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Israel: Netanyahu sworn in as leader of far-right government

December 29, 2022

Several Israelis have voiced their concern over the new government's proposed plans. Expanding settlements in the West Bank and weakening the Israeli judiciary were among the goals set by Netanyahu's coalition.

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a special session of the Knesset
Netanyahu's newly-sworn in government is Israel's most right-wing to dateImage: AMIR COHEN/AP/picture alliance

The newly formed coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in at the Knesset on Thursday, making it the country's most far-right government to date.

Veteran Israeli politician Netanyahu is back in the prime minister's office after his Likud party won the most seats in the November 1 election. After spending nearly a year and a half in opposition, Netanyahu  submitted his Cabinet lineup last week, minutes before a crucial deadline.

His coalition government allies the Likud party with ultra-Orthodox parties, most notably the Religious Zionism party. 

The 73-year-old leader still faces corruption charges. However, proposed amendments that could weaken Israel's judiciary system could scrap such charges.

Israel's Netanyahu sworn in as prime minister

Ahead of swearing-in on Thursday, Netanyahu took the podium in the Knesset, with his speech repeatedly interrupted by the opposition's "weak" chants.

"I hear the constant cries of the opposition about the end of the country and democracy," he said. "Opposition members: to lose in elections is not the end of democracy, this is the essence of democracy.''

What have other countries said?

The United States congratulated Israel's new government, with President Joe Biden calling Netanyahu a "friend," but emphasizing that Washington continues to support a two-state solution with Palestinians.

"I look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been my friend for decades, to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including threats from Iran," Biden said in a statement.

He added that Washington would "continue to support the two state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also congratulated Netanyahu on his sixth term as prime minister in a message on Twitter.

The EU chief added that she was looking forward to "addressing the shockwaves of Russia's war against Ukraine" with the new Israeli government.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz offered his "best congratulations" to the new government.

"Israel and Germany share a special and close friendship. We will continue to foster this basis of cooperation between our two countries," he said in a statement.

Why have the government's agreements been criticized domestically?

One widely criticized clause from the new government's agreement pledges to amend anti-discrimination laws in a manner that could allow businesses to refuse to serve people due to "a religious belief." Some people have warned the legislation could be used to discriminate against and deny services to the LGBTQ community.

Though Netanyahu vowed not to allow the contentious law to pass, it was still included in the government's agreement, published on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Knesset voted Netanyahu loyalist Amir Ohana as parliament speaker, making him the first openly-gay person to assume the post.

He promised that the new government would not hurt anyone.

"This Knesset, under the leadership of this speaker, won't hurt them or any child or any other family, period,'' he said.

The new government also plans to overhaul the country's legal system. One proposed bill would allow parliament to overturn the decisions of the Supreme Court with a simple majority of 61 members of parliament. Netanyahu's coalition has 64 seats in the Knesset.

Likud Chairman and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) receives a mandate from Israeli President Isaac Herzog to form a government.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog has expressed his "deep concern" regarding the government's agreementsImage: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/picture alliance

Critics have warned the law would erode the country's democracy and could allow Netanyahu to avoid the corruption charges he currently faces.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, expressed his "deep concern" regarding the government's positions on LGBTQ rights, racism and the country's Arab population in a rare meeting Wednesday with Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician and head of the Otzma Yehudit party and now minister for national security.

Herzog urged the far-right leader to "calm the stormy winds," the Associated Press news agency reported.

"What worries me the most is that these agreements change the democratic structure of what we know of as the state of Israel,'' Tomer Naor, chief legal officer of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, told AP. "One day we'll all wake up and Netanyahu is not going to be prime minister, but some of these changes will be irreversible.''

Expanding settlements and annexing the West Bank

The government's agreement also includes clauses that could further ignite fighting with Palestinians, after a year that  saw tensions frequently flare up.

The agreement includes a government commitment to "advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel," including the West Bank.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal by the majority of the international community, and even some previous Israeli governments.  Israel has built dozens of Jewish settlements for around 500,000 Israelis who live alongside around 2.5 million Palestinians.

Netanyahu has also pledged to annex the West Bank, which Palestinians seek to build a Palestinian state on, "while choosing the timing and considering the national and international interests of the state of Israel."

A Palestinian hurls a stone at an Israeli army vehicle during clashes after Israeli forces killed Palestinian gunmen in a raid, in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 28, 2022.
Tensions flared this year between the Israelis and the PalestiniansImage: Raneen Sawafta/REUTERS

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, commented on the new Israeli government's priorities to AP, saying that only a two-state solution could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Without it, "there will be no peace, security or stability in the region," he said.

The United States had warned the new government against taking any steps that could undermine hopes for an independent Palestinian state.

In a statement on Thursday, the White House National Security stressed it does not "support policies that endanger the viability of a two-state solution or contradict our mutual interests and values.''

"We support policies that advance Israel's security and regional integration, support a two-state solution, and lead to equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians," it added.

Controversial figures in the new lineup

Besides the government's controversial clauses, many of its new members have also raised concerns. Two key ministers have criminal records.

Ben Gvir, who has been given the newly created security minister post, was convicted in 2009 of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization. His new post will make the politician, who himself lives in a settlement, in charge of the police.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri also served time in prison in 2002 for bribery. Earlier this year, he also pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges. To be allowed to take up the minister's post, the coalition government passed earlier this week a law allowing him to serve despite his conviction.

Bezalel Smotrich, settler leader and head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, will be in charge of a new ministerial post that oversees the West Bank settlement policy.

rmt/sms (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)

Israel's Netanyahu forms governing coalition