid, who in the meantime will serve as foreign minister and alternative prime minister.

“I’ll forgo the prepared remarks I had planned; I came up here for just one reason – to apologize to my mother,” Lapid said from the podium immediately after his coalition partner and political ally spoke.

“When my mother was born, Israel didn’t exist yet, we had no parliament. She is 86-years-old and we don’t easily ask her to come all the way to Jerusalem, but today I wanted her to be proud of our democratic process, to see a transition of power,” he said.

“Instead, she and every other Israeli citizen is ashamed of you today, and is reminded why it’s time to finally replace your rule,” Lapid slammed Likud MKs who were still shouting slurs from the benches.

After the soon prime minister and alternate prime minister designates concluded their remarks, the stage was set for perhaps the most anticipated moment of the day – the speech reserved for the intended opposition chair – outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

“I stand here today, in the name of millions of citizens who chose to stand tall, not bow their heads,” he opened his speech. “It is for them, and thanks to them, that I intend to continue with my life’s mission of preserving Israel’s existence, security and prosperity.”

Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in Israeli history and standing trial on corruption charges, will return to the role of opposition leader, 12 years after catapulting himself to the position of prime minister from the exact same seat.

Promising to “return to power very soon,” he proceeded to pulverize the incoming government, accusing it of projecting weakness and warning it would soon capitulate to Israel’s enemies and allies alike.

“They are celebrating in Iran today because they know too that as of today Israel is headed by a weak, soft leadership,” Netanyahu roared, adding that “a government that can’t face the global community with strength isn’t worthy to lead Israel for even one day.”

He also boasted of defying several of Washington’s requests during his time in office, of intentionally clashing with former President Barack Obama, and proudly revealed “secret discussions I was asked to keep private” that were recently held with American officials regarding Iran and settlement expansion in the West Bank.

“Bennett doesn’t have the international stature, credibility and knowledge to allow him to withstand the United States’ pressure,” Netanyahu said in his final address as prime minister, before repeating his recent accusations of “unprecedented election fraud” committed by the incoming coalition, not in the counting of votes, but in forming what he called a left-wing government after running on right-wing platforms.  

The dramatic statements by the three men were followed by the crucial confidence vote, which saw the Bennett-Lapid government approved by a 60-59 margin. One member of the Islamist Ra’am party, part of the new coalition, abstained.

The unity government, ideologically split on nearly every major issue, will look to finally pass a state budget, as Israel still relies today on the one passed in early 2018.

“We will put Israelis back to work, after the past year’s crisis,” Bennett promised in his speech. “People will finally have a government that comes to work for them.”

The new prime minister touched on a host of issues that his patchwork government plans to address, ranging from the Iranian nuclear program to the domestic tensions between Jewish and Arab citizens.

“Israel won’t allow Iran to procure a nuclear weapon,” he vowed. “We will not be party to any agreement [signed with Tehran] and will maintain our freedom to act militarily.”

After promising to extend the Abraham Accords signed last year between Jerusalem and four Arab nations, Bennett thanked President Joe Biden, for “standing resiliently by Israel’s side … and for his long-standing commitment to Israel’s security.

“The US is our greatest ally. Our government will deepen and develop ties with both American parties, bipartisan. Any differences between us will be worked through out of mutual respect,” he concluded, drawing a contrast between himself and the outgoing administration.

Still, economic reforms will likely be the only area on which the complex coalition’s various members will find some common ground, and no one in Israel will be shocked if the shaky construct of factions crumbles sooner rather than later, leading to a fifth election cycle in the coming months.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, believes the coalition may prove more durable than expected.

“Even though it’s a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace it, because the opposition isn’t cohesive either. It has about 53 seats, depending on the Joint List, but anyway far from the number required for constructing a no-confidence vote,” he told The Media Line.

“Also, Bennett and [New Hope party chairman and incoming Justice Minister Gideon] Sa’ar both need time to redefine their constituencies [after forming a government with left-wing parties], and perhaps appeal to some Likud voters in the soft-Right that so far have been loyal to Netanyahu.

“For that, they need time and clear accomplishments,” Plesner said.

“Finally,” Plesner continued, “as long as Netanyahu continues to serve as opposition chair, he’ll continue to cast a shadow on this government, and on all the different elements in it, forcing them to stick together in the realization that their falling apart will expedite his return.”

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