Jerusalem: Benjamin Netanyahu was on Thursday sworn-in as Israel’s prime minister for a sixth time, leading the Jewish state’s most right-wing government to date.
Netanyahu, 73, already Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has the support of 63 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset (Israeli parliament). In the house, 54 lawmakers voted against his government.
He returned as prime minister with the formation of his sixth government, which is composed of a number of far-right allies, a prospect that many fear would put the new government at odds with large parts of its own population and its closest allies abroad.
The lawmakers supporting the new government are all right-wing, including Netanyahu’s Likud party supported by the ultra-orthodox Shas, United Torah Judaism, the far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionist Party, and Noam.
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Shortly before the confidence vote for Israel’s 37th government, the Knesset elected Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana as its the new Speaker.
A former justice minister and public security minister in past governments, Ohana is the Knesset’s first openly gay speaker.
Speaking at the Knesset ahead of the swearing-in of the new government, Netanyahu said that the three “national goals” of his government would be to prevent Iran from going nuclear, launch a bullet train that runs across the length of the country and bring more Arab countries into the Abraham accords fold.
Amid repeated heckling by opposing members who called Netanyahu “weak” and “racist”, he told them to “respect the will of the voters,” and that “this is not the end of democracy or the end of the country.” “In a democracy, you don’t climb over the walls of the Capitol nor those of the Knesset,” he said.
He promised to improve the personal safety of the citizens and lower the high cost of living.
Several lawmakers were expelled from the hearing after hitting tables with their hands and repeatedly calling him “weak.” Netanyahu announced the appointment of 31 ministers and three deputy ministers.
Three government ministries – defence, education and welfare – will have two ministers serving at the same time. However, women remain in the minority with only five ministerial posts, marking a new low in their representation.
Earlier, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid in his address to the Knesset listed the achievements of his short-lived government, including those of his predecessor and coalition partner Naftali Bennett.
“We are handing you a government in excellent condition … try not to destroy it, we will be back soon,” Lapid said.
In a Facebook post, Lapid vowed to continue to fight to topple the incoming government and make a comeback.
“Citizens of Israel, thanks for the last year and a half,” he wrote. “This isn’t the end, this is the beginning of the struggle for our beloved country. We are fighting for the future of our kids and we won’t stop until we topple the government of destruction, and return”.
Despite a clear mandate for the right wing to form the next government under Netanyahu in November 1 elections, the negotiations between the coalition partners came down to the wire with the emerging bloc having to pass a flurry of legislation to satisfy the demands of the coalition partners even before the government could be sworn in.
The Knesset passed laws sponsored by coalition parties enabling Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to become a minister despite a recent conviction and suspended sentence.
Other legislation changes include quasi-constitutional basic law which enables the Religious Zionist Party’s leader Bezalel Smotrich to be appointed as an independent minister in the Defence Ministry in charge of West Bank settlements, which forms his key voting constituency.
A third bill granted greater control over police to the newly formed National Security Ministry, set to be helmed by far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who has been convicted multiple times for incitement, racism, and terror-related offences.
The parties included in the government had run in the elections with a clear understanding that the Likud party Chairman Netanyahu would lead the next government if they were to get a majority, but they drove a hard bargain in reaching coalition agreements, securing far-reaching policy and appointment concessions that will drive judicial reform, may change security service command structures, retroactively legalise and expand settlements, introduce far-right influence in secular education, and expand religious influence over state and social institutions.
Critics have raised concerns that the expected changes could impact the fundamental character of Israel’s polity leading to changes that could harm Israel’s internal cohesion, risk putting its delicate ties with the world Jewry in jeopardy, and also put the country at the receiving end of international condemnation due to its hardline position on the long-standing acceptance of a two-state solution to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The new government where the right-wing Likud party comprises the left-most flank of the coalition is a major shift from the previous one which for the first time in Israel’s history had not only parties drawn from the Left, Right, and Centre, but also enjoyed the support of an Arab party.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) slammed the agenda of the incoming Israeli government, which calls to expand settlements in the West Bank, as a “dangerous escalation”.
“These guidelines constitute a dangerous escalation and will have repercussions for the region,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abu Rudeineh emphasised that Israel must realise that without complying with the UN resolutions “nothing will be achieved and that there will not be any settlement left on the lands of the independent state of Palestine”.
He also called upon the US administration “to turn its words into deeds since it is committed to the two-state solution, without which there will be no stability in the region”.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Israelis protested outside the Knesset in Jerusalem against the new government. The number of protesters outside the Knesset kept on swelling, reaching in thousands, as the day progressed.
Leaders from opposition parties also joined the protest rally organised by centre-left organisations.
“This huge and amazing gathering here is testament to the fact that the issue is not fear, it’s determination,” said Labour party leader, lawmaker Merav Michaeli.
“We will fight for the State of Israel as it should be – a home for the Jewish people with complete equality of rights and opportunities,” Michaeli said.