Hanukkah miracle or government of darkness: Lawmakers react to coalition declaration

Likud’s Barkat hails ‘stable’ government; Lapid: ‘Most extreme government ever’; Liberman: It’ll bring a halachic state, gender segregation; Yesh Atid MK: Allies distrust Netanyahu

Likud Head MK Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by MKs after a vote for the new Knesset speaker at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud Head MK Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by MKs after a vote for the new Knesset speaker at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmakers from the outgoing government expressed dismay on Thursday after Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he had succeeded in forming a coalition, Israel’s most hardline ever, while the Likud party leader’s allies welcomed the development.

Netanyahu informed President Isaac Herzog late on Wednesday that he had reached agreements with his coalition partners to form Israel’s 37th government, minutes before the expiration of his mandate.

Speaking at a conference Thursday at Tel Aviv University, Herzog repeated his commonly-stated hope that the incoming government would work to calm an increasingly toxic and divisive political climate, saying that during their call the night before, Netanyahu “repeated his promise to work for the benefit of the entire Israeli public.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid commented that far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich had “succeeded in forming the most extreme government in the country’s history.” Lapid’s office said he planned to hold a press conference Thursday evening in Tel Aviv.

Outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman also lamented the announcement, highlighting aspects of the coalition agreement that were made to satisfy the bloc’s far-right and Haredi partners.

“He managed to assemble a government of darkness. He succeeded in promoting a halachic state,” Liberman tweeted Thursday.

“He managed to prioritize the yeshiva students over the IDF soldiers. He managed to create gender segregation under the auspices of the law. He managed to bury the vision of [Theodor] Herzl and [Zeev] Jabotinsky,” Liberman wrote.

“And now we must manage to fight all of this with determination and perseverance and promise hope and light to the citizens of Israel,” Liberman said.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Senior Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak reiterated the widespread belief that Netanyahu’s coalition partners had demanded upfront “payment” of what they’d been promised in coalition negotiations, requiring signed agreements and legislation, due to the Likud leader’s history of reneging on deals with political allies.

“Despite all the tremendous support you have received, none of your partners believe a single word you say and require every commitment written in triplicate,” he wrote, addressing Netanyahu. “The countdown to the full-on collapse has begun.”

Yesh Atid lawmaker Michal Shir riffed on Netanyahu’s Wednesday evening announcement that “I did it,” highlighting the upper hand that the expected incoming coalition parties had during their negotiations.

“Bibi is confused — they did it,” she tweeted, using a common nickname for Netanyahu.

However, a number of Likud lawmakers were quick to congratulate their party leader, despite rumblings of discontent over the past week due to the lack of portfolios available to Netanyahu loyalists after he had satisfied the demands of the Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties.

“Congratulations to Likud chair and prime minister-elect Netanyahu who informed the president tonight that he did it. A stable national government will soon be established in Israel,” senior Likud lawmaker Nir Barkat tweeted.

Likud MK Nir Barkat arrives to cast his vote during Likud’s primaries at polling station in Jerusalem, August 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s Yoav Kisch wrote: “Congratulations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and our coalition partners for completing the task of forming a government. With God’s help, by Wednesday we will complete the legislation in the Knesset and immediately after that we will form a government. We did it.”

Smotrich tweeted that “finally, we did it,” and Ben Gvir alluded to the story of the Hanukkah miracle, which is being celebrated in an ongoing eight-day festival: “For the present-day miracles!”

In line with Israeli law, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin will announce the coalition agreement during Monday’s legislative session. After that, Netanyahu will have seven days to swear in his government, although party sources say it is likely to happen before the January 2 deadline.

L-R: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

Likud will be the largest faction in the prime minister-designate’s incoming coalition. However, he will be reliant on the far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Noam, as well as long-time ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, to keep his 64-seat majority coalition in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.

Although the parties now set to return to power after a year and a half in the opposition are largely reliant on each other, Netanyahu’s partners have secured far-reaching concessions on both policy and appointments that will drive judicial reform, may change security service command structures, impact the lives of Palestinians, retroactively legalize and expand settlements, introduce far-right influence in secular education, and expand religious influence over state and social institutions.

In addition to portfolios and shifts in funding and oversight, three fast-tracked and controversial legislative changes have been demanded by Netanyahu’s allies as conditions for swearing in the announced government.

A bid to expand political control over the police force by incoming national security minister Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit, has been criticized by the attorney general’s office for insufficiently balancing police independence and ministerial authority.

Religious Zionism’s Smotrich is pushing to change the quasi-constitutional Basic Law undergirding Israel’s government to enable his appointment as an independent minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of West Bank settlement and Palestinian construction. Smotrich advocates for Israel annexing the West Bank, home to about 500,000 Israeli settlers and nearly 3 million Palestinians, and the position would give him unprecedented control over their daily lives.

This picture taken on May 10, 2022, shows construction work in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Critics have said that his appointment to the sensitive post and coalition promises to legalize wildcat settlements may lead to de facto annexation, as well as disrupt operational command structures.

Shas’s Aryeh Deri is also demanding a change to the same Basic Law to clear his way to becoming a cabinet minister, despite his recent suspended sentence for tax fraud — his second conviction, received in a lenient plea deal after convincing the judge he intended to step down from politics.

The incoming government has also declared its contentious intention to increase political control over the judiciary. Three key proposals being discussed would legislate an override clause, by which the Knesset can reinstate any law invalidated by the Supreme Court; put judicial appointments under political control, as opposed to the current hybrid political-professional-judicial appointments panel; and split the role of the attorney general, who is currently both the head of the state prosecution and the government’s legal adviser.

Likud has also said it plans to turn legal advisers in government ministries into positions of trust, which means they would be hired and fired at political will. Currently, government legal advisers are subordinate to the attorney general, in order to maintain the independence of their advice.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara attends a conference in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases — he denies the accusations and claims the charges are the product of a politically motivated witch hunt. While he and some of his allies have publicly denied the touted reforms would have an impact on the legal proceedings, others have seen a clear link.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has cautioned that the judicial reform, as well as the ongoing legislative blitz, could render Israel “a democracy in name only.”

The change in government marks a major shift in tone from Israel’s outgoing, big-tent coalition led by prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, whose cross-spectrum coalition united in 2021 to drive out Netanyahu after a 12-year run in power but collapsed after less than a year, riven by internal dissension.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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