Country’s longest-serving prime minister set to preside over most right-wing administration in country’s history
Source: Financial Times
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has successfully formed his next government, which is expected to be the most right-wing administration in the history of the Jewish state.
“I have a government in hand,” Netanyahu said in a call with President Isaac Herzog, less than an hour before a midnight deadline that would have seen his mandate to establish a government expire.
The new government will be sworn in late next week or at the start of the new year, returning Netanyahu, a divisive and ruthless political operator, to power after 18 months in opposition. It will be his sixth term as prime minister, extending his more than decade-long dominance over Israeli politics after the country went through five elections in three and half years.
The new government is already shaping up to be Netanyahu’s most controversial as it includes anti-Arab ultranationalists and self-declared homophobes.
According to coalition agreements already made public, Netanyahu will appoint Bezalel Smotrich, an ardent supporter of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, as his finance minister. He will also grant Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism group a second ministerial post in the defence ministry, which will give him sweeping administrative controls in the occupied West Bank.
Smotrich is a proponent of the annexation of Palestinian territories and a self-declared homophobe. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in occupied territory to be illegal.
Netanyahu has also agreed to appoint Itamar Ben-Gvir, another ultranationalist leader, as national security minister, with expanded powers. This will give Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007, powers over the Israeli police, as well as border police who operate in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir, who was once a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane whose anti-Arab ideology was so extreme his movement was labelled a terrorist group by the US, has also demanded that the rules governing the use of live fire by Israeli security forces be loosened.
He also wants restrictions to be lifted on Jewish prayer at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The religious site, known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, has often been a flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Netanyahu sparked an outcry this month after he named Avi Maoz, an extreme religious-nationalist known for his anti-LGBTQ views, to a deputy ministerial post with responsibilities over education curricula in secular schools.
The incoming government has also floated plans to curtail the independence of the judicial system, including the supreme court.
The attorney-general, Gali Baharav-Miara, warned last week that if such plans were enacted, Israel would “be left with the principle of majority rule alone. That and nothing more, democracy in name only but not in substance.”
Netanyahu is still on trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has always maintained his innocence, but legal and political analysts speculate that he may try to halt the trial or have the indictments thrown out entirely, via parliamentary legislation.
Netanyahu has tried to soothe domestic and international fears about his new government, saying that the “status quo” governing religion and state will be upheld and that he, as the longest-serving leader in the country’s history, will be dictating policy.
The incoming premier would have to remain “fully involved in ensuring . . . that extreme initiatives that would devastate the country’s democratic institutions are either stymied or refined in a manner that respects democratic values and norms”, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank.
But others believe he will be constrained by the politics of his coalition.
“He can’t force his will on everything — he has a coalition to maintain and a cabinet to manage,” said Tal Schneider, political correspondent for the Times of Israel. “People like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are methodical and the direction they want to lead Israel in is clear. I’m also not convinced that Netanyahu necessarily wants to block all these steps either.”
Last month’s election returned an unexpectedly clear majority for Netanyahu’s Likud party and its Jewish ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies. The result came after Netanyahu, who is still on trial for corruption charges, brokered the deal that brought Ben-Gvir and Smotrich into an alliance, propelling the pair from the extremist fringe to the mainstream.