Dec 29, 2022 - World

Israel swears in most right-wing government in its history

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel's new government was sworn in Thursday, with Benjamin Netanyahu returning to the prime minister’s post 18 months after he was ousted.

Why it matters: It's the most right-wing and religious government Israel has had since its establishment, and its expected policies could significantly change the country.

Driving the news: The new government is mostly defined by the rise of the Israeli extreme right. Two of its leaders known for expressing racist and Jewish supremacist views — Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir — have become senior ministers.

  • Smotrich was sworn in as the finance minister and will also serve as a minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over the military units in charge of civilian policy in the occupied West Bank. This will give him unprecedented influence on the policy related to Israeli settlements.
  • Ben Gvir was sworn in as the new national security minister with unprecedented authority over the police. Per a coalition agreement, he will also be in charge of a new independent security force of border guard paramilitary units that operate in the West Bank and Israel.

State of play: Netanyahu for more than a month has been negotiating with his coalition partners to hammer out the details of agreements that would allow him to form a government.

  • Although the coalition agreements are not legally binding, they signal the potential hardline and conservative policies the new government may take, especially on issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
  • The coalition agreements state that “the Jewish people have an exclusive right on all the land” between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It doesn’t mention the Palestinians.

The new government is expected to take steps toward annexing the West Bank. Annexation is unlikely while the U.S. is led by the Biden administration, but Netanyahu's coalition has signaled it will implement it if a Republican wins the presidential election in 2024.

  • “The Prime Minister will promote a policy of applying sovereignty over Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) taking into consideration the timing and Israel’s international interests," the coalition agreements read.
  • The coalition agreements lay out detailed plans for taking over more parts of the West Bank, including prioritizing settlement building — moves that would make it impossible to establish a Palestinian state.

The foreign policy part of the agreements only says the government will deepen cooperation with the countries of the Abraham Accords — which led to normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab nations — and "will try and promote new peace agreements in order to end the Arab-Israeli conflict."

  • It also states the new government will promote a visa waiver agreement with the U.S. The previous government wanted to do this but was blocked by Netanyahu.

After hours of negotiations and in-fighting, Netanyahu reached a deal over the foreign minister's post. He appointed Likud lawmaker Eli Cohen to the job, but he will only serve in this post for a year and then "rotate" with Likud member Israel Katz who was appointed as minister of energy.

  • Yes, but: Ron Dermer, Netanyahu's confidant and former ambassador to the U.S., was appointed as minister for strategic affairs and is expected to be Netanyahu's point person to handle relations with the White House and lead the efforts to reach a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.

The coalition agreements also include changes the new government wants to make to the judicial system — moves that are especially important for Netanyahu, who is being prosecuted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and is looking for ways to stop his trial.

  • Netanyahu appointed his confidant, Yariv Levin, as justice minister. According to the agreements, all coalition members must support every measure put forward by Levin related to the judicial system, Supreme Court and appointment of judges.
  • The agreements say such steps are needed to “restore the balance between the branches of government.” This is expected to include a measure that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings, which would effectively make Israel's highest court powerless.
  • The attorney general, chief justice of the Supreme Court and most legal experts in the country object to such efforts, saying they could destroy Israel’s strong and independent judiciary and change the country's democratic system of government.

Netanyahu's coalition members also want to amend laws that outline the criteria for who has the right to immigrate to Israel, which could negatively influence the U.S. Jewish community.

The big picture: The coalition agreements include unprecedented policies that will give much more power to religious institutions and could harm the rights of non-Jews, women and LGBTQ+ communities.

  • According to the coalition agreements, about $500 million will be allocated for “strengthening Jewish identity" — a phrase that has come to mean Orthodox religious indoctrination in Israel.
  • The new government is also expected to pass a law that makes studying Torah a value equal to military service, which would allow the government for the first time to pass a law exempting yeshiva students from military service.
  • While Netanyahu has said he will not allow LGBTQ+ rights to be harmed, the coalition agreements state the new government will amend a law so certain businesses can discriminate against gay people for religious reasons.
  • The government will consist of 29 ministers, but only five of them are women. The previous government had nine female ministers.

Between the lines: Likud member Amir Ohana was sworn in Thursday as speaker of the Knesset. Ohana is the first openly gay man to serve in the job. Netanyahu sees this appointment as a signal the new government will not harm LGBTQ+ rights as many fear.

  • Netanyahu appointed former minister Tzachi Hanegbi as his national security adviser. Hanegbi is considered a centrist politician and a moderate but very hawkish on Iran. He recently said Netanyahu is likely to order a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities in his term as prime minister.

What to watch: One key appointment that created public uproar was that of Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who has been convicted of criminal offenses twice. The Knesset had to change the law so that Deri could be sworn in as the minister of interior and minister of health.

  • The Supreme Court is expected to rule next week whether the law, known colloquially as “Deri law,” is constitutional and if Deri's appointment was reasonable. Revoking his appointment could create an unprecedented constitutional situation and accelerate the new government’s plans to pass a law that gives it the authority to override Supreme Court decisions.

Go deeper: U.S. Jewish leaders warn Israeli officials over incoming right-wing government

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