Israel’s Netanyahu says he has formed new government

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Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of the Likud party, waves to his supporters after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, on Nov. 2, 2022.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Wednesday that he has successfully formed a new coalition, setting the stage for him to return to power as head of the most right-wing Israeli government ever to hold office.

Netanyahu made the announcement in a phone call to President Isaac Herzog moments before a midnight deadline. His Likud Party released a brief video clip of the smiling Netanyahu and a recording of the conversation.

“I wanted to announce to you that thanks to the amazing public support we received in the elections, I have succeeded in forming a government that will take care of all the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The move came after weeks of surprisingly difficult negotiations with his partners – who still have need to finalize their power-sharing deals with Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Nonetheless, Netanyahu said he intends to complete the process “as soon as possible next week” A date for its swearing-in wasn’t immediately announced.

Even if he is successful, Netanyahu faces a difficult task ahead. He will preside over a coalition dominated by far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners 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.

Netanyahu already has reached agreements with some of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, who once was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization, has been appointed security minister — a new position that will place him in charge of the national police force.

His running mate, Bezalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler leader who believes Israel should annex the occupied territory, is set to receive widespread authority over West Bank settlement construction, in addition to serving as finance minister.

Another ally, Avi Maoz, head of a small religious, anti-LGBTQ faction, has been placed in control of parts of the country’s national education system. Maoz, who is openly hostile to the liberal streams of Judaism popular in the U.S., also has been appointed a deputy minister in charge of “Jewish identity.”

In the Nov. 1 election, Netanyahu and his allies captured a majority of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and he vowed to quickly put together a coalition. But that process turned out to be more complicated than anticipated, in part because his ultra-Orthodox and far-right partners demanded firm guarantees on the scope of their powers.

Before the government is sworn in, Netanyahu will try to push through a series of laws needed to expand Ben-Gvir’s authority over the police and to create a new ministerial position granting Smotrich powers in the West Bank that in the past were held by the defense minister.

The parliament will also try to approve legislation to allow Aryeh Deri, a veteran politician who once served a prison sentence in a bribery case, to serve as a government minister while he is on probation for another conviction earlier this year on tax offenses.

The ultra-Orthodox, meanwhile, are seeking increases in subsidies for their autonomous education system, which has drawn heavy criticism for focusing on religious studies while providing its students few skills for the employment world.

Likud lawmakers have been competing for a shrinking collection of assignments after Netanyahu gave away many plumb jobs to his governing partners.

Netanyahu, who himself is on trial for alleged corruption, is eager to return to office after spending the past year and a half as opposition leader. He and his partners are expected to push through a series of laws shaking up the country’s judiciary and potentially clearing Netanyahu of any charges.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, serving a total of 15 years before he was ousted last year. He has claimed he is a victim of overzealous police, prosecutors and judges. But critics say the plans, including an expected proposal that would allow parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions, will destroy the country’s democratic institutions and system of checks and balances.

Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as the responsible adult in the emerging government, saying in interviews that he will set policies. But his partners are likely to test his limits at every chance.

Ben-Gvir, for instance, who is known his anti-Arab rhetoric and provocative stunts such as brandishing a pistol in a tense Palestinian neighborhood, has called for loosening the rules of engagement allowing security forces to shoot at suspected Palestinian assailants. He also wants to grant soldiers immunity from prosecution in such cases.

He also wants to ease restrictions on Jewish visits to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site — a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. Even the smallest changes at the site have in the past sparked violent clashes, and Ben-Gvir’s plans already have drawn warnings from the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip.

Smotrich’s plans to expand West Bank settlement construction and legalize dozens of illegally built outposts could also raise tensions with the Palestinians and the international community. His partners’ animosity toward the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism have rankled Jewish American groups.

At home, Netanyahu’s expected concessions to the ultra-Orthodox and plans to overhaul the country’s legal system could infuriate many in the country’s secular middle class. Dozens of executives from the powerful high-tech sector last week signed a petition warning that the proposals could drive away investors, and protests against the incoming coalition have already begun.

The U.S. and European Union have both said they will judge the new government by its policies, not its personalities. But in a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear he expects it to uphold “shared values” and not take actions that could preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Yohanan Plesner, a former Knesset member who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said he expects to see a stable coalition take power in the coming days.

“It’s in the interest of all members of the new coalition to form this government,” he said. “All of them have a lot to gain and much to lose if it’s not formed.”

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