JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who led a broad but fragile coalition government that was dissolved barely a year after taking office, announced on Wednesday that he will not stand as a candidate in the upcoming elections.
His government announced last week that it would dissolve the Knesset ahead of elections expected this fall, but the vote needed to dissolve it has been stalled by disputes with the opposition.
“As Prime Minister, I have endeavored to look after all citizens, regardless of who they voted for,” he said in a short prime-time address. “We proved this year that people with different opinions can work together.”
Bennett’s office said he would continue to serve as deputy prime minister in an interim government to be led by Yair Lapid, the coalition architect and current foreign secretary. Elections are expected in October or November.
Bennett embodies many of the contradictions who liven up his small country. He’s a religious Jew who has made millions in the mostly secular high-tech sector; an advocate of the settlement movement living in the Tel Aviv suburb, and a former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu who has joined forces with centrist and left-wing parties to end his 12-year rule.
He was once the head of the main settlers’ council for the occupied West Bank and remained opposed to Palestinian statehood even after becoming prime minister at the head of a coalition that included left-wing parties. His government took steps to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, but ruled out a return to the long-stalled peace process.
Bennett tried to unite the country after a long period of political stalemate that brought four elections in less than two years, but in the end his own small party largely collapsed as members rebelled against his coalition.
Netanyahu whipped up their right-wing base against Bennett, accusing him of betraying them by forging an alliance with left-wing parties and even an Arab faction. Bennett’s speeches in the Knesset were regularly met with shouts and heckling from Netanyahu’s allies. His family received death threats.
Many expected Bennett to retire from politics after the government fell.
In his speech, he said Yamina will be led by Ayelet Shaked, a close ally who is home secretary in the outgoing government.
It’s unclear if Yamina’s disarray will help or hurt her natural allies on the right. If the party competes but fails to clear the ballot box, it could deprive Netanyahu and his allies of a potentially crucial partner. Or Shaked could emerge as kingmaker, just like Bennett.
Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed to this report.