Israel awoke Monday with Jewish nationalist Naftali Bennett at the head of a precarious coalition government that faces stark challenges, after 12 years under right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu.
The watershed moment in Israeli politics saw an ideologically disparate eight-party bloc, ranging from right to left to Arab Islamic conservatives, band together to unseat the bombastic veteran known as Bibi by a wafer-thin margin of 60 votes to 59 in parliament on Sunday.
Within hours Bennett, a tech millionaire and former special forces commander, was stepping into his new role as prime minister, speaking with US President Joe Biden and receiving a briefing from national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
And later Monday, the 49-year-old’s first full day as Israel’s leader, he was set to talk with his one-time ally Netanyahu.
New ministers began meeting with their staff and commemorating the beginning of Israel’s 36th government at the country’s presidential residence.
In a statement following Bennett’s swearing in, Biden said: “I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations. Israel has no better friend than the United States.”
In response, Bennett tweeted: “I look forward to working with you to strengthen the ties between our two nations.”
But the potential for strain appeared on the horizon: Biden has encouraged the negotiation of a new nuclear deal with Iran, which Bennett promised in his speech to parliament he would staunchly oppose.
That vow was among the plans Bennett laid out that could be heard over rancorous jeers and shouts of “liar” and “criminal” from the Knesset, where many right-wing legislative members are furious he joined forces with coalition architect Yair Lapid, a centrist.
– Bibi in opposition –
Lapid, a 57-year-old former television presenter, is set to take over the premiership after two years serving as foreign minister — if the fragile coalition manages to hold onto power that long.
After four inconclusive elections in under two years, Bennett said the “time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the population, to stop, to stop this madness”.
Whether the bloc manages to keep power was an afterthought for many Israelis on Sunday night, with thousands clamouring into the streets to celebrate Bibi’s demise.
During his record-long tenure, Netanyahu became practically synonymous with Israeli politics, and for some young people the only leader they had known.
“This morning is the dawn of a new day,” said Ben Caspit, a Netanyahu biographer, in a column published in the Israeli outlets Ma’ariv and Walla.
“It is a morning of hard, sometimes Sisyphean work, to rebuild the ruins. Netanyahu and Bibi-ism were not defeated by the left or by the right, but by sanity, or at least by the yearning for sanity,” said Caspit.
For his part the hawkish veteran politician — who is mired in a legal battle involving corruption charges, which he denies but that could see him imprisoned — on Sunday had vowed a return.
Losing the top job leaves Netanyahu more exposed, denying him the chance to push through legislation that could give him immunity.
He had vied in vain to scrape off defectors from the fledgling bloc opposing him.
But on Monday Netanyahu found himself in the opposition, set to speak to lawmakers in his camp at 14:30 (1130 GMT) with public remarks to follow, after his meeting with Bennett, his former protege.
– First test? –
On Tuesday Israel’s new government could face its first test: a nationalist “March of the Flags”, which had been scrapped a week prior because of its route through flashpoint zones of east Jerusalem, is expected to proceed.
The risk of unrest has been exacerbated as far-right figures denounce restrictions meant to avoid scuffles in Jerusalem’s Old City, with police urging marchers to avoid tense areas.
The Knesset approval of a new government comes at a time of simmering tensions with the Palestinians, and just a month after an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas militants who rule the Gaza Strip.
Leaders of the blockaded coastal enclave have said political developments in Israel don’t “change the nature of our relationship”.
“It’s still a colonising and occupying power that we must resist,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
The West Bank based Palestinian Authority lauded Netanyahu’s departure, but lashed out at the new government.
Netanyahu’s ousting closes the chapter on one of the “worst periods in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said PA prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, even as he dismissed the new Israeli government as being as “bad” as the previous one.
Israel’s arch-foe Iran also dismissed the significance of the change of government.
“I don’t think that the policy of the occupation regime in Jerusalem will change with the arrival of this person or the departure of that person,” said foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.