Naftali Bennett hails ‘new days’ for Israel as world leaders welcome incoming PM
World leaders have congratulated Naftali Bennett after he was sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister, bringing to an end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 straight years in power.
Bennett, a far-right former settler leader, addressed his newly sworn-in cabinet late on Sunday night, saying the country was “at the outset of new days”. He added: “Citizens of Israel are all looking to us now, and the burden of proof is upon us.”
US president Joe Biden spoke to Bennett on Sunday, and “expressed his firm intent to deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel on the many challenges and opportunities facing the region”.
“The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran,” the White House said.
An earlier statement said Biden looked forward to working with Bennett, adding: “Israel has no better friend than the United States.”
Bennet was sworn in on Sunday evening after opposition leader Yair Lapid, a centrist former TV news anchor, won a confidence vote in the Knesset by a razor-thin advantage of 60-59 seats. Under a power-sharing agreement, Bennett will hand the reins to Lapid after two years.
Bennett, 49, told the parliament before the vote that his government “represents all of Israel” and that the country, after four inconclusive elections in less than two years, had been thrown “into a maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting”.
“The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the population, to stop, to stop this madness”, he said, to angry shouts of “liar” and “criminal” from right-wing opponents. Two were dragged out by security.
Who is Naftali Bennett?
A far-right former settler leader, Naftali Bennett was once a senior aide and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and ran Israel’s education and defence ministries in his governments.
Bennett, who wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank, remains ideologically close to Netanyahu and was once a member of his ruling Likud party. However, the 49-year-old has fallen foul of his old boss.
A stalwart of Israel’s religious right, Bennett is a former leader of Yesha, the main Jewish settler movement in the West Bank. He has made settlement expansion, the annexation of Palestinian land and the rejection of a Palestinian state a feature of his political platform.
“I would not give another centimetre to the Arabs,” he said in 2018. “We have to drop the idea that if we give them more territory the world will love us.”
The son of immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett became a hi-tech millionaire after selling an anti-fraud software company to a US security firm. On some issues, the former commando is less conservative than his colleague on the hard right, including gay rights and the relationship between religion and state. Oliver Holmes
Bennett has been branded a traitor by some politicians on the religious right, who accused him of abandoning his ideology in order to join Jewish “leftists” and Arab politicians.
After Bennett’s government has explicitly pledged not to address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, some figures abroad highlighted the need to pursue peace in their messages of congratulation. British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said: “I look forward to continued cooperation on security, trade and climate change, and working together to secure peace in the region.”
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau pointed out that Ottawa “remains steadfast in its commitment to a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living in peace, security, and dignity – without fear and with their human rights respected”.
European Council president Charles Michel said he was looking forward to strengthening the EU-Israel partnership “for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace and stability”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Bennett in comments tweeted by her spokeswoman. “Germany and Israel are connected by a unique friendship that we want to strengthen further. With this in mind, I look forward to working closely with you,” she said.
Protesters who have held rallies outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem for months calling for his ousting, gathered again on Saturday night to celebrate. A black banner stretched across a wall read: “Bye Bye, Bibi, Bye bye.”
Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, including blockaded Gaza, Netanyahu’s departure has been welcomed. But there is little optimism around the new government.
Bennett has ruled out a Palestinian state and wants Israel to maintain ultimate control over all the lands it occupies. He leads a self-described “government of change” that is a mix of ideologically opposed politicians from hardline Jewish religious nationalists to a small Arab Islamist party.
Published coalition agreements showed the new government would focus mostly on economic and social issues, such as passing a state budget and building new hospitals, rather than risk an internal fight by trying to address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. However, Bennett will have executive powers as prime minister to further solidify the occupation.
The new administration breaks a political deadlock that has seen four snap elections since 2019. During that time, Netanyahu, who is famed for his political skills, managed to keep his rivals bickering and divided while he clung to power, even after he was indicted in three criminal corruption cases on charges he denies.
The government’s first major test will be on Tuesday when a parade attended by far-right Jewish nationalists is set to march through Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.
Israeli police had changed the route to avoid the Muslim quarter of the Old City after a similar march last month played a key role in building the tensions that led to the latest Gaza conflict. However, the planned march will still pass through Arab areas and is seen as deeply provocative.