Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record 12 years in office has come to an end, as the country’s parliament narrowly approved a new coalition government.
Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultra-nationalist party, was sworn in as prime minister on Monday (Australian time) after 60-59 vote in parliament.
Mr Netanyahu immediately declared to stay on to fight the new government, and then took to Twitter to tell supporters “do not let your spirit fall. We’ll be back – and faster than you think”.
“If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” Mr Netanyahu told parliament.
“We’ll be back – soon,” he shouted.
The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Mr Netanyahu and new elections. But they agree on little else.
They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the US without launching any major initiatives.
Mr Netanyahu sat silently during the vote. After it was approved, he stood up to leave the chamber, before turning around and shaking Mr Bennett’s hand.
A dejected Mr Netanyahu, wearing a black medical mask, briefly sat in the opposition leader’s chair before walking out.
The outgoing Prime Minister, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government.
If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.
The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display as Mr Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote.
He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Mr Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.
Mr Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to US efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Mr Bennett said, vowing to maintain Mr Netanyahu’s confrontational policy.
“Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”
Mr Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the US for its decades of support for Israel.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.
“Even though it has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said.
The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.