Israel’s hawkish veteran Benjamin Netanyahu was set to return to power Thursday after a stint in opposition, heading what analysts call the most right-wing government in the country’s history.
Netanyahu, 73, who is fighting corruption charges in court, already served as prime minister longer than anyone in Israeli history, including from 2009 to 2021 and a previous three-year period in the late 1990s.
“This is the sixth time I’m presenting a government that I’m heading to get parliament’s support, and I’m excited like the first time,” Netanyahu told the Knesset, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony.
Interrupted by angry opposition lawmakers, he told them: “A democratic regime is tested by its losing side accepting the people’s decision. In a functioning democracy, you respect the rules of the game.”
Netanyahu was ousted from power in June 2021 by a motley coalition of leftists, centrists and Arab parties headed by Naftali Bennett and former TV news anchor Yair Lapid. It didn’t take him long to come back.
Following his November 1 election win, Netanyahu entered into talks with ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties, among them Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism formation and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party.
Both have a history of inflammatory remarks about Palestinians.
They will now take charge respectively of Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, and of the Israeli police, which also operate in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
Senior security and law enforcement officials have already voiced concern over the new government’s direction, as have Palestinians.
“It becomes for Netanyahu’s partners a dream government,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank. “And one side’s dream is the other side’s nightmare.
“This government is expected to take the country on a completely new trajectory.”
– ‘Thirst for power’ –
Former Israeli intelligence minister Eli Cohen, an architect of the normalisation agreements between Israel and several Arab counties, was nominated as foreign minister by Netanyahu.
Even before the government was sworn in, the majority parties passed laws that would allow Aryeh Deri, a key ally from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve as a minister despite a previous guilty plea to tax offences.
They also voted to expand powers of the national security minister, a portfolio set to be handed to Ben-Gvir, who will have authority over the police.
The assignment comes despite Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s warning against the “politicisation of law enforcement”.
On Monday, in a phone call to Netanyahu, armed forces chief Aviv Kohavi expressed his concerns regarding the creation of a second ministerial post in the defence ministry for Smotrich, who will oversee management of civilian affairs in the West Bank.
Israel’s ally the United States has also spoken out.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Washington would oppose settlement expansion as well as any bid to annex the West Bank.
But in a statement of policy priorities released Wednesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party said the government will pursue settlement expansion.
About 475,000 Jewish settlers — among them Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — live there now in settlements considered illegal under international law.
Analysts said Netanyahu offered the extreme-right vast concessions in the hope he might obtain judicial immunity or cancellation of his corruption trial.
He is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, allegations he denies.
Denis Charbit, professor of political science at Israel’s Open University, told AFP the government is the result of “Netanyahu’s political weakness, linked to his age and his trial, and the fact that you have a new political family of the revolutionary right that we had never seen with this strength in Israel”.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir “have a very strong thirst for power”, and their priority remains the expansion of West Bank settlements, Charbit said.
– ‘Explosion’ –
Ben-Gvir has repeatedly visited Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam. It is also Judaism’s holiest, known as the Temple Mount.
Under a historical status quo, non-Muslims can visit the sanctuary but may not pray there. Palestinians would see a visit by a serving Israeli minister as a provocation.
“If Ben-Gvir, as minister, goes to Al-Aqsa it will be a big red line and it will lead to an explosion,” said Basem Naim, a senior official with the Islamist movement Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Hamas fought a war in May 202l. This year, other Gaza militants and Israel exchanged rocket and missile fire for three days in August.
In the West Bank, violence has surged this year and many are afraid of more unrest.
“I think that if the government acts in an irresponsible way, it could cause a security escalation,” outgoing Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday, expressing fear over the “extremist direction” of the incoming administration.