Meet Israel’s New Prime Minister
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Meet Israel’s New Prime Minister

Naftali Bennett replaces longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennet.
Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennet.

In an especially raucous Israeli legislative session, members of the Knesset voted 60 to 59 with one abstention June 13 to replace the government of Benjamin Netanyahu with a unity coalition government led by religious Zionist leader Naftali Bennett. According to the coalition agreements, Bennett will be replaced with Yair Lapid – leader of the largest party in the coalition – in August 2023. Until then, Lapid will serve as foreign minister and alternate prime minister.

As newsworthy as the new government is, including the largest number of female ministers, the first Israeli Arab party, and a prime minister from the smallest party ever, it is the removal of the longest-serving prime minister that is the biggest news. Netanyahu served a total of 15 years, including for the last consecutive 12 years.

According to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, “Netanyahu is leaving behind a divided Israeli society, and the new government can play an important role in reducing divisive political rhetoric, calming tensions in Israeli society and fostering a unity of purpose that is needed to face Israel’s many challenges. All Israelis should take pride in the vitality of our democratic traditions and the peaceful transition of power that will take place over the next few days.”

Likewise, Dov Wilker, regional director of American Jewish Committee, told the AJT, “I am proud of what Israel has accomplished by the formation of a unity government. This new government represents the diversity of Israel and will have to address some of Israel’s most critical issues. I look forward to a stable government that will continue to capitalize on the incredible accomplishments that Israel has achieved in its history.”

Dov Wilker is AJC regional director.

AJC’s national CEO David Harris said his organization “looks forward to working with the new coalition, as we have consistently done with every Israeli government since 1948, and we wish the leadership every success.”

The Israel Policy Forum, an American Jewish organization that supports a two-state solution, released a statement noting how Israelis are “relieved to put an end to the political and governing instability that has marked more than two years and four elections, and we are heartened to see a coalition that represents an unprecedented wide range of views and includes an Arab party alongside Jewish ones.”

Bennett will be the country’s first religiously observant, kippah-wearing leader and, as head of the seven-member Yamina party, he will be the first leader of the smallest party to ever be appointed prime minister, according to The Times of Israel. In contrast, the other rotating prime minister, Lapid – scheduled to take the position about two years into the new government term – heads a 17-member party.

Netanyahu is leader of Likud, the largest party coming out of the March elections with 30 members, but he was unable to cobble together a coalition.

After so many years led by one prime minister, Israel supporters around the world will need an introduction to the new leader.

Born and raised in Haifa, Bennett is the son of American immigrants from San Francisco. As a child, he lived in Canada for a few years. And after serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he lived in the United States while leading a technology company, which he then sold, making millions.

He returned to Israel to enter politics, eventually serving as education minister and defense minister as well as chief of staff to Netanyahu. Although he lives in Ra’anana near Tel Aviv, he led a settler organization and is known for his support of annexing much of the West Bank and his opposition to a Palestinian state.

His biggest challenge as the next new prime minister, however, will be keeping his unity government together. According to Israeli press reports, the new government will likely avoid any controversial issues like those involving the Palestinians. The government will focus instead on internal concerns such as passing a national budget for the first time in more than two years and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure as well as the economy after the devastating pandemic last year.

This is the first government since 2015 without the inclusion of an ultra-Orthodox party, so political observers believe that it may make headway on issues that concern the majority of American Jews. Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggests that a deal to provide the Conservative and Reform movements with improved prayer space at the Western Wall for egalitarian services could finally be implemented.

According to the deal approved by an earlier Netanyahu government canceled in 2017 due to the ultra-Orthodox parties, there would be equal visibility and accessibility to the existing gender-segregated Orthodox areas. This agreement had been widely supported by the non-Orthodox movements in the U.S., as well as by Bennett, who was minister of diaspora affairs at the time.

Mitchell Kaye blames “Bibi-fatigue” for Netanyahu not being able to form government.

According to Atlantan Mitchell Kaye, the fact that Netanyahu was replaced is due more to “Bibi-fatigue,” referring to the prime minister’s nickname, than his policies. “The electorate has moved rightward over the past decade,” he wrote in an email to the AJT. “Despite his flaws, he has been a great leader for Israel in providing security, a booming economy and in public alliances with many Arab countries,” added Kaye, who served five terms in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Notable for Atlantans, the new minister of diaspora affairs is Nachman Shai, who recently spent a year at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University.

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