The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After more than a decade, Israelis wake up to a government without Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (seated, left) chats with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of a group photo with ministers of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem, June 14, 2021. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

TEL AVIV — An odds-defying new unity government began laying the groundwork Monday for an Israeli political scene that — for the first time in 12 years — will be defined by factors beyond Benjamin Netanyahu, his divisive rhetoric and his proclivity for testing the country's democratic founding principles.

Immediately after a Sunday evening confidence vote in the Knesset confirmed the new coalition government, demonstrations for and against Netanyahu erupted on the streets, across social media, and in family and community WhatsApp groups. The outpourings highlighted the sharp divide between those who have long seen Netanyahu as “crime minister” — borderline dictator, embroiled in corruption charges, willing to take the country down with him — and those who see him as “King Bibi,” the blameless victim of what he calls leftist “witch hunts.”

On Sunday, Tel Aviv, Israel’s liberal hub, burst into celebration. Thousands of Israelis flooded Rabin Square, waving blue and white Israeli flags and dancing to Beatles ballads and Israeli pop songs while being sprayed with foam machines. “We are rid of Haman!” Israeli singer Achinoam Nini exclaimed from the stage, referring to the villain from the biblical story of Purim. The cheers exalting the end of the Netanyahu era echoed across town, as Israelis stripped down and splashed in the water of public fountains at Dizengoff Square and the Habima theater.

Netanyahu supporters, on the other hand, attended somber protests near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags featuring Netanyahu’s face. They decried the new governing coalition as “dangerous” and “left-wing,” and they chanted for the return of Netanyahu to power.

“Bibi, King of Israel,” one group chanted into the evening, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname and prompting a thank-you tweet from him.

“I love you! We are not afraid of a long journey!” he wrote.

There were immediate signs of a shift from Netanyahu’s conservative focus. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of the liberal Meretz party announced plans to lift restrictions on gay men donating blood, reversing a policy dating from earlier in the AIDS epidemic that many in the LGBTQ community see as discriminatory.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for a state inquiry into an April stampede at Mount Meron, where 45 people were killed at a religious event. An official probe of the disaster was thwarted by ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians. The call for an investigation marked an early sign that the leniency Netanyahu often showed to ultra-Orthodox leaders is changing.

The unity government — which calls for right-wing former defense minister Naftali Bennett to serve as prime minister for two years before handing over the job to centrist Yair Lapid — is composed of eight ideologically disparate parties from the left, center and right, including, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Islamist party from the country’s Arab community.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new leader, represents a break with its more secular past

United by the mission of dislodging Netanyahu from power, the coalition also includes the left-wing Meretz party. It had been relegated for years to the fringes of the opposition, as its main rallying cry — the two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — was seen as increasingly irrelevant.

Of the 27 ministers, nine are women, including Labor Party leader and vocal feminist Merav Michaeli. Their roles represent a sharp contrast with Netanyahu’s previous cabinets, which were deeply influenced by ultra-Orthodox parties that opposed the participation of women in government. One ultra-Orthodox newspaper blurred out the faces of women in the coalition’s first group photograph.

The newcomers, who have pledged to improve strained bipartisan relations with the United States, basked in a flurry of congratulatory messages from Washington, including phone calls from President Biden to Bennett, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Gantz and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Lapid, the new foreign minister. That, too, was a change from Biden’s weeks-long delay in calling Netanyahu after entering the White House in January.

“The outgoing government took a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous, to focus exclusively on the Republican Party and abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing,” said Lapid, who accepted Blinken’s invitation to Washington.

Netanyahu, on the government’s first day, predicted a fast end to the new coalition.

“The fraudulent government will fall quickly,” Netanyahu said Monday. “Three things unite it: hatred, exclusion and domination. With such hatred it is impossible to hold a government for long.”

His allies, including far-right religious nationalists and ultra-Orthodox parties, are also pledging a comeback.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, which enjoyed elevated status during Netanyahu’s tenure, led a prayer alongside other influential rabbis at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday. They prayed for the failure of a government that they said “wants to erase the Jewish identity in the state of Israel” . . . and “harm the holiness” of Jewish laws and customs.

The new government will have little room for error as it tries to get its footing. The leaders have pledged to focus largely on Israel’s budget, which has not been updated in more than two years. But Israeli negotiators are still working on a longer-term cease-fire with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. And tensions remain high in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. On Tuesday, a group of right-wing nationalists has planned a march through the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

“You don’t get the 100 days of grace period any more,” said Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute and the Open University. “The honeymoon is like an hour or two before the media starts to criticize.”

On Monday, Netanyahu refused to participate in the customary handover-of-power ceremony for Bennett, instead opting for an abbreviated half-hour meeting.

The last time Netanyahu was unseated, in 1999, he raised a glass to then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who had defeated him at the polls. But then, Barak has said, it took Netanyahu and his family six weeks to evacuate the prime minister’s residence.

The ever-present anti-Netanyahu protesters on Balfour Street near the residence said they would maintain their vigil until the Netanyahus move out.

“We’re not leaving until he’s gone,” said Sylvia Strumpfma, a 68-year-old pensioner who has been part of the encampment for more than a year.