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Netanyahu to meet Bennett Monday to formally transfer power

At first cabinet meeting, Bennett, Lapid vow to work to make new government last

Incoming prime minister says ‘we are at the start of new days’; alternative PM: ‘Friendship and trust’ are foundation of coalition and only that will keep it in power

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the new government's first cabinet meeting, held at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the new government's first cabinet meeting, held at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Israel’s new government held a festive first cabinet meeting Sunday night following a historic Knesset vote swearing-in Naftali Bennett as prime minister and ousting Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in office, with party leaders calling for “restraint” and “trust” to ensure the survival of the fledgling government.

Presiding over the meeting, held in the Knesset, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opened his remarks with the “Shehechiyanu” prayer of thanksgiving. “We are at the start of new days,” he said, calling the establishment of a new government “a wonder.”

MKs voted by a wafer-thin 60-59 in favor of the new government, made up of right-wing, left-wing, centrist, and Islamist parties that came together to oust Netanyahu and end two years of political deadlock.

Bennett vowed that the new government would work to “mend the rift in the nation” after two years of political deadlock.

Stressing the wide range of views within the new coalition, Bennett urged his ministers to show “restraint” over the numerous ideological differences between the disparate parties to ensure its stability.

Newly elected Prime Minister Naftali Bennett waves, with Yair Lapid (left) and Gideon Sa’ar (right) alongside him, after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

The government is backed by eight of the 13 parties that won seats in the March 23 election, for a total of 60 votes in the 120-member Knesset: Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Yamina (6 of its 7 MKs), New Hope (6), Meretz (6) and Ra’am (3 of its 4 MKs).

Without giving away any specific policy proposals that the new government would deal with in its first days, Bennett only said Sunday night that its cabinet meetings would start on time on Sunday mornings, in an apparent jibe at Netanyahu, who was notoriously late for the meetings.

Lapid, sitting alongside Bennett, said “friendship and trust” were the foundation of the government and only “friendship and trust” will keep it in power.

Bennett will serve as prime minister first in the rotation agreement with Lapid, who will serve as alternately prime minister and foreign minister until the handover on August 27, 2023.

Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, expected to be chosen as the next opposition leader,  will hold a meeting with Bennett on Monday to hand over the reins of the premiership, his office said in a statement during the new cabinet meeting.

The meeting will take place at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, the statement said, making clear that the outgoing prime minister will not take part in a traditional handover toast with the new prime minister at prime minister’s residence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sits next to military secretary Avi Blot during a cabinet meeting on August 16, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In the meantime, in an attempt to ensure a smooth transition, Bennett will retain Brig. Gen. Avi Blot in his role as military secretary. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will also stay in office until after his successor is appointed. Both top officials were appointed by Netanyahu.

Following the cabinet meeting, Bennett met with Blot and Ben-Shabbat for his first security briefing as premier.

On Monday, a number of ministries will already hold hand-over ceremonies between the outgoing ministers and their incoming successors.

In terms of the top ministerial positions, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz remains defense minister and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was sworn Sunday in as finance minister. New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar was appointed justice minister, while Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked was named interior minister and Yamina’s Matan Kahana took on the role of religious affairs minister. Labor’s Merav Michaeli received the transportation portfolio, and her fellow party member Omer Barlev became the new public security minister. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz was appointed health minister.

The coalition represents an unprecedentedly diverse mix of parties and leaders have vowed to try to work via consensus to heal rifts in Israeli society without crossing their own ideological red lines.

Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right), alternate PM Yair Lapid (center), and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in the Knesset, June 13, 2021. (Noam Moscowitz / Knesset spokesperson)

Speaking before the confidence vote in a speech repeatedly interrupted by the new opposition members, Bennett presented his new “reasonable and responsible” government, pledging that it would “end a terrible period of hatred among the people of Israel.”

As members of Netanyahu’s party shouted at Bennett that he was “a criminal” and a “liar,” Bennett said Likud MKs were providing proof of the urgent need to bring back decency and unity to Israeli politics.

He said the new government would work “for all the citizens of Israel” and bring an end to a cycle of elections and divisiveness. Israel has held four national elections since April 2019, which until now had yielded just one government: the short-lived power-sharing coalition last year of Likud and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White.

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