JERUSALEM—Benjamin Netanyahu’s long and boisterous rule came to an end on Sunday with one final broadside against the world.
The embittered ex-prime minister channeled his inner Trump to claim the Israeli election was fraudulent and label his opponents fascists and turncoats, and compare them to the regimes in Iran and North Korea. He lashed out at President Biden, claiming the state of Israel faced an existential threat if its government was not powerful enough to say “no” to the United States.
In fact, the new government was voted into power democratically on Sunday, with a parliamentary vote granting a laser-thin ruling majority to a coalition of opposition parties led by the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and new foreign minister Yair Lapid.
Bennett, 49, and Lapid, 57, signed a rotation agreement, with Bennett serving as prime minister for the first two years.
Almost unknown outside of Israel, Bennett, a nationalist hardliner, and the centrist Lapid succeeded where almost a generation of politicians have failed: to replace Netanyahu, 71, whose 12 years in office made him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the country’s most dominant modern leader.
Netanyahu did not depart gracefully. He has been sensitive to comparisons with Donald Trump, disputing claims that he adopted the former president’s style and language. But Netanyahu couldn’t resist one last tribute: becoming the first prime minister in Israeli history to refuse to take part in the traditional handover ceremony to mark the peaceful transfer of power.
In his parting shot in the Knesset, Netanyahu claimed that his ouster could bring about the very destruction of Israel.
He belittled Bennett, who entered politics by serving as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. “Bennett? He doesn’t have the international standing, the ability, or the knowledge. An Israeli prime minister must be able to say ‘no’ to an American president… An Israeli government that cannot stand up strongly to the international community—it is no surprise they are celebrating in Iran today.”
Netanyahu also made the totally unfounded allegation that Biden would not safeguard Israel, and compared the Iran deal—which was signed by President Obama and wrecked by Trump—to Americans failing to stop the Holocaust.
“The new American administration asked me to keep our disagreements quiet,” he said, explaining that he replied “No!” to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “But I told them we wouldn’t do it, and I’ll tell you why. The lessons of history are in front of my eyes. In 1944, at the height of the Holocaust, President Roosevelt refused to bomb the trains and the gas chambers, which could have saved our people.”
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Netanyahu is expected to continue to serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, as opposition leader.
Naftali Bennett faces an uphill battle to reassure and unify Israelis after two and a half years of political upheaval, a brutal month of civil strife, and a deadly conflict with Hamas, the militia ruling the Gaza Strip.
His speech in parliament could barely be heard over unending catcalls and jeers from Netanyahu’s allies, who find themselves in the opposition for the first time in more than a decade. As Knesset members howled and flashed posters—some were escorted out of the chamber—Bennett’s young children flashed him “love” hand signs from the gallery.
Lapid, the mastermind of the coalition, who will become the next prime minister, was so appalled by the behavior of Likud members that he dropped his speech altogether.
“I’m skipping the speech I planned to deliver today because I’m here to do only one thing—to ask for my mother’s forgiveness,” he said.
“My mother is 86 years old, and we don’t ask her to come to Jerusalem lightly. We did it because I assumed that you would be able to get over yourselves and behave with statesmanship, and she would see the smooth transition of government.
“When she was born, there was no state of Israel. Tel Aviv was a small town of 30,000 people and we didn’t have a parliament. I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead, she—along with every citizen of Israel—is embarrassed by you and remembers clearly why it’s time to replace you.”
On a historic day in Israeli politics, the parliament also voted in a new president of the Knesset: Mickey Levy, a member of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.
The White House appeared to breathe a sigh of relief with Netanyahu’s departure. In stark contrast to the three weeks Biden waited before calling Netanyahu after his January inauguration, the president called to congratulate Bennett within two hours of the swearing-in.
Netanyahu’s final days in office will be remembered for the avalanche of incitement, insults, and threats hurled at Bennett by his supporters. In a warning not heard in Israel in the 25 years since the 1995 assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the nation’s top interior security official Nadav Argaman warned that the violent language emanating from elected officials could lead to loss of life.
The new government is the most diverse in Israel’s history, and the first to include a majority-Arab party. Raam, the Israeli Islamic Movement’s political wing, and Meretz, the left-wing party headed by the openly gay Nitzan Horowitz, are both members.
The eight political parties comprising the cabinet range from Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Israel Beyteinu—which once called for the transfer of Israeli Arab citizens to a future state of Palestine—to Labor, which advocates for a two state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Bennett’s Yamina party, representing mostly Jewish West Bank settlers, holds only 6 seats out of the 120-member house.
Significant attention will be paid to Raam leader Mansour Abbas, a 47-year-old dentist from the Galilean city of Mghar, and a longtime activist for the integration of political Islam into Israel’s mainstream. He was a virtual unknown until the most recent election cycle, when Netanyahu, sensing possible defeat and scouting for new allies, enticed him to abandon the Joint List, the larger bloc of majority-Arab parties.
Netanyahu, who as recently as this year referred to Israeli Arab leaders as “terrorists,” restyled himself with the Arabic honorific “Abu Yair,” and, campaigning alongside Abbas, the most conservative leader of an Israeli Arab party, promised significant budgetary concessions to Israel’s Arab minority—about 22 percent of the general population, which has historically faced significant discrimination.
But facing pressure from his right-wing flank, including Bennett, Netanyahu quickly retracted his promises. Yet by then Abbas, having been presented as a possible ally of the prime minister, had become part of the political landscape.
He used his newly earned political capital to seal Netanyahu’s fate. Abbas, as much as Bennett, created the new coalition, helping push the nascent government into a majority.
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Speaking to the political activist Afif Abu Much, Fadi Amun, a university student, said that seeing Abbas among the new coalition members left him with a sort of “cognitive dissonance.”
“It used to be said that Netanyahu is a political genius, and he is, but this time an Arab from the village put an end to the prime minister’s Wild West treatment of Arab citizens of Israel.”
A lot is at stake for the 73-year-old country. Speaking on a panel about Israeli identity, Abu Much said that the first thing the government needed to impose, to heal Israel’s fractured society, is that “the word ‘Israeli’ has to stop being a synonym for ‘Jew.’
The question of Israeli-ness has pursued Yair Lapid for much of his life. In the first decade of the 2000s, Lapid, then the host of a popular talk show, interviewed almost every living Israeli prime minister amid segments of standup comedy and popular music. In March 2003, one day after the formation of a new Israeli government, he interviewed the incoming deputy prime minister and minister for economy—none other than his father, Tommy Lapid.
Lapid, whose disarmingly casual style often led to piercing revelations, began by asking his father why he’d broken his campaign promises. “When I was a child, you taught me that an honest man never breaks his promises. And you promised you’d not serve as the left bank of a narrow right-wing government, and you’re serving as the left bank of a narrow right-wing government. You broke your promise.”
The elder Lapid, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, apologized, and added, “I compromised. Maybe I forgot to tell you, when you were a child, that life sometimes brings you to make compromises, too.”
It is a lesson Yair, whose mother is the renowned Israeli-born novelist Shulamit Lapid, internalized well.
At the end of the interview, Lapid lobbed a fixed set of questions at his dad, including “What is Israeli?”
“You,” his father replied.
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