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Naftali Bennett Is Sworn In As Israel's New Prime Minister

Jun 14, 2021
Originally published on June 14, 2021 7:00 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who have been eager to remove Benjamin Netanyahu as the leader of Israel had their moment yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CELEBRATING)

INSKEEP: Some of the people celebrating at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu, who endured so many elections and setbacks, is out after 12 years in power. Naftali Bennett is in, the leader of a coalition of right-wing, left-wing and centrist parties. So what's all this mean for Israel, and what's it mean for the United States? Let's start with NPR's Deborah Amos, our veteran correspondent who is in Jerusalem. Hey there, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So wow, there was this vote yesterday in Israel's Knesset, and it was 60-59, upholding this new coalition. What was that like?

AMOS: Oof (ph), right into the last minute, you know, I was trying to do the calculations, but they couldn't figure it out 'cause some people walked out of the room. It was a raucous session. There were heckling by parliamentarians who were now going to lose their job. They were on the losing side. Bennett is backed by this mixed coalition. He's right-wing like Netanyahu, but his partners are from the center, the left, the right, plus, for the first time, a Palestinian Islamist party. They all wanted Netanyahu out.

So in his speech, Bennett explained the reasons. He said Netanyahu was too divisive. When he was heckled, he said - and he shouted this - he was proud to be in a room where people can disagree. He said metaphorically they were stopping the train from going over the cliff, meaning there was so much divisiveness, hatred in the country. Netanyahu's government was on the way to taking the country over that cliff. And it comes after days of bitter protests. Security officials worried that it was going to get seriously violent, and Netanyahu's supporters were threatening the opposition.

INSKEEP: OK, so things didn't get violent there. But Netanyahu is still on the scene.

AMOS: Indeed, and he has essentially said, you know, we will be back sooner than you think. He accused the opposition of fraud. He said this coalition is dangerous. And in English, he said, we will be back soon. He also talked about U.S.-Israeli relations, saying that he was the prime minister with the guts to speak out about things like the Iranian nuclear deal that the Biden administration seems intent on rebuilding after the Trump administration. You know, he was a close ally of Trump, and Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, saying it was too soft on Iran. Now we're seeing a swing the other way. He had a two-hour call with Bennett last night.

INSKEEP: OK, well, let's talk about that, the U.S.-Israel relationship, given this change in leadership. And we'll bring another voice into the conversation, NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Good morning to you.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So Bennett is not in favor of renewing the nuclear deal, either, because Israel views Iran as a mortal threat and did not view this nuclear deal as the way to approach that threat. How is President Biden approaching Bennett?

KELEMEN: Well, the Biden administration seems eager to show that it's ready to work with his government and with the coalition. You know, it took Biden several weeks after becoming president just to call Netanyahu, but he called Bennett right after the new Israeli prime minister was sworn in, as you heard Deb say. And the White House said that Biden offered warm congratulations and a firm intent to deepen cooperation with Israel. They did discuss Iran, according to the White House. And by the way, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the new foreign minister and the man who's expected to become prime minister two years from now in this coalition, Yair Lapid. They talked about Iran, Israel-Palestinian conflict, and Blinken invited him to come to Washington soon.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about how those relations would go. Bennett, the other day, if I'm not mistaken, was quoted saying this new government will be about 10% more right-wing than the old one. I think he was speaking of himself. Of course, it is a coalition with left-wing parties as well. But this is a conservative guy replacing a conservative guy. Is it possible that there will be a difference in relations with this U.S. administration that is not right-wing?

KELEMEN: Well, I think, you know, Bennett, or at least some members of his coalition, may want to rebuild the bipartisan nature of relations. Steve, for years, this U.S.-Israel relationship was bipartisan. Israeli and U.S. officials worked really hard on that, and that changed under Netanyahu. He really aligned himself with the Republican Party. During the Obama administration, Republicans invited him to speak to Congress, and he used that speech to blast the administration's approach to Iran.

INSKEEP: Right.

KELEMEN: He was very close to Trump and Trump's son-in-law, which, of course, served him well during the last administration. You know, things like the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem. The Trump administration closed the consulate there, which is the main diplomatic channel to the Palestinians. The Biden administration is trying to restore that channel now and kind of some balance to this relationship.

INSKEEP: OK, so it sounds like at least one priority for some people in Bennett's new government is going to be changing a little bit or rolling back some of the changes in the relationship with the United States. Let's bring Deborah Amos back into the conversation because she's still with us in Jerusalem. What else does this new, very diverse government want to do?

AMOS: You know, in some ways, it'll be the same policies but in a different tone. So, for example, you know, Bennett said in his speech that we will maintain full freedom to act, and he's talking about Iran. But the idea that he is going to bring all the disagreements in public - probably not, unlikely to use Netanyahu's tactics. They are also expected to mainly work on domestic matters, get things back to normal. You know, Israel has four deadlocked elections behind it for the last two years as Netanyahu clung to office and really slowed the work of government.

So it's such a diverse coalition. They really can't take on the big issues. But that is just like the Netanyahu government who was convinced that you didn't have to address the Palestinian issue, that the world would not make you pay that high of a price. I think we may see the same thing with this coalition simply because its inherent contradictions will not allow it to take on those big issues.

INSKEEP: OK, so Michele Kelemen, if they're not going to take on the big issues - like some kind of peace agreement with Palestinians, who have deeply mixed reactions, as you would imagine, about this change in government - is there something the U.S. wants from Israel that Israel can deliver?

KELEMEN: Well, for one thing, Iran, we were talking about - Netanyahu was willing to risk his relations with Biden to stop the U.S. from getting back into this Iran nuclear deal. So first on the wish list - maybe just some breathing space to see if that diplomacy, which is going on right now in Vienna, works.

INSKEEP: So much to say, and we've at least gotten the discussion started here this morning. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Jerusalem. NPR's Michele Kelemen is in Washington. Thanks to you both, guys.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.