Israel's Netanyahu to return to power with extreme-right govt

Israel's Netanyahu to return to power with extreme-right govt
4 min read
29 December, 2022
Analysts say that Netanyahu's new government will be the most right-wing in Israel's history.
Netanyahu's government is scheduled to be sworn in today [AMIR COHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

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 premier longer than anyone in Israeli history, leading the country from 1996-1999 and 2009-2021.

"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.

Netanyahu stressed that his top goal would be "to thwart Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal" and "ensure Israel's military superiority in the region".

But he also voiced hopes of "expanding the circle of peace with Arab countries" following the US-brokered normalisation agreements with nations including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

Former Israeli intelligence minister Eli Cohen, an architect of the normalisation agreements, was nominated as foreign minister.

Israel has touted the normalisation agreements as a path to peace, but has aggressively continued its persecution of Palestinians and expanded illegal settlements. 

Extreme comeback

Netanyahu was ousted in June 2021 by a motley coalition of leftists, centrists and Palestinian parties headed by Naftali Bennett and former TV news anchor Yair Lapid. It didn't take him long to come back.

Following his 1 November 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.

Smotrich will now take charge of Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, and Ben-Gvir will be the national security minister with powers over the police, which also operates in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Senior security 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."

US 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.

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About 475,000 Jewish settlers - among them Smotrich and Ben-Gvir - live there 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.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir "have a very strong thirst for power", and their priority remains the expansion of West Bank settlements, said Denis Charbit, professor of political science at Israel's Open University.

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", Charbit added.

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. The Israeli settler raids on the site are seen as a provocation against the Palestinians.

"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.

Israeli authorities have killed more than 125 Palestinians this year in the West Bank in raids. At least 26 Israelis have also been killed in attacks across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The United Nations Mideast envoy said 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN started tracking fatalities in 2005.