Israeli epoch comes to close as Netanyahu, longest-serving leader, is out

By Laura KingStaff Writer Photography by Marcus Yam June 13, 2021 Updated 1:26 PM PT Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

In a political moment that seemed inevitable yet improbable, Israeli lawmakers on Sunday brought down the curtain on the long-running rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, installing a new prime minister with similarly hard-line ideology but a stated determination to stem the rancor and polarization that have become hallmarks of the country’s public life.

By the narrowest possible vote — 60-59, with one abstention — the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, ushered in a ruling coalition cobbled together from wildly disparate political parties with little in common beyond a shared desire to expel Netanyahu from the office he had held for the last 12 years.

“At the decisive moment, we have taken responsibility,” Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister, told lawmakers as the Knesset prepared to vote — a speech that was interrupted by relentless heckling from Netanyahu’s allies. “We stopped the train, a moment before it barreled into the abyss.”

Naftali Bennett waves to crowd at Knesset.
Incoming Alternate Prime Minister/Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledge the crowd at the Knesset after the vote of confidence.

Bennett, 49, heads a small party determined to thwart Palestinian statehood and maintain Israeli control over most of the occupied West Bank. But his government includes parties from Israel’s left and center, and also marks a historic first: participation in the ruling coalition by an Islamist party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Bennett is taking the top spot as part of an unusual agreement with the head of the coalition, centrist politician Yair Lapid, who would normally have assumed the country’s leadership. To woo Bennett into his camp, Lapid offered to split the four-year term as prime minister in half, with Bennett going first.

Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sit in their new sets at the Knesset.

Former television host Lapid, who will serve now as the foreign minister, scrapped planned remarks to lawmakers and limited himself to a biting rejoinder to the raucous jeers that greeted his governing partner, Bennett. He apologized to his 86-year-old mother — well-known Israeli novelist Shulamit Lapid, seated in the gallery — for the fact that she had to witness such a spectacle.

“She and every other Israeli citizen is ashamed of you,” he said, addressing the hecklers but also gazing in Netanyahu’s direction, “and reminded why it’s time for you to be replaced.”

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, first became prime minister for three years in the 1990s and had held the top office again since 2009. That has made him the longest-serving Israeli leader, surpassing the longevity even of the country’s first prime minister and primary founder, David Ben Gurion.

The new government is expected to set modest goals for itself, even while striving for a distinct change in the tone of national discourse. Because of fundamental disagreements over the potential creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli one, the ruling coalition is likely to try instead to concentrate on domestic issues, including passing a national budget and embarking on an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent years, many Israelis had become alarmed by an accelerating slide into autocracy by Netanyahu, who has denounced criminal court proceedings against him as a witch hunt and has tirelessly sought to undermine the legitimacy of judges, prosecutors and investigators.

Young men stand in the street holding Israeli flags.
Israeli youths stand by as far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at Damascus Gate.

Had he remained in office, Netanyahu had signaled he would use the prime minister’s post as a platform to continue attacking the judiciary, and probably would have tried to engineer some form of immunity from the fraud and bribery charges he is facing. Rivals also feared he would intensify his wielding of state powers in ways that would make it difficult for anyone to challenge his actions in office or hold him accountable.

Along with his detractors, however, Netanyahu has maintained a devoted following whose fervor at times has bordered on obsession. Over the last two weeks, as it became apparent that his grip on power was in serious jeopardy, his allies mounted a campaign of furious incitement against the new coalition, characterizing Bennett, who once served as his chief of staff, and other right-wing stalwarts as traitors to the prime minister’s ideological cause.

So heated did the discourse become that the head of Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, issued an unusual warning about the dangers of hate speech, and some mainstream commentators expressed fears of an uprising on the order of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Netanyahu did little to calm the rhetorical storm, but his Likud Party did promise a peaceful transfer of power.

Israeli politicians hug at desk.
Outgoing Speaker Yariv Levin, left, hugs incoming Speaker Mickey Levy, after the vote of confidence.

Even so, the outgoing prime minister took a scorched-earth approach as his rivals were about to prevail. Netanyahu used his last speech to the Knesset as prime minister to unleash a bitter tirade not only at the rivals who ousted him but also at the Biden administration.

“An Israeli prime minister needs to be able to say ‘no’ to the leader of the world’s superpower,” he declared from the well of the Knesset, referring to his own vehement opposition to U.S. efforts to revive the landmark nuclear accord with Iran that was scrapped by President Trump.

Netanyahu used the same issue — Iran — to denigrate Bennett, suggesting the new government would endanger Israel.

“Iran is celebrating because they understand that, from today, there will be a weak government in Israel,” he told lawmakers.

The parliamentary vote, and with it the lancing of Netanyahu’s long-held aura of invincibility, came against an already tumultuous national backdrop.

Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets lawmakers
Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets lawmakers after he completes his address to the Knesset and before lawmakers gather to cast their vote of confidence to confirm the new coalition government, which unseated Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister Sunday.

An 11-day Israeli confrontation with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, ended with a cease-fire on May 21. The battle left more than 250 Palestinians dead and 12 dead on the Israeli side. At the same time, riots broke out in several Israeli cities and towns, with both Arabs and Jews engaging in bouts of mob violence, the country’s worst such outbreak of intra-communal strife in decades.

Tensions also have been rising over contested sacred sites in and near Jerusalem’s Old City. Jewish settler groups are mounting a concerted campaign to expel Palestinian residents in neighborhoods near the old walls, with Israeli police taking harsh measures against Palestinians staging solidarity protests.

Far-right Jewish activists, with the support of Netanyahu-appointed public security officials, have staged repeated provocative gestures, including a flag-waving appearance Thursday at East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate by extremist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads an avowedly racist anti-Arab party. The resulting Palestinian protest was broken up by police using stun grenades.

Bennett’s ascension to the premiership breaks a two-year political deadlock created by four inconclusive national elections. Until now, no politician, including Netanyahu, had been able to secure a parliamentary majority, except for a previous “emergency” team-up by the prime minister and electoral rival Benny Gantz, which broke down in acrimony.

Had the current coalition failed to coalesce, Israel would have faced a fifth election, a prospect all sides claimed to abhor.

Netanyahu, now the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, is expected to remain a formidable political force. His conservative Likud is the largest single party in parliament, and he has made clear he would seek at every turn to undermine the fragile new governing coalition, which he has repeatedly denounced as a danger to Israel’s security.

Through his many years in power, Netanyahu made legions of enemies. But his undoing came at the hands of some of those closest to him, including several prominent right-wing figures who threw in their lot with Bennett. Lapid, as well as Bennett, had served in previous Netanyahu governments, and Bennett was once considered a protege of the former prime minister.

Lawmakers gather around a seated Benjamin Netayahu
After Benjamin Netanyahu sat in his old prime minister seat after the vote for the new coalition government, he was ushered to his new seat at the opposition leader’s desk.

Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, is an unlikely new leader for Israel, heading up a small party less than one-quarter the size of Netanyahu’s Likud. But the vagaries of parliamentary politics, growing public disillusionment with a prime minister who long dominated the country’s political life, and an uneasy sense that Netanyahu was using his office to avoid being convicted of crimes helped lay the groundwork for Bennett’s ascent.

Nearly up until the moment the Knesset vote took place, Israelis wondered whether Netanyahu — often dubbed “the magician” for his ability to wriggle free of political predicaments — would find some means of thwarting his rivals, such as pressuring even a very few backers of the coalition into changing their minds and votes.

But in the end, those arrayed against him prevailed.