Benjamin Netanyahu's record 12-year run as Israel's prime minister ended on Sunday with parliament approving a new "government of change" led by nationalist Naftali Bennett, an improbable scenario few Israelis could have imagined. But the razor-thin 60-59 vote of confidence in a coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties with little in common except for a desire to unseat Netanyahu, only underscored its likely fragility.
Addressing parliament before Bennett was sworn in, a combative Netanyahu said: "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".
The new government, formed after an inconclusive March 23 election, largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians and to focus instead on domestic reforms.
Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Likud party leader Netanyahu. Israel's longest-serving leader, Netanyahu was prime minister since 2009, after a first term from 1996 to 1999. But he was weakened by his repeated failure to clinch victory in four elections over the past two years, including a vote in March, and by an ongoing corruption trial, in which he has denied any wrongdoing.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host, in 2023. With his far-right Yamina party winning only six of parliament's 120 seats in the last election, Bennett's ascension to the premiership as the head of a kaleidoscope of parties was a political jaw-dropper.
Interrupted by non-stop shouts of "liar" and "shame" from Netanyahu loyalists in parliament, Bennett thanked the former prime minister for his "lengthy and achievement-filled service on behalf of the State of Israel". But little love has been lost between the two men: Bennett once served as Netanyahu's chief of staff and had a rocky relationship with him as defence minister.
In the run-up to the new government, Bennett spurned Netanyahu's call to join with him, rather than with Lapid. On the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice, Netanyahu had become the face of Israel. He resisted international calls for Palestinian statehood he described as a danger to Israel's security.