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Israel's Parliament Ousts Netanyahu

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Benjamin Netanyahu's long run as Israel's prime minister has come to an end. Over the course of 12 years in office, the longest tenure in the country's history, Netanyahu became one of the world's most prominent and polarizing leaders. But his combative style, along with his ongoing corruption trial, eroded his support at home. And today, the country's parliament voted with a one-vote margin to install a new government. It is headed by new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. He is another right-wing leader and a former ally of Netanyahu's, but he leads a varied coalition of lawmakers from the left, right and center, united in their desire to end Netanyahu's grip on power.

NPR's Deborah Amos is with us now from Jerusalem. Deb, thanks so much for being here.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So this vote was anticipated for a few days, but there was a lot of drama when it actually unfolded. So could you just start by telling us, what was the scene like in the Israeli Knesset? Have Bennett and Netanyahu addressed the country?

AMOS: Oh, boy. There was chaos. When Naftali Bennett first began to speak, he was heckled so loudly by other members of parliament that it took him almost an hour to make a 15-minute speech. He started out being gracious. He's thanked Netanyahu for his service, but then he delivered a much more accusatory note about divisive politics and hate-filled rhetoric, which he called madness. He said, we stopped the train a moment before it barreled into the abyss.

Now, Netanyahu's remarks were directed directly at Mr. Bennett. He said he was a fraud. He said he was weak. He said the Iranians were glad that he was elected. He said that this coalition is dangerous, and he promised his supporters, we will be back sooner than you think. I think it was a preview of the role that he intends to play in the opposition. He's likely to make withering attacks on Bennett and the coalition.

MARTIN: So he's now - so Netanyahu is now the leader of the opposition, and his supporters have been protesting over the last week, as have Bennett's. So how are Israelis reacting?

AMOS: So Israelis - many of them - wanted to see an end to this political paralysis. You know, we had four elections in two years. That's a lot of going to the polls. Today you could see two kinds of reactions. There was one that was striking. Out in front of the Knesset, there was a group there that claimed that Israel will become an Islamic state because there is a small Arab party. It's a part of the ruling coalition. That is for the very first time in Israel. They were playing the Islamic call to prayer in front of the Israeli parliament building, saying this is our future. Then, a block away, Israelis were celebrating the end of the Netanyahu era. They were dancing. There were balloons. And there's a huge party tonight in Tel Aviv.

MARTIN: Could you tell us a bit more about Bennett and about the coalition that backs him?

AMOS: So this is probably ideologically the broadest coalition in the history of this country. They're from the left, from the right. There's a Palestinian Islamist party. They don't agree on anything except to oust Netanyahu. So nobody can predict how long it will last, what kind of issues that they can deal with that won't split this coalition - certainly none of the big issues. So the betting here is that it will be a lot about domestic issues, passing a budget for the first time since 2019. And they won't do very much, but they are going to have to compromise on anything they decide to do because otherwise, they will fall.

MARTIN: So let's look back now. Unless he can come to power again - and we can talk about that in a minute if we have time - but what are some of the things that stand out about Netanyahu's impact?

AMOS: You know, he did have a huge impact on Israeli politics. He helped return the country to the right. He's a populist. He aligned himself with right-wing leaders - Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump, the Republicans and evangelicals in the U.S. He strengthened Israel's economy, but he didn't do much to close the gap between the rich and the poor. I think the thing that he will be known for is he convinced Israelis that they could be world players without making any concessions to the Palestinians, which he did not do. He didn't support the two-state solution, a Palestinian state. He was willing to kick the issue down the road. And the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, shares some of those same sentiments. It's unlikely this coalition will address the issues of peace with the Palestinians without falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions.

MARTIN: As briefly as you can, Deb, does Netanyahu have a chance of coming back to power?

AMOS: He's on trial for corruption, and it's not clear how that's going to come out. In Israel, prime ministers do go to jail. The coalition is shaky, and Biden gave Bennett a boost today by calling him up and saying congratulations and didn't mention Netanyahu.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Deborah Amos in Jerusalem. Deb, thank you so much.

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