Israel was set to swear in a new government on Sunday that will end a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years and send Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years as prime minister.
Netanyahu had failed to form a government after the country's March 23 election, a task that political opponents Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid managed with minutes to spare on June 2.
The new cabinet, which will be sworn in after a Knesset confidence vote it is expected to win, was cobbled together by the centrist opposition leader Lapid and his right-wing ally.
Bennett, a hawkish high-tech millionaire, will serve as prime minister for two years before Lapid, a former finance minister and journalist, takes over.
They will head a government that comprises parties from across the political spectrum, including for the first time one that represents the Arab minority that makes up a fifth of the country.
Hoping to keep their disparate coalition together, they plan largely to avoid sweeping moves on divisive international issues such the Palestinians while they focus on domestic reforms.
With little to no prospect of progress toward resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel, many Palestinians will be unmoved by the change of administration, saying Bennett will likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
The inauguration of the new coalition was to begin Sunday at around 4pm, when members of the Knesset were to convene in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut to approve the new government.
Bennett was to present the coalition and its agenda as well as its ministers. He was to be followed by Lapid and the outgoing prime minister – who has not yet confirmed his attendance.
The remainder of the Knesset factions were then to have nine minutes each to address the plenum.
A new Knesset speaker, Mickey Levy from Yesh Atid, was then to be elected and preside over the vote to approve the government and over the swearing-in of its ministers.
Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his hard-core supporters and loathed by critics. His ongoing corruption trial, on charges he denies, has only deepened the chasm.
On the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice, the telegenic Netanyahu has become the face of Israel.
Serving in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and since 2009 winning four more terms in succession, he has been a polarizing figure, both abroad and at home.
His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhanded political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival. Some have dubbed him "Crime Minister" due to his corruption trial and have accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
Celebrations by his opponents to mark the end of the Netanyahu era began late on Saturday outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests against the right-wing leader for the past year, where a black banner stretched across a wall read: “Bye Bye, Bibi, Bye bye”, and demonstrators sang, beat drums and danced.
But for Netanyahu’s large and loyal voter base, the departure of “King Bibi” as some call him, may be difficult to accept.
His supporters are angered by what they see as the country turning its back on a leader dedicated to its security and a bulwark against international pressure for any steps that could lead to a Palestinian state, even as he promoted diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
None of those moves, however, nor the role he played in securing COVID-19 vaccines for the country’s world-beating inoculation campaign, were enough to grant Netanyahu’s Likud party enough votes to secure him a sixth term in office.
Bennett in particular has drawn anger from within the right-wing camp for breaking a campaign pledge by joining forces with Lapid.
He has justified the move by saying a fifth election since April 2019, which would likely be called were no government formed, would have been a disaster for Israel.
Both he and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.
Their cabinet faces considerable diplomatic, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian militants in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
On top of that, their patchwork coalition of parties commands only a razor-thin majority in parliament, 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and will still have to contend with Netanyahu - who is sure to be a combative head of the opposition. And no one is ruling out a Netanyahu comeback.
First published: 07:31, 06.13.21