Israel’s parliament is poised to vote in a new government later on Sunday, ending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year grip on power after four elections and two years of political paralysis.
The vote will mark a historic change in the Jewish state’s leadership, replacing its longest-serving premier with Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist whose Yamina party controls just six seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Bennett, a 49-year-old tech millionaire who bills himself as more rightwing than Netanyahu, will be premier for two years and is then expected to step down, and make way for Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor who runs the centrist Yesh Atid.
Lapid, 57, cobbled together an eight-party coalition that united the fringe-left and the hard-right with an Islamist party to oust Netanyahu. It is the first time in Israeli history that an Arab party will share power with a Zionist government.
Netanyahu, the 71-year-old standard bearer of the rightwing, has run Israel for 15 of the past 25 years. He has spent the last two weeks trying to pry apart the coalition, which will have a one-seat majority. He lambasted Bennett for joining forces with the centre and the left, describing it repeatedly as the “fraud of the century”.
He is set to enter opposition as a criminal defendant amid an ongoing trial on three charges of corruption. He has pled not guilty to all charges and has rejected the trial as a politically motivated witch hunt designed to end his premiership.
For Israelis, who have gone through four elections since April 2019 — three ended in a stalemate, while one yielded a shortlived unity government — the vote will signal at least a short intermission to political gridlock. The coalition is weak, and political analysts are already predicting its demise over a wide variety of disagreements — gay rights, the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and even the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to marry freely.
Netanyahu served as acting prime minister for much of the coronavirus pandemic, eventually sourcing enough vaccines to oversee one of the world’s fastest vaccination drives. But Israelis failed to reward that achievement with a clear victory for the rightwing bloc of parties in March elections.
Coalition-building among his rivals was interrupted by a fortnight of communal strife within Israel, accompanied by an 11-day aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip to contain the Palestinian militant group Hamas and widespread revolts in the occupied West Bank.
More than 250 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, and about a dozen were killed in Israel in the worst violence since the 2014 war with Hamas.
But opposition leaders — four of the parties are run by people Netanyahu personally groomed, then betrayed in one way or another — pulled together a coalition with little more than half an hour to spare before a deadline that would have triggered fresh elections.
It includes the Ra’am Islamist party, which represents the traditional Muslim vote among the 2m Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is joining the government in exchange for billions of dollars of investment for one of the most impoverished sections of Israeli society.