JERUSALEM (Agencies): Benjamin Netanyahu was set to return to office Thursday at the helm of the most religious and ultranationalist government in Israel’s history, vowing to implement policies that could cause domestic and regional turmoil and alienate the country’s closest allies.
Netanyahu’s new government has pledged to prioritize settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, extend massive subsidies to his ultra-Orthodox allies and push for sweeping reform of the judicial system that could endanger the country’s democratic institutions.
Netanyahu is the country’s longest serving prime minister, having held office from 2009 until 2021 and a stint in the 1990s. He was ousted from office last year after four deadlocked elections by a coalition of eight parties solely united in their opposition to his rule while on trial for corruption.
That coalition broke apart in June, and Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies secured a parliamentary majority in November’s election.
“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.
“I hear the constant cries of the opposition about the end of the country and democracy,” said Netanyahu after taking the podium in parliament ahead of the government’s formal swearing-in on Thursday afternoon. His speech was interrupted repeatedly by heckles and jeers from opposition leadership, who at times chanted “weak.”
“Opposition members: to lose in elections is not the end of democracy, this is the essence of democracy,” he said.
Netanyahu heads a government comprised of a hard-line religious ultranationalist party dominated by West Bank settlers, two ultra-Orthodox parties and his nationalist Likud party.
His allies are pushing for dramatic changes that could alienate large swaths of the Israeli public, raise the risk of conflict with the Palestinians, and put Israel on a collision course with some of its closest supporters, including the United States and the Jewish American community.
Former Israeli intelligence minister Eli Cohen, an architect of the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab counties, was nominated as foreign minister by Netanyahu.
Even before the government was sworn in, the majority parties passed laws that would allow Aryeh Deri, a key ally from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve as a minister despite a previous guilty plea to tax offenses.
They also voted to expand powers of the national security minister, a portfolio set to be handed to Ben-Gvir, who will have authority over the police.
The assignment comes despite Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s warning against the “politicization of law enforcement.”
Netanyahu’s government published its platform, which stated that “the Jewish people have exclusive and indisputable rights” over the entirety of Israel and the Palestinian territories and will advance settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
That includes legalizing dozens of wildcat outposts and a commitment to annex the entire territory, a step that would draw heavy international opposition by destroying any remaining hopes for Palestinian statehood and add fuel to calls that Israel is an apartheid state.
Netanyahu’s previous administrations have been strong proponents of Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise, and that is only expected to be kicked into overdrive under the new government.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territory the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel has constructed dozens of Jewish settlements that are home to around 500,000 Israelis who live alongside around 2.5 million Palestinians.
Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States already has warned the incoming government against taking steps that could further undermine hopes for an independent Palestinian state.
Israel’s ally the United States has also spoken out.
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.
About 475,000 Jewish settlers — among them Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — live there now in settlements considered illegal under international law.
The new government has also raised concerns about impingement of minority and LGBTQ rights.
Outside parliament, several thousand demonstrators waved the Israeli and Pride flags and chanted “we don’t want fascists in the Knesset.” Another protest was expected in Tel Aviv later in the day.
Earlier this week, two members of the Religious Zionism party said they would advance an amendment to the country’s anti-discrimination law that would allow businesses and doctors to discriminate against the LGBTQ community on the basis of religious faith.
Those remarks, along with the ruling coalition’s broadly anti-LGBTQ stance, have raised fears among the LGBTQ community that the new Netanyahu administration would roll back their limited rights. Netanyahu has tried to allay those concerns by pledging no harm to LGBTQ rights.
Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister who will now reassume the title of opposition leader, told parliament that he was handing the new government “a country in excellent condition, with a strong economy, with improved defensive abilities and strong deterrence, with one of the best international standings ever.”
“Try not to destroy it. We’ll be back soon,” Lapid said.