JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power was set to end on Sunday when parliament votes on a new government of improbable allies in a nation bitterly divided over his departure.
The schism was evident at a raucous session of the legislature ahead of the vote.
Netanyahu loyalists, shouting “shame” and “liar”, frequently interrupted the man set to replace him, nationalist Naftali Bennett, as he spelled out the new coalition’s policies.
Netanyahu, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, had failed to form a government after a March 23 election, the fourth in two years.
Bennett, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire, is set to head a new administration that includes left-wing, centrist and Arab legislators, which he cobbled together with opposition leader Yair Lapid. It will likely be fragile, with a razor-thin majority.
Parliament convened at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to approve the government in a confidence vote that will follow speeches and a debate that could take about four hours. After its ratification, the new cabinet will be sworn in.
Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew, will serve as premier for two years before Lapid, 57, a former TV host, takes over.
“Thank you Benjamin Netanyahu for your lengthy and achievement-filled service on behalf of the State of Israel,” Bennett said, pledging to be prime minister for “all Israelis”.
His government, including for the first time a party that represents Israel’s 21% Arab minority, plans largely to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians, and to focus on domestic reforms.
Bennett said his government would promote economic steps toward the Palestinians but any violence by Palestinians would be met by a strong response.
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, predicting that Bennett will pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
This does seem likely regarding Israel’s top security concern, Iran – and possible friction with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration over the 2015 nuclear pact between Tehran and world powers. Biden predecessor Donald Trump left the deal, but Biden wants to return to it.
“Renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake, an error that would again grant legitimisation to one of the darkest and violent regimes in the world,” Bennett said. “Israel will not allow Iran to equip itself with nuclear weapons.”
Thanking Biden for his “years of commitment to Israel’s security”, and for “standing by Israel” during fighting with Hamas militants in Gaza last month, Bennett said his government would pursue good relations with U.S. Democrats and Republicans.
“The government will make an effort to deepen and enhance our relations with both parties – bipartisan,” Bennett said.
In his address to parliament, a combative Netanyahu said: “If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it.”
Bennett doesn’t have the international standing, credibility or capability to “truly object” to the nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu said.
BYE BYE BIBI?
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 winning four more terms in succession since 2009, he has been a polarising figure, both abroad and at home.
Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his supporters and loathed by critics. His ongoing corruption trial – on charges he denies – has only deepened the rift.
His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhand political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival. Some have dubbed him “Crime Minister” and have accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
Bennett has drawn anger from within the right-wing camp for breaking a campaign pledge by joining forces with Lapid – and an allegation from Netanyahu that he defrauded the electorate. Bennett has said another election – a likely outcome if no government were formed – would have been a disaster for Israel.
Both Bennett and Lapid, who also addressed parliament, have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.
They drew some cheers and applause during the session amid non-stop heckling from their opponents.
Their cabinet faces huge foreign, 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.
Bennett listed as priorities reforms in education, health, cutting red tape to grow businesses and lower housing costs. Coalition leaders have said it would pass a two-year budget to help stabilise the country’s finances and maintain a “status quo” on issues of religion and state.
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