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.
The leader, who sees himself as the guarantor of his country’s security, 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.
Netanyahu was ousted in June 2021 by a motley coalition of leftists, centrists and Arab parties headed by Naftali Bennett and former TV news anchor Yair Lapid. It didn’t take him long to come back.
Following his November 1 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.
– ‘Thirst for power’ –
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.
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.
– Fear of ‘explosion’ –
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. Palestinians would see a visit by a serving Israeli minister as a provocation.
“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.
Israel and Hamas fought a war in May 202l. This year, other Gaza militants and Israel exchanged rocket and missile fire for three days in August.
In the West Bank, violence has surged this year and many are afraid of more unrest.
“I think that if the government acts in an irresponsible way, it could cause a security escalation,” outgoing Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday, expressing fear over the “extremist direction” of the incoming administration.