Netanyahu, 71, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, failed to form a government after Israel’s March 23 elections, his fourth in two years.
The new cabinet, which will be sworn in after a confidence vote in the Knesset it is expected to win, was concocted by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, a high-tech hawk millionaire, will be prime minister for two years before Lapid, a former popular TV host, takes over.
They will lead a government that includes parties from all political backgrounds, including for the first time one that represents the 21% minority comprising Palestinian citizens of Israel. They largely plan to avoid radical moves on hot international issues such as policy towards the Palestinians while focusing on domestic reforms.
With little to no prospect of progress towards resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel, many Palestinians will not be moved by the change in administration, saying Bennett will likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
Sunday’s crucial Knesset session is scheduled to open at 4:00 p.m. local time (1:00 p.m. GMT), with Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu ready to speak before the vote.
Celebrations organized by opponents of Netanyahu to mark the end of his era began on Saturday evening in front of his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests against the right-wing leader for a year, where a black banner hung on a wall read: ” Goodbye -bye, Bibi, Bye-bye ”, and the protesters sang, drummed and danced.
“For us, it’s a big night and tomorrow will be an even bigger day. I almost cry. We fought peacefully for this (Netanyahu’s departure) and the day has come, ”protester Ofir Robinski said.
“We are celebrating a year of civil fighting,” said Maya Arieli, a protester from Petach Tikva in central Israel. “Everyone told us it wouldn’t work. But tomorrow, a new government will finally be in Israel, and that proves that the civil struggle is working.
Netanyahu, who served his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, won four more consecutive terms from 2009. The face of Israel on the international stage, he has been a polarizing figure, both in abroad and in his country.
Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his staunch supporters and hated by critics. His ongoing corruption trial, on charges he denies, has only deepened the chasm.
His opponents have long vilified what they see as Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, underhand political tactics, and the subjugation of state interests to its own political survival. Some have dubbed him “Minister of Crime” and accused him of mismanaging the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
But for Netanyahu’s large and loyal electoral base, the departure of “King Bibi” as some call him, can be difficult to accept. Its supporters are angered by what they see as the country turning its back on a leader devoted to its security and a bulwark against international pressure for any measure that could lead to a Palestinian state, even as it has promoted diplomatic agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
However, none of these measures, nor the role it played in securing COVID-19 vaccines for the country’s record-breaking vaccination campaign, was enough to give Netanyahu’s Likud party enough voice to secure him a sixth term.
“The biggest fraud”?
Bennett drew the ire of the right-wing camp for breaking off a campaign engagement by teaming up with Lapid.
Netanyahu called the future coalition “Israel’s greatest electoral fraud”, and his Likud party said the accusations referred to Bennett joining a coalition that “does not reflect the will of the voters.”
Bennett justified the move by saying that another election, which would likely be called if no government was formed, would have been a disaster for Israel.
He and Lapid say they want to bridge political divisions and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all of its citizens.
Their cabinet faces considerable diplomatic, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian groups in Gaza, an investigation into war crimes by the International Criminal Court and the economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
On top of that, their motley coalition of parties has only a minimal majority in parliament, 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, and will still have to face Netanyahu – who will certainly be a combative leader of the opposition.
And no one is ruling out a return of Netanyahu.