JERUSALEM – Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's twelve consecutive years in office came to an end after a momentous vote during a chaotic and heated parliamentary session on Sunday evening to appoint Naftali Bennett as Israel's new Prime Minister.
The Knesset opted for a cumbersome eight-party coalition, supported by a narrow 60-59 majority, with one member of an Arab party abstaining. The new alliance is both unlikely and fragile, spanning the entire political spectrum, including both far-right and far-left parties, as well as an Arab party for the first time.
Many Israelis, mostly left-wing supporters, took to the streets dancing and waving flags on Sunday evening. Yet Jerusalem – and the rest of Israel – remain deeply divided, and there is little evidence that much the new coalition government can do to bridge these differences.
Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, will serve as prime minister for the next two years, then giving way to his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid.
Bennett presented his coalition to the "criminals" and "liars" shouts of extreme right-wing MPs who accuse him of electoral fraud. Days before Sunday's swearing-in ceremony, right-wing Israelis protested outside the parliament building in Jerusalem, calling for the abolition of the Bennett-Lapid Pact, claiming that deeply divided politicians would not be able to work together.
But Bennett said Sunday he was proud to be sitting with people of very different opinions at what he thought was "crucial".
"It is time for responsible leaders from different parts of the nation to stop this madness," said Bennett. "We are facing an internal challenge, a division in people that is being observed right now," he said, adding that hatred has paralyzed the country.
Lapid gave up his speech altogether, but later said: “The real gap [in Israel] is between moderates and extremists. Those who want to build and those who want to destroy. "
World leaders sent their good wishes; US President Joe Biden said: "Israel has no better friend than the United States".
Netanyahu, who promised to be back in power soon, struck down the new government on his way to the door. He accused Bennett of having committed "the greatest fraud in the history of Israel". The new prime minister had already ruled out a coalition with Netanyahu's Likud party before the election and described it as a “wrong right”. He warned that the new administration would not be able to combat efforts by the US and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, a policy his administration had opposed. In his government address, Netanyahu also asked: "How are we going to fight the establishment of a Palestinian state when the majority of the government supports it?"
Both protests and celebrations erupted outside parliament as lawmakers were sworn in on Sunday night, but while opinions on the new coalition – dubbed the "change of government" – are divided across Israel, few expect, especially Palestinians , a lot of real change from Bennett, who is still considered an ultra-nationalist. For many, the more important message was simply Netanyahu's departure after more than a decade in office.
On the eve of the swearing-in ceremony, around 2,000 Israelis gathered in front of Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, protesting and celebrating what many referred to as the "end of the era of the minister of crime".
“The past 12 years have been devastating for democracy and peace. Netanyahu has divided the people; it started even before Rabin [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] was assassinated and has continued to this day. Rabin wanted to bring people together and was killed for it, ”said Nimrod Misgav, a 38-year-old teacher and protester. Rabin was murdered by a right-wing extremist 25 years ago.
“A lot of young people – even teenagers – lean to the right because they are all they have ever known. Even though Bennett isn't exactly popular, I'm still hopeful, ”said Misgav. "This is the first time in over a decade that liberal powers are in government in Israel."
The "change of government" follows the fourth election in the last two years. A “unity government” formed in April 2020 collapsed after less than a year.
Many say it is doubtful whether the Bennett-Lapid deal will last. "It's diverse, so it can't go well," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Director of the International Crisis Group. The new coalition was almost derailed last month by an 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas that briefly breathed new life into Netanyahu.
But the mere formation of a new government will do little to bridge the smoldering gulfs in Israeli politics. "Dark days are coming," said Oria Benjamin, a 26-year-old medical student. “Bennett promised never to go left, but he betrayed his voters. He doesn't respect the wishes of the Israeli people and his progressive agenda is a problem. "
When the Israelis are divided, the Palestinians are largely united – in apathy. Both Bennett and Lapid have suggested in the past that "change" will not extend to political change on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Bennett, 49, will be the first Prime Minister to have lived in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in the past. Settlements are illegal under international law.
The Israeli police stood in the occupied Batn al-Hawa district in East Jerusalem on June 11.
Residents of the Batn al-Hawa district in occupied East Jerusalem pass a mural on June 11th. Several families in East Jerusalem have received eviction or demolition orders to make way for Jewish settlements. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy
Longtime Palestinian activist Nafisa Ques, 60, who hides a Palestinian flag in her handbag and dares to take her golf cart to most of the protests in Jerusalem, said she was concerned but not afraid. "I will die for Palestine," she said.
In recent weeks, Jewish settlers have confiscated Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, which is considered illegal by the international community but is considered legitimate by Jewish settlers. Last week dozens of Palestinian families in the Bustan neighborhood of East Jerusalem received demolition orders on the grounds that their houses were built without a permit. Since then, protests and frequent clashes with police have been ongoing in both neighborhoods.
Tamara Barbar, social worker at the Al-Bustan Association Silwan, said that up to 100 houses are currently threatened with demolition. "Every case is different, but it all adds up to the same thing: Palestinians are marginalized and our land is taken from us," said Barbarian. "That won't change even with the newly elected government."
Tensions are rising steadily, even after an Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Jerusalem, the capital claimed by both Jews and Palestinians, has seen protests and clashes on a daily basis.
According to Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group, the peace process is dead.
"The imbalance between the two sides is too great," he said. "If the two-state solution proves impossible, there are only two options: a democratic state in Israel / Palestine for all people, which is highly unlikely, or a situation in which Palestinians are subject to further dispossession, fragmentation and possibly … Evictions. "
While expectations of what the new coalition can achieve are subdued, for many Israelis the biggest change is Netanyahu's departure. Getting rid of the prime minister seems to be the coalition's main goal, Hiltermann said, but although the coalition stretches from right to left, "it's not a right-wing move."
As for the future, it remains uncertain. “Netanyahu was very eloquent. He didn't actively seek war, he was careful, ”said Hiltermann. “As for Bennett, we don't know yet. Could he drag Israel into new wars? We don't have an answer yet. "