© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony to express appreciation to the healthcare sector for its contribution to fighting coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jerusalem on June 6, 2021. REUTERS / Ronen Zvulun
By Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's twelve-year term was due to end on Sunday as parliament votes on a new government of unlikely allies in a nation bitterly divided over his departure.
The schism became apparent in a noisy legislative session prior to the vote.
Netanyahu loyalists shouting "shame" and "liars" often interrupted the man who was supposed to replace him, the nationalist Naftali Bennett, when he spelled out the policies of the new coalition.
Netanyahu, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, failed to form a government after the March 23 elections, the fourth in two years.
Bennett, a Hawk high-tech millionaire, is set to lead a new government that includes left-wing, centrist, and Arab lawmakers cobbled together with opposition leader Yair Lapid. It will likely be fragile, with a gossamer majority.
Parliament meets at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to approve the government in a vote of confidence that will follow speeches and debate that could last about four hours. After its ratification, the new cabinet is sworn in.
Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew, will serve as Prime Minister for two years before Lapid, 57, a former television presenter, takes office.
"Thank you Benjamin Netanyahu for your long and successful service on behalf of the State of Israel," said Bennett, promising to become Prime Minister for "all Israelis".
His government, which for the first time includes a party representing Israel's 21% Arab minority, plans largely to avoid sweeping steps on hot international issues such as policy towards the Palestinians and to focus on domestic reforms.
Bennett said his government will encourage economic action against the Palestinians, but any violence by the Palestinians will be met with a strong response.
With little to no prospect of progress in resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel, many Palestinians will remain unaffected by the change of government and predict that Bennett will pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
This seems likely to be related to Israel's biggest security problem, Iran, and possible friction with the administration of US President Joe Biden over the 2015 Atomic Pact between Tehran and the world powers. Biden predecessor Donald Trump has left the deal, but Biden wants to come back to it.
"Renewing the nuclear deal with Iran is a mistake, a mistake that would re-legitimize one of the darkest and most violent regimes in the world," said Bennett. "Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons."
Bennett thanked Biden for his “decades of commitment to Israel's security” and for “standing by Israel” during the fighting with Hamas fighters in Gaza last month, and said his administration would have good relations with US Democrats and Republicans.
"The government will endeavor to deepen and improve our relationships with both parties – non-partisan," said Bennett.
In his speech to parliament, a combative Netanyahu said: "If we are destined to go into opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can overthrow them."
Bennett does not have the international significance, credibility or ability to "really object" to the nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu said.
On the international stage, the telegenic Netanyahu with his polished English and his booming baritone voice has become the face of Israel. In his first term as Prime Minister in the 1990s and four other terms in a row since 2009, he polarized at home and abroad.
Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by followers and detested by critics. His ongoing corruption process – which he denies – has only widened the gap.
His opponents have long insulted Netanyahu's divisive rhetoric, devious political tactics, and the subjection of state interests to his own political survival. Some have called him "Minister of Criminal Investigation" and accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic aftermath.
Bennett has drawn right-wing anger for breaking an election promise by teaming up with Lapid – and an accusation by Netanyahu of cheating on voters. Bennett said another election – a likely outcome in the absence of a government – would have been a disaster for Israel.
Both Bennett and Lapid, who also spoke before parliament, said they wanted to bridge political rifts and unite the Israelis under a government that works hard for all of its citizens.
They earned some cheers and applause during the session amid constant heckling from their opponents.
Her cabinet is facing major foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian militants in Gaza, an investigation into war crimes by the International Criminal Court and the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Bennett named reforms in education, health, and cutting red tape as priorities in order to allow businesses to grow and lower housing costs. Coalition leaders have announced that they will adopt a two-year budget to stabilize the country's finances and maintain the "status quo" on religious and political issues.