Benjamin Netanyahu is set to be sworn in on Thursday as Israel’s prime minister, sealing a remarkable comeback for the veteran leader who is expected to head the most rightwing administration in the country’s history.
His coalition government, made up of Jewish ultranationalist and religious parties, has promised to overhaul the country’s judicial system, accelerate settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and highlight Jewish identity in public life.
These and a host of additional plans have already drawn unprecedented criticism from the defence establishment, business community, education system, LGBT+ rights groups, legal officials and other quarters of Israeli society.
Netanyahu’s return will mean a sixth term as prime minister, extending his more than decade-long dominance over Israeli politics after 18 months in opposition. Israel has had five general elections in less than four years, with the most recent last month returning a clear majority for Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes his rightwing Likud party, the Religious Zionism alliance that draws its support from Jewish settlers, and two ultra-Orthodox factions.
Controversy ensued almost immediately over Netanyahu’s intentions to hand key security portfolios to far-right politicians such as Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Others voiced concerns at coalition agreements that, if implemented, could lead to discriminatory practices against the LGBT+ community.
Smotrich, an ardent supporter of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, is set to serve as finance minister and also receive a second ministerial post in the defence ministry with sweeping administrative controls over the occupied West Bank. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal.
Ben-Gvir, convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 and once a disciple of the anti-Arab ideologue rabbi Meir Kahane, will serve as national security minister with expanded powers over the Israeli police and responsibility for border police who operate in the West Bank. Ben-Gvir has advocated that the rules governing the use of live fire by security forces be loosened, and that soldiers receive blanket legal immunity from prosecution.
In a highly unusual move, the chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, held a call with Netanyahu this week to relay his concerns regarding the proposed changes in the West Bank. They agreed that any initiatives touching on the military’s operations would be delayed until the new government receives a full briefing regarding the consequences, the IDF said.
Benny Gantz, outgoing defence minister, warned in a speech to parliament on Tuesday that it was “completely predictable” that the changes would harm stability in the West Bank, adding that the military was preparing for a possible escalation and that “blood may be spilled”.
Yoav Galant, a retired senior general from Netanyahu’s Likud party, will replace Gantz as defence minister. Galant has so far not commented on the probable changes to his ministry.
Avi Maoz, an extreme religious-nationalist known for his anti-LGBT+ views, will serve as a deputy minister with some responsibilities over education curriculums in secular schools.
Other key incoming officials have also signalled their intention to promote legislation that could make it legal for small businesses and hospitals to refuse services on the basis of “religious faith”. Business leaders and doctors decried the measure as potentially legalising discrimination against the LGBT+ community.
Netanyahu has insisted that he will safeguard minority rights, and appointed an openly gay Likud official, Amir Ohana, as Knesset (parliament) speaker.
Another Likud member, Israel Katz, has been mooted as foreign minister, a post he has filled previously, while Tzachi Hanegbi, a longtime senior Likud official and Netanyahu confidant, was made national security adviser.
The incoming government has floated plans to curtail the independence of the judicial system, including the supreme court. Such “reform” efforts will be led by the new justice minister, Yariv Levin, also from Likud.
Despite his return to power, Netanyahu remains 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.
Gali Baharav-Miara, Israel’s attorney-general, warned this month that if plans to overhaul the legal system were enacted, the country would “be left with the principle of majority rule alone. That and nothing more, democracy in name only but not in substance.”