The handover of power in the Knesset this past Sunday was raucous, as nationalist lawmakers heckled incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for betraying their cause by joining his Yamina party to seven others in a ruling coalition, breaking the stalemate that goes back to the 2019 election when incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party failed to maintain their coalition.
After thanking Netanyahu, outgoing President Reuven Rivlin, Rivlin’s successor Isaac Herzog, coalition partner Yair Lapid, and other colleagues, Bennett patiently stood as the hecklers were led out of the chamber.
“The external challenges we face are great: the Iranian nuclear project, which is moving towards a crucial point; the ongoing war on terror; Israel’s image in the world and the unfair treatment it receives in international institutions – these are all sizable and complex tasks,” he said in his opening remarks.
“At this time, we are also facing an internal challenge. The ongoing rift in the nation, as we see in these very moments, which continues to rip apart the seams that hold us together, and has thrown us – one election after another – into a maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting.”
Bennett’s election was by the narrowest of margins: 60 to 59, following the administration of the country’s longest ruling Prime Minister. The occasion marked a historic moment as the chareidi and Religious Zionist Parties were out of the government, in contrast to Bennett – an Orthodox Jew who wears a kipah and observes Shabbos.
Although Bennett’s Yamina party secured only seven seats, he was offered the top position by Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party has 17 seats. The deal limits Bennett’s residency on Balfour Street to two years, after which Lapid will become the Prime Minister. The most diverse coalition in Israel’s history brought the Labor Party back from the margins, along with Meretz, which is to the left of Labor on the political spectrum. It also includes former Likudniks Gideon Saar and his New Hope Party, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.
The main point of agreement among these parties was the ouster of Netanyahu, but nearly everything else on their respective wish lists is up in the air. Bennett ran on the platform of annexing the post-1967 territories, while Meretz seeks to withdraw from these lands. Among the incoming Labor lawmakers is a Reform rabbi, but it is unclear if he can secure official recognition for his movement under Bennett, who promised to maintain the religious status quo.
Mansour Abbas, whose Ra’am Party has four seats, spoke before being sworn in with examples of promises delivered to his constituents. As the first Arab party to sit in a governing coalition, it was elected amid low turnout in the Arab sector amid distrust with the Jewish majority government.
“We will reclaim the lands that were expropriated from our people; this is a national cause of the first degree,” he said in Arabic, in reference to his promise of legalizing unofficial Bedouin communities in the Negev desert. He then switched to Hebrew. “We come from different nations, different religions, and different sectors. There is one thing that connects all citizens of Israel and that is citizenship.” He also spoke of combating crime in his community and promoting interfaith dialogue.
Breaking with precedent, Netanyahu was absent from Bennett’s swearing-in. After taking his seat as the leader of the opposition, he spoke with optimism about his future. “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,” he said.
On his handover of the Housing and Construction Ministry, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism condemned the new government. “It’s a government of Reformists, of allowing civil marriages, all the bad things, all the curses of the Torah,” he said. “I hope we won’t be here too long and there will be elections soon.”
Last week, Rabbi Litzman called Bennett “evil” in a defiant press conference. “I call on Bennett to remove his yarmulke. It is great impertinence; he should take his yarmulke off after signing these things,” he said.
Bennett’s biography is a story of religious and political shifts that began with his parents Jim and Myrna. Inspired by Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six-Day War, they made aliyah shortly after the ceasefire. After initially living in a kibbutz, they relocated to Haifa, where the father found success in real estate. As his parents became observant, they enrolled Naftali in religious schools and camps. During the family’s brief periods in America, he learned at the Chabad preschool in Montreal and the Yavneh yeshivah in New Jersey.
Bennett’s connection to Netanyahu goes back to an early book that he wrote, The Letters of Yoni, on his heroic brother Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed while rescuing Jewish hostages in Entebbe. Following the example of the author, Bennett served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit as a commander in Lebanon. Following his military service, he earned his law degree and then became a tech entrepreneur with a group of fellow Sayeret Matkal veterans.
He entered politics in 2006 as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Since then, he left the Likud for the Jewish Home, and then founded the Yamina Party, in the meantime serving as chair of the Yesha Council, and as Minister of the Economy, Education, and Defense at different times.
The incoming Prime Minister was congratulated by the leaders of Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, which established relations with Israel last year, and President Joe Biden, among other world leaders.
“Israel has no better friend than the United States,” Biden wrote in a statement. “The bond that unites our people is evidence of our shared values and decades of close cooperation, and as we continue to strengthen our partnership, the United States remains unwavering in its support for Israel’s security.”
By Sergey Kadinsky