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‘End this chaos’: Constantly heckled, Bennett says new government ‘here to work’

In a speech constantly interrupted by soon-to-be opposition lawmakers, Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett presented his new “reasonable and responsible” government Sunday afternoon at its swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, pledging that it would “end a terrible period of hatred among the people of Israel.”

Struggling to speak over the shouts of Knesset members from Likud, Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Bennett said that his government of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties came together to end two years of political deadlock and “put Israel back on a sane path.”

With his swearing-in later Sunday set to end 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule as prime minister, Bennett thanked the outgoing premier and his wife, Sara Netanyahu.

“You both sacrificed a great deal for the State of Israel,” he said.

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

“I am proud of the ability to sit with people with very different opinions,” he boomed. “At the decisive moment, we took responsibility.”

Barring any last-minute surprises in the voting, Bennett is set to 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.

Bennett said that the alternative to a new government was more elections and more hate, which would have broken up the country. Israel has held four national elections since April 2019, which yielded just one government: a short-lived power-sharing coalition last year of Likud and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White.

“It is time for responsible leaders from different segments of the nation to stop this madness,” Bennett said, as Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin repeatedly tried to silence hecklers and ordered several lawmakers removed from the plenum.

Reacting to the shouting in parliament, Bennett said: “We are facing an internal challenge, a divide in the people that is being seen in these very moments.”

That divide “has led us to a storm of hatred and a clash of brothers, to the country being paralyzed,” he said, speaking of various social and regulatory reforms his government plans to enact on legal, social and religious matters.

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 despite having won just seven Knesset seats with his Yamina party. Likud won 30 seats in the March vote to again become the largest party, but Netanyahu failed to assemble a coalition.

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.

Bennett said that the government would work for all segments of society, including those that have not supported his decision to build a coalition with left-leaning parties and the Islamist Ra’am.

Bennett said the new government — which would also be the first in Israel’s history in which an Arab Israeli party has played such a key role, with Ra’am set to be a partner — would open a new chapter in relations with Arab citizens.

“We understand the difficulties and needs of the Arab public,” he said, vowing to improve education, security and housing for Arabs.

In a comment likely meant as a jibe, he said he “must give Prime Minister Netanyahu credit” for “opening the road” to cooperation with Ra’am and its leader, Mansour Abbas, as Likud MKs shouted their protest.

Netanyahu had attempted to get Ra’am to back his own government after years of rejecting any possible cooperation with Arab parties.

Bennett also attempted to extend a hand to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, assuring them that the new government was committed to them even though the Haredi parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc have ruled out joining the coalition and made their opposition to the government known in their repeated shouts during the speech.

Bennett said the government will respect Torah studies and work to ease the problems of the Haredi public.

“We’ve come to work for everybody,” he said. “We will watch over the Torah, which watched over us in the Diaspora.”

Bennett said his government will seek to remove blockages that prevented Haredim from integrating into the broader Israeli public.

He also mentioned the deadly crush earlier this year during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in which 45 worshipers were killed, the worst peacetime disaster in Israel’s history, vowing to set up an official state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, whose victims were mainly Haredi Jews.

Turning to the foreign policy goals of the new government, Bennett thanked US President Joe Biden for supporting Israel during last month’s military conflict with the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

However, he also expressed staunch opposition to an American return to the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, maintaining Netanyahu’s hawkish stance toward Tehran, though parties that have spoken about keeping disagreements with the US behind closed doors will represent an overwhelming majority at the cabinet table.

Bennett said the Iranian nuclear program “is approaching a critical point.”

“Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Israel is not a party to the [international nuclear] deal and will maintain full freedom to act,” he said.

In a message to Washington, he added: “Renewing the nuclear deal is a mistake.”

He also reached out to the families of two Israeli citizens being held in Gaza by Hamas, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and those of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies the terrorist organization is believed to be holding, stressing his commitment to returning them to Israel.

“I raised my hand in the cabinet during the vote in which we sent Hadar and Oron to fight for us in Operation Protective Edge. I see their return as a sacred duty, which must be done with responsibility,” Bennett said

Taking the podium after Bennett, alternate prime minister and Foreign Minister-designate Lapid forwent his prepared speech, instead reprimanding right-wing opposition to the new government for the nonstop heckling of Bennett

“My mother is 86 years old and we don’t ask her to come to Jerusalem lightly, but we did it because I assumed that you would be able to get over yourselves and behave with statesmanship at this moment, and she would see a smooth transition of government,” he said.

“When she was born, there was no State of Israel, Tel Aviv was a small town of 30,000 people and we didn’t have a parliament. I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead she, along with every citizen of Israel, is ashamed of you and remembers clearly why it’s time to replace you,” Lapid concluded, before Netanyahu took the podium.

After the leaders’ speeches, all other parties in the Knesset were to have nine minutes each for a representative to speak from the plenum.

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.

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

Finally, the prime minister, his alternate and their ministers will be sworn in, 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.”

Source: Raoul Wootliff – TOI

Header: Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset, June 13, 2021 (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)