Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Wednesday night that he will not be running in the upcoming elections and will be stepping back from political life.
Bennett will stay on as alternate prime minister once Foreign Minister Yair Lapid replaces him as premier, which could take place as soon as Thursday if the Knesset finishes passing legislation to disperse itself.
The outgoing prime minister said that his long-time political partner Ayelet Shaked will take up the Yamina leadership moving forward.
In an emotional statement, Bennett expressed pride in his government’s achievements and urged the country to unite in order to preserve its accomplishments.
“I will not stand in the coming elections but I will remain a loyal soldier of this country which I have served as a combat soldier, an officer, a minister and as your prime minister. Serving this country is my destiny,” said Bennett.
“I am finishing more than a year as prime minister,” he continued. “Thank God, I leave behind me a strong, secure and flourishing country. The government I headed did in a year what other governments did not do in an entire term.”
“We have proved that there is a common good and that it is possible to stand by agreements,” he said. “We will only be victorious if we are together. If we are divided we simply will not be. If we will be united no one can overcome us. Let us be good to each other. Let us listen, let us learn to get to know each other and to be respectful.”
Bennett gave thanks to Shaked, as well as to his stalwart ally Matan Kahana who he said had been the best religious services minister in the country’s history.
Kahana had hoped that he might take over the Yamina leadership, but it is unclear if he will remain with the party under Shaked.
A series of recent opinion polls showed Yamina would take just four seats in new elections, leaving the party dangerously close to dropping below the electoral threshold and being ejected from the Knesset.
Bennett had been vacillating in recent days as to whether or not to run in the upcoming elections, and the poor outlook in the polls for Yamina seemingly swayed his decision to quit.
Ministers in the outgoing government praised Bennett for his premiership and wished him the best moving forward.
“Naftali Bennett is an Israeli patriot,” tweeted Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “He was a good prime minister who filled the position in a statesman-like fashion. We worked in full cooperation on behalf of Israel and its citizens. I am convinced that he will return to serve the country in the future. Naftali, thank you and good luck!”
Health Minister Nitzan Horovitz, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said that he worked closely with Bennett over the past year: “There were disagreements and political matters, but I discovered a hard-working and matter-of-fact person who really cares about the public. His positions are not my positions and that is clear, but I have great appreciation for him. Israel has earned a year of good government, much to its credit.”
Meanwhile, leading ultra-Orthodox politicians expressed delight that Bennett was stepping away from political life, accusing him of having deceived the electorate in the last election when he promised he would not agree to a rotation agreement for the premiership with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
“It appears that God is the one who runs the world,” quipped United Torah Judaism Chairman MK Moshe Gafni.“You cannot lie and deceive an entire country. His party is dying a strange death.”
Shas Chairman MK Aryeh Deri said that Bennett had deceived the right-wing camp and “established a government which did the most damage ever to Jewish identity and the weak.”
Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich said Bennett’s decision to stand down from political life “is not his but that of the public, which was disgusted with him and vomited him out from its midst.”