image No unearned errors, yet, in this major tournament. Bennett waving, Lapid waiting. Photo: Flash90

Bennett sworn in as 13th Israeli Premier

The 36th Israeli “government of change” led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been sworn into office, following an often-stormy session in the Knesset.

The Israeli parliament endorsed the diverse coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties in a razor-thin confidence vote yesterday of 60 in favor and 59 against. (To see the full list of ministerial portfolios, see *1 below).

The new government, formed after an inconclusive 23 March election, plans largely to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians, and to focus on domestic reforms.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu had been Israel’s longest-serving leader, serving as premier since 2009, after a first term from 1996 to 1999. His grip on power was weakened by repeated failure to form a coalition following 4 elections over the past 2 years, as well as an ongoing corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.

Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and hi-tech millionaire, heads the nationalist, right-wing Yamina party. Under terms of their coalition rotational deal, he will be replaced as Prime Minister by centrist Yesh Atid faction leader Yair Lapid, 57,  in 2023. They will serve as the 13th and 14th Prime Ministers to lead Israel since its founding in 1948.

Just ahead of the confidence vote, Prime Minister-Designate Bennett’s first address to the Knesset was disrupted by non-stop heckling and shouts of “liar” and “shame” from Netanyahu loyalists. The right-wing camp is furious at Bennett for breaking his campaign pledge not to join forces with Lapid – which the Likud leader branded as “fraud.” Bennett’s position is that yet another unwanted election that would result from failure to form a government was tantamount to disaster for Israel.

Highlights of Bennett’s first speech to lawmakers included reiteration of his predecessor’s call on the United States not to return to the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers. (To read Israeli Prime Minister Bennett’s full address, see *2 below).

“Renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake, an error that would again grant legitimisation to one of the darkest and violent regimes in the world,” Bennett said, stressing that despite a change in leadership, “Israel will not allow Iran to equip itself with nuclear weapons.”

Bennett also thanked US President Joe Biden for his “years of commitment to Israel’s security” and for “standing by Israel” during fighting with Hamas militants in Gaza last month, while vowing to strengthen bilateral ties with US Democrats and Republicans.

“The government will make an effort to deepen and enhance our relations with both parties – bipartisan,” Bennett said.

Both Bennett and Lapid have expressed commitment to working to bridge deep domestic political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens. Bennett said the coalition’s priorities include reforms in education, health, cutting red tape to grow businesses and lower housing costs, passage of a long-delayed 2-year budget to help stabilize the country’s finances and maintenance of a “status quo” on issues of religion and state.

Internationally, the new cabinet is confronted with huge foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a shaky ceasefire with the Hamas rulers and other terrorist Palestinian factions in Gaza, a pending war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.

Bennett also thanked Netanyahu for his “lengthy and achievement-filled service on behalf of the State of Israel.”

Speaking after Bennett, a combative Benjamin Netanyahu told Knesset that he will continue to serve the country as head of the opposition, while vowing to return to the premiership.

“I stand here on behalf of the million Israelis… who voted for Likud under my leadership, and the other million Israelis who voted for right-wing parties with the knowledge they would join a government headed by me,” he insisted, stressing, “If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it.”

That will happen, 71-year-old Netanyahu added, “sooner than people think.”

He then hailed achievements under his reign, ranging from Israel’s having been a worldwide leader in the administration of coronavirus vaccinations, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as the nation’s capital, forging of diplomatic relations under the Abraham Accords, and protection of the Jewish State from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

While several ministries are today holding formal events to mark the hand-over of responsibilities, no such ceremony will take place at the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu will instead take part in a private meeting with Prime Minister Bennett to discuss matters of state.

The two are also likely to discuss an itinerary for the Netanyahu family to vacate the official Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, even though Bennett has expressed preference to remain in his Ra’anana home, which may not be possible due to security concerns.

8 out of the 13 parties elected to serve in the 24th Knesset have joined the unity government.

*1 Israel’s New Ministerial Portfolios:

Prime Minister – Naftali Bennett (Yamina)

Alternate PM and Foreign Minister – Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid)

Defense Minister – Benny Gantz (Blue and White)

Justice Minister – Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope)

Finance Minister – Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu)

Interior Minister – Ayelet Shaked (Yamina)

Education Minister – Yifat Shasha Biton (New Hope)

Health Minister – Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz)

Economy Minister – Orna Barbivai (Yesh Atid)

Transportation Minister – Merav Michaeli (Labor)

Energy Minister – Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid)

Intelligence Minister – Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid)

Public Security Minister – Omer Bar Lev (Labor)

Housing Minister & Jerusalem Affairs – Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope)

Communications Minister – Yoaz Hendel (New Hope)

Environment Minister – Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

Culture and Sports Minister – Yehiel Moshe “Hili” Tropper (Blue and White)

Immigration & Absorption Minister – Pnina Tamano Shata (Blue and White)

Welfare Minister – Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)

Social Equality Minister – Merav Cohen (Yesh Atid)

Religious Affairs Minister – Matan Kahana (Yamina)

Minister in the Finance Ministry – Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu)

Agriculture and Negev Minister – Oded Forer (Yisrael Beiteinu)

Regional Cooperation Minister – Issawi Frej (Meretz)

Science and Technology Minister – Orit Farkash-Hacohen (Blue and White)

Tourism Minister – Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid)

Diaspora Affairs Minister – Nachman Shai (Labor)


*2 Israeli Prime Minister -Designate Naftali Bennett’s Full Knesset Address

H.E. President Reuven Rivlin; President-elect Isaac Herzog; Mr. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; President of the Supreme Court, Justice Esther Hayut; Speaker of the Knesset Yariv Levin; my partner in forming the Unity Government, Member of Knesset Yair Lapid, and his wife Lihi; Ministers of the outgoing government; Ministers of the incoming government; Members of Knesset; honored guests.

I want to begin my words by saying, on my own behalf, and in the name of the members of the designated government, in the name of this House, and in the name of all the citizens of Israel – thank you. Thank you to the outgoing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for your many years of service, replete with achievements, for the sake of the State of Israel. As Prime Minister you acted throughout many years to embolden Israel’s political, security, and economic strength. I saw you from up-close, in extensive security deliberations, late into the night, investigating, making inquiries and considerations out of a sense of grave responsibility.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, over the years, we have not always agreed, but we have both sacrificed much on a personal level in order to serve our people, the people of Israel. Expressing gratitude is a fundamental principle in Judaism. This is the time for the people to say to you, thank you.

I also want to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation to the Tenth President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, for his years as President, as Speaker of the Knesset, and as a public servant. And to congratulate President-elect, Isaac Herzog, and wish him much success. God willing, we will work together very well.

Honored ladies and gentlemen, this is a special moment. The moment in which the baton of leading the people and the country passes – as in a relay race – to the next generation. It a sacred endowment.

The State of Israel is not ‘just another country’. It is the dream of generations of Jews – from Marrakesh to Budapest, from Bagdad to San Francisco – a dream we merited to see realized every day before our very eyes. Each generation has its own challenges, and out of each generation comes the leaders that can overcome them.

The external challenges we face are great: the Iranian nuclear project, which is moving towards a crucial point; the ongoing war on terror; Israel’s image in the world and the unfair treatment it receives in international institutions – these are all sizable and complex tasks.

At this time, we are also facing an internal challenge. The ongoing rift in the nation, as we see in these very moments, which continues to rip apart the seams that hold us together, and has thrown us – one election after another – into a maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting.

Such quarrels, between the people who are supposed to be running the country, led to paralysis. One who quarrels, cannot function.

And so Israel ceased to be managed: a lack of governance in the Negev and loss of the South for 12 years, riots in mixed cities, the lack of state budget, the terrible disaster in Meron.

Dear friends, in the guests gallery today, sits Maya Moreno, widow of my friend, Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Moreno, of blessed memory. At every important juncture of my life, I think of Emmanuel. The intensity of his devotion and sense of mission guides us.

Friends, as the Jewish people tend to be people with opinions… and as we see here, the Parliament of the Jewish state, is a parliament of opinions, and anyone who has ever seen a pair of students studying Talmud together, or a heated debate about a product in the office corridors of an Israeli start-up, understands the force for good of “disputes for the sake of Heaven”. But there are points in Jewish history in which the disagreements between us have gone out of control, in which they were no longer “disputes for the sake of Heaven”, times in which they threatened us, and all that we have built with our sweat and blood.

Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise. Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us. I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own.

This time, at the decisive moment, we have taken responsibility. We understood that we have to safeguard our home. To continue on in this way – more elections, more hatred, more vitriolic posts on Facebook – is just not an option. Therefore, we stopped the train, a moment before it barreled into the abyss. And I want to thank my friend, Foreign Minister-designate, MK Yair Lapid, who showed national responsibility, political generosity, and without whom we would not be here today.

The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the people, to stop, to stop this madness.

The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is, we will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree – and there is much we agree on, transport, education and so on, and what separates us we will leave to the side.

To the citizens of Israel I say: this is a sensitive moment, of political change. I call on all, to demonstrate maturity and restraint.

The new government will be a government which strives for real, practical solutions, to the problems faced by the country and its citizens. The work-plan which we are presenting today is the most detailed in years. We have come to work. To remove the barriers, to free up the jams, and to turn our country into what it can be.

The following, are some of the things the government will promote immediately:

–             We will take responsibility for the education of Israeli children from birth. The most formative years. As a first step, we will transfer responsibility for infant daycare to the Ministry of Education.

–             We will enable many ultra-Orthodox youth to go out to work by lowering the (national service) exemption age from 24 to 21. Not by force, but by positive encouragement, allowing young people who want to learn a vocation to be able to, and those who want to study Torah will continue to do so.

–             We will close with immediate effect the Ministry of Digital Affairs, the Ministry for Water, the Ministry for Communal Advancement, and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs.

–             Foreign Minister-designate and Alternate Prime Minister-designate, Yair Lapid, will lead a process to rehabilitate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is a fundamental tool for building Israel’s political strength.

–             Finance Minister-designate Avigdor Lieberman, will lead a plan by which we will return to work those who lost their employment due to COVID-19. We will bring in as many people as possible in the high-tech industry, where there are higher salaries, by setting a national target of raising the number of high-tech workers to 15% of the workforce by 2026.

–             We will reduce superfluous regulation and frustrating bureaucracy, and we will work for citizen-friendly government services, as in Singapore among other countries – without paperwork, without queues.

–             We will make life easier for independent workers and small business owners, including through unemployment benefits.

–             We will increase income support for the elderly to 70% of the minimum wage.

–             We will open up competition in Kashrut (kosher certification), and set standards for the system. This will lighten the burden on restaurant owners, ending the stranglehold monopoly in this area, bringing down the cost of food, and strengthening the public’s faith in the level of Kashrut.

–             Justice Minister-designate Gideon Saar will lead a process to create an appropriate balance between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government, whereby his initiative to split the role of the Attorney General is a significant first step.

–             We will – finally – promote a national plan for the North of Israel, including establishing a hospital and a university in the Galilee.

–             Defense Minister Benny Gantz will lead a process to significantly strengthen and build up the IDF through a multi-year plan, which will include significant investment in offensive and defensive capabilities. We must invest because the threats will not leave us. Our soldiers deserve the best and most advanced equipment in the world.

–             We will work to upgrade Israel’s public transport system, led by Transport Minister-designate Merav Michaeli.

–             We will strengthen the building of communities across the Land of Israel.

–             We will ensure Israel’s national interests in Area C – and we will increase standards to that end after much neglect in this area.

–             And yes my friends, we will open a new page in the relations between the State of Israel and the country’s Arab citizens. The Arab community will be represented in the coalition by Mansour Abbas and his party. This is a process that I must give credit to Prime Minister Netanyahu who held a groundbreaking series of meetings with Mansour Abbas, who reached out a hand. This was the right thing to do. We understand the plight and needs of the Arab society. The fight against crime and violence, the housing crisis, the gaps in education and infrastructure – will be addressed.

–             We will begin the process of regulating the Bedouin settlements in the Negev, so that Israel’s Bedouin citizens can live in dignity.

–             Health Minister-designate Nitzan Horowitz, will prepare the health system for a new age of community, and home based medical care, and together we will prepare an emergency plan in the case of future pandemics. You can’t always know there will be a vaccine, not every illness has a vaccine, and you have to be prepared to build on vaccinations, but also on an organized plan and not as we saw in the last year.

–             We will accelerate the pace of building homes in Israel. The government will take the initiative, remove obstacles, and allow for extensive construction throughout the country, in order to but the breaks on the rise in the cost of housing. There has been a slowdown in the building of houses in the last year – we should be seeing the opposite – we should have increased the building, there is a deficit in housing which drives up the prices, and no propaganda will hide that. Therefore we will up the pace of building to but the brakes on the rise in prices, and allow young people – who serve in the army, fulfil reserve duty, pay their taxes, and have no chance of building a house. So yes, we need to deal with this.

–             The government will work to promote Jewish immigration (Aliyah) to Israel, and the best integration for them.

–             We will strengthen the bond between the State of Israel, and the Jews of the Diaspora. We will care for our brothers and sisters around the world, we will fight against the wave of antisemitism.

–             We will safeguard the State of Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, as a Jewish and democratic state.

And that is just part of our plans. As I said, we have come to work! For everyone.

From here, I turn to the ultra-Orthodox community. Although the ultra-Orthodox parties chose not to join the coalition, that does not mean you are not represented – I will represent you, we will represent you. The new government will respect the study of Torah, the Torah which kept us safe for so many years in exile, and at the same time will work to remove the barriers which prevent the ultra-Orthodox community’s integration into the employment market, and Israeli society. Instead of perpetuating the same methods, we will have the opportunity to address the deep problems which burden ultra-Orthodox society: key amongst them the housing crisis. The pace of construction of apartments, neighborhoods, and cities simply does not keep up with natural growth, and there is room for the establishment of new ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and even a new city in Israel.

I was asked by the father of Eliyahu Shmuel, of blessed memory – a 16 year old ultra-Orthodox boy, who was killed in the Meron Disaster – to remember him in my swearing in address. Eli was a sweet child. He always helped his friends, and saw the good in everyone. We will not forget Eli, and we will not ignore his death. A State Commission of Inquiry will be set up.

Honored ladies and gentlemen. The government is setting out on its path, as the greatest threat to Israel, the Iranian nuclear project, is reaching a critical point. The Middle East is still yet to recover from the effects of the first nuclear deal, which emboldened Iran to the tune of billions of dollars, and with international legitimacy.

Iran, through its Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, has established terrorist outposts – from Syria, through Gaza and Lebanon, and to Yemen. Renewing the nuclear deal with Iran is a mistake that will once again lend legitimacy to one of the most discriminatory and violent regimes in the world.

Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with nuclear weapons. Israel is not party to the agreement, and will maintain full freedom to act.

Last month, we received a reminder that the conflict with the Palestinians is still here. We must remember, and remind the world, that our enemies deny our very existence in the Land of Israel, and that this is not a dispute over territory.

We need military strength, civil resilience, and a belief in the justness of our path at times when the conflict raises its head.

I hope the ceasefire in the south is maintained. But if Hamas again chooses the path of violence against Israeli civilians, it will encounter a wall of iron.

Violence and terrorism are not a natural phenomenon or destiny with which we are supposed to just come to terms. The Palestinians must take responsibility for their actions, and understand that violence will be met with a firm response.

That said, security calm will lead to economic moves, which will lead to reducing friction and the conflict.

To the Goldin, Shaul, Mengistu, and Sayed families. The government led by me will work to bring home the IDF’s fallen, and the Israeli citizens held in Gaza by Hamas. We see in their return a sacred duty, which should be undertaken out of responsibility.

The government will work to establish and expand peace agreements with the Arab states, to increase regional economic, entrepreneurial, and cultural cooperation, and to deepen the direct connection between the peoples of the region, such as the connection between the citizens of Israel and the citizens of the United Arab Emirates.

Dear friends, on behalf of us all, I want to thank the President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, for standing alongside Israel during the last operation in Gaza, “Guardian of the Walls”, and for his longstanding commitment to the security of Israel.

President Biden said during the operation, “Until the region says, unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace”.

It is important that this message be heard, and internalized, in the Middle East.

We greatly appreciate the support of the United States, our greatest friend. My government will make an effort to deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties – bipartisan. If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust, and mutual respect.

My fellow Members of Knesset, in light of the ongoing turbulent debate, the people are looking to the House. Let us maintain respectful debate. I understand those for whom today is difficult, but friends, this is not a day of mourning. There is no Disengagement here. There is no harm being caused to anyone. There is a change of government in a democracy. That’s it. And I assure it is a government that will work for the sake of all the people. We will do all we can so that no one should have to feel afraid. We are here in the name of good, and to work. And I say to those who intend to celebrate tonight, don’t dance on the pain of others. We not enemies, we are one people.

Now, hours before accepting this responsibility, I pray to God that He grant me wisdom and understanding to lead the State of Israel.

“Heavenly Father, Rock and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, the first flourishing of our redemption, guard it in your abundant kindness, spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Send forth your light and truth to its leaders, ministers, and advisors, and grace them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who guard our holy land, grant them deliverance, and adorn them in victory. Give peace in the land, and grant its inhabitants eternal happiness.”

With God’s help, we will do and we will succeed. Amen.