After a year in opposition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back. Almost two months after the parliamentary elections on November 1 — the fifth election in less than four years — Israel's latest government is finally preparing to be sworn in on Thursday.
Reflecting a a growing concern that Israel will veer further to the right, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said recently that the next government should be "a government that serves all citizens of Israel, both those who supported and voted for it, and those who opposed its establishment."
To reenter office, the 73-year-old Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud party, had to form a coalition with two ultra-Orthodox parties and three far-right parties which together won 14 seats in the election. Once considered the extremist fringe of Israeli politics, party leaders Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism party), Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) and Avi Maoz (Noam) have now entered mainstream Israeli politics and polarized public opinion at home and abroad even before the coalition took shape.
There are concerns the coalition of the "most extreme right-wing, racist, homophobic and theocratic coalition in Israel's history" — as the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz recently described it — could further deepen internal divisions, diminish the rights of minorities and exacerbate the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians even more.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has for the first time in years a comfortable parliamentary majority of 64 of the Knesset's 120 seats. He has pushed back against criticism that he relinquished considerable power to his coalition partners by dividing and redistributing ministries and government agencies. To finalize the coalition deals, the Knesset passed several controversial laws to ensure promises made in the coalition agreements can be fulfilled before the government is sworn in.
New government to expand settlement program
On Tuesday, the Knesset passed the so-called Deri Law named after the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri. The amendment allows him to be appointed to the government as minister, even though he was found guilty of tax offenses and given a suspended sentence.
Deri and Smotrich, of the Religious Zionism party, are expected to rotate as finance minister. In the meantime, Deri will serve as health and interior minister. Already, Israel's civil rights groups have petitioned the High Court of Justice to strike down the amendment.
Special attention has been given to the fact that Smotrich, himself part of the settler movement, has gained control — through another amendment — over parts of the Civil Administration Agency which operates under the Defense Ministry. The agency administers both Israeli and Palestinian affairs in the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians seek as land for their own state. This gives him potentially broad authority over the expansion of Jewish settlements located in Area C, which makes up about 60% of the West Bank. Critics argue this could result in a "de facto annexation" of the territory.
"Their [the far right's] ideology is Greater Israel," said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The term "Greater Israel" usually refers to a right-wing ideology that envisages an Israel comprised of all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the occupied West Bank. "They say, this is our biblical land, we have the right to everything that is here," said Rahat.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu's Likud Party confirmed that one of the key policy priorities for the new Israeli government would be settlement expansion.
"The government will advance and develop settlement in all parts of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev Desert, the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria [West Bank]," the document said.
Over the past decades, Israel has expanded settlement building in the occupied West Bank under all its governments. The new coalition could further push for settlement expansion and legalization of smaller settlement outposts. Settlements are considered illegal under international law, a ruling disputed by Israel.
Ben-Gvir wants expanded powers over police
On Wednesday, the Knesset passed another contentious law, albeit a softer version as originally envisioned by the far right. The so-called Ben-Gvir law — named after the designated minister for national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir — would grant him expanded powers over the police in Israel.
Ben-Gvir, known for his far-right views, has been convicted in the past of incitement to racism and support for the Kach terror group, which has been outlawed in the United States and Israel.
During the election campaign, Ben-Gvir had promised to tackle police staff shortages in areas with a high crime rate and to be "tough" on terror. He said he wants to "ease" open-fire regulations to enable police officers to fire at protesters throwing stones and strengthen the legal immunity for security forces.
Another point of concern has been the inclusion of the far-right homophobic and anti-Arab Noam party. Party head Avi Maoz, who represents one seat in the Knesset, is expected to become a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of a newly created "National Jewish identity" post. This new body will have authority over content at Israeli schools that is taught outside of the regular curriculums, giving him control over nonofficial bodies enlisted to teach at schools.
Known for his staunch anti-LGBTQ positions, Maoz has said he'd like to cancel the annual Jerusalem gay pride parade and restore "family values." But Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed there will be "no harm" done against the gay community.
International reactions have been muted
Any potentially controversial policy change — pledges by the far right to curb the power of the Supreme Court or to amend anti-discrimination laws — have already alarmed liberal Israelis, rights groups and businesses. It could also cause tensions between Israel and its closest allies but, so far, international reactions have been muted.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in early December that the United States will continue to "unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, but not limited to, settlement expansion [and] moves toward annexation of the West Bank."
In interviews with a number of US media outlets, Netanyahu has defended his controversial choice of Ben-Gvir for minister of national security. Netanyahu also maintained that he, not his coalition partners, will be the one in control: "They are joining me. I am not joining them."
Edited by: Rob Mudge