JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's parliament on Sunday narrowly approved a new coalition government, ending the historic 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sending the polarizing leader into the opposition.
Naftali Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu turned rival, became prime minister after the 60-59 vote. Promising to try to heal a divided nation, Bennett will preside over a diverse and fragile coalition comprised of eight parties with deep ideological differences.
But the 71-year-old Netanyahu made clear he has no intention of exiting the political stage. "If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country," he said.
The vote, capping a stormy parliamentary session, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis in which the country held four deadlocked elections. Those votes focused largely on Netanyahu's divisive rule and his fitness to remain in office while on trial for corruption charges.
To his supporters, Netanyahu is a global statesman uniquely capable of leading the country through its many security challenges.
But to his critics, he has become a polarizing and autocratic leader who used divide-and-rule tactics to aggravate the many rifts in Israeli society. Those include tensions between Jews and Arabs, and within the Jewish majority between his religious and nationalist base and his more secular and dovish opponents.
Outside the Knesset, hundreds of protesters watching the vote on a large screen erupted into applause when the new government was approved. Thousands of people, many waving Israeli flags, celebrated in central Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.
President Joe Biden quickly congratulated the new government.
"I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations," he said in a statement. He said his administration is fully committed to working with the new government "to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region."
Bennett's office said he later spoke by phone with Biden, thanking him for his warm wishes and longstanding commitment to Israel's security.
The leaders agreed to consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran, the White House said, adding that Biden said his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on advancing peace, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.
Much of the Israeli opposition to Netanyahu was personal. Three of the eight parties in the new government, including Bennett's Yamina, are headed by former Netanyahu allies who share his hard-line ideology but had deep personal disputes with him.
Bennett, 49, is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu whose small party is popular with religious Jews and West Bank settlers. As he addressed the raucous debate, he was repeatedly heckled and shouted down by Netanyahu's supporters. Some were removed from the chamber.
Bennett, an observant Jew, noted the Jewish people twice lost their homeland in biblical times due to bitter infighting.
"This time, at the decisive moment, we have taken responsibility," he said. "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."
The new Cabinet met briefly, and Bennett recited a prayer for new beginnings and said it was time to mend rifts. "Citizens of Israel are all looking to us now, and the burden of proof is upon us," Bennett said.
The millionaire former high-tech entrepreneur faces a tough test maintaining an unwieldy coalition from the political right, left and center.