Knesset set to swear in new government, unseating Netanyahu

Barring an 11th -hour surprise, Naftali Bennett slated to become PM; Ra’am to become first-ever Arab party to play key role in formation of government

Leading members of the prospective 36th government, left to right, top to bottom: Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Ayelet Shaked, Gideon Sa'ar, Avigdor Liberman, Omer Barlev, Merav Michaeli, Nitzan Horowitz, Chili Tropper, Yifat Shasha-Biton, Ze'ev Elkin, Orna Barbivai, Tamar Zandberg, Matan Kahana, Yoaz Hendel (Yonatan Sindel, Olivier Fitoussi, Avshalom Sassoni,  Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Leading members of the prospective 36th government, left to right, top to bottom: Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Ayelet Shaked, Gideon Sa'ar, Avigdor Liberman, Omer Barlev, Merav Michaeli, Nitzan Horowitz, Chili Tropper, Yifat Shasha-Biton, Ze'ev Elkin, Orna Barbivai, Tamar Zandberg, Matan Kahana, Yoaz Hendel (Yonatan Sindel, Olivier Fitoussi, Avshalom Sassoni, Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Knesset on Sunday afternoon was set to convene for a history-making vote to form a new government. The new coalition was widely expected to be successfully sworn in, unseating Israel’s longest-serving premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, after 12 consecutive years in power.

The prospective 36th government of Israel is composed of strange bedfellows of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties that came together to oust Netanyahu and end two years of political deadlock. Its swearing-in hangs on a single vote, with 61 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers expected to back the fragile political alliance.

Barring any last-minute surprises, right-wing Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will become prime minister, to be replaced two years later by centrist Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid, while Netanyahu — who has led the country overall for 15 years — will become the leader of the opposition. The new government would also be the first in Israel’s history in which an Arab Israeli party has played such a key role, with the Islamist Ra’am set to be a partner. The coalition deals between the parties were finalized on Friday.

The intended Lapid-Bennett government is backed by eight of the 13 parties that won seats in the March 23 election, for an expected total of 61 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 (4). The parties slated to be shunted to the opposition are: Netanyahu’s Likud, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, the far-right Religious Zionism, and the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid are seen on Wednesday evening, as they inform President Reuven Rivlin they have succeeded in forming a government, June 2, 2021. (Courtesy)

The coalition represents an unprecedentedly diverse mix of parties, from right (Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu) to center (Yesh Atid and Blue and White), to left (Labor and Meretz), in addition to the conservative Islamist Party Ra’am. Their leaders have vowed to try to work via consensus to heal rifts in Israeli society without crossing their own ideological red lines.

Netanyahu has been trying to woo defectors from the ranks of some of the parties in recent days, without success. As things stand, the Bennett-Lapid coalition is expected to be approved in the Knesset by a wafer-thin 61-59 votes.

Two Arab lawmakers from the Ta’al party within the Arab List were reportedly considering abstaining, thus allowing the coalition to secure its majority even if Netanyahu succeeds in peeling away lawmakers from the so-called “change bloc.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In the first glimmers of possible dissent within the diverse coalition, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, angered by his offered role in the government, informed his party leader Avigdor Liberman he won’t vote along party lines in the new coalition, the Ynet news site reported on Saturday night. However, Avidar won’t vote against the establishment of the new government and torpedo the bid, the report said.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar at the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s Likud has committed to an orderly transition of power if the Knesset approves the new government, even as it raged against the prospect of Bennett becoming prime minister having won just seven Knesset seats. Likud won 30 seats in the March vote to again become the largest party, but Netanyahu failed to assemble a coalition.

Israel has held four national elections since April 2019, which yielded just one government: a short-lived power-sharing coalition of Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White.

In terms of top ministerial positions in the new government, Lapid will serve as foreign minister in the first two years of the government, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will remain defense minister, and the Finance Ministry will be held by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman. New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar will be justice minister, while Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked will be interior minister and Yamina’s Matan Kahana will be religious affairs minister. Labor’s Merav Michaeli received the transportation portfolio and her fellow party member Omer Barlev will be public security minister. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz will be appointed health minister, while fellow party member Tamar Zandberg will be environmental protection minister. The full list of portfolios can be seen here.

The new cabinet will have 28 ministers and six deputy ministers, making it the third-largest in Israel’s history, second only to the outgoing government (35 cabinet ministers) and Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government (30 ministers).

(L-R) Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, Labor head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of the heads of the would-be-coalition in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2021. (Ra’anan Cohen)

How the day will play out

Yamina’s Bennett will meet with the leaders of the “change bloc” coalition parties at 2 p.m. on Sunday, two hours before the start of the Knesset session in which he is set to be sworn in as prime minister. The meeting will take place in the Yamina party’s faction room in the Knesset and will be closed to the press. At 3 p.m., the parties slated to enter the coalition will meet individually.

At 4 p.m., the Knesset session will begin.

Bennett will take the podium and present the coalition’s designated prime minister, alternate prime minister, the guiding principles of their government, its composition, its ministers, the dates of any planned changes in roles, and the affinity of each of the ministers to either Bennett’s right-wing bloc or Lapid’s center-left bloc in the power-sharing government.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The affiliations determine who can fire each bloc’s member ministers. Bennett’s bloc includes his own Yamina party and that of New Hope, led by MK Gideon Sa’ar. All other parties are in Lapid’s bloc.

Lapid is then to address the plenum. The prospective government leaders will have a limited time to present all of the information.

The leader of the largest party that is not part of the incoming government — Netanyahu, whose Likud has 30 seats — will then have the right to speak as well.

Netanyahu will utilize that right to deliver a fiery speech, Channel 12 news reported.

After the leaders’ speeches at Sunday’s Knesset session, all other parties in the Knesset will have nine minutes each for a representative to speak from the plenum. The session is expected to be heated.

The next order of business will be to vote on a replacement for Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud, who will join his party in the opposition. He is expected to be replaced by Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy.

Yesh Atid MK MIckey Levy (Courtesy)

Levy will then oversee the Knesset vote on establishing the government, which is expected to be approved.

The prime minister, his alternate and their ministers will then declare their allegiance to their roles, committing to “maintain allegiance to the State of Israel and its laws, to faithfully fulfill my role as prime minister/a member of the government and to uphold Knesset resolutions.”

Following the session, members of the newly installed government will head to the President’s Residence for the traditional group photograph of ministers with outgoing President Reuven Rivlin, who will end his seven-year term on July 9.

At 8:30 p.m., a celebratory meeting, also closed to the press, will be held in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall. It’s not immediately clear whether Netanyahu will attend this event, as is customary. Channel 12 also said Bennett has not asked to meet with Netanyahu for a one-on-one briefing as power is transferred, nor had Netanyahu offered such a briefing, nor has there been any informal coordination between them over the changeover.

Following the swearing-in ceremony, a celebratory inauguration cabinet meeting will be held in the Knesset’s Jerusalem hall at 9.p.m, Yamina said, adding that statements will be delivered there by both Bennett and Lapid.

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