64-member government must be sworn in by January 2

‘I’ve done it’: Netanyahu announces his 6th government, Israel’s most hardline ever

7 weeks after elections and minutes before deadline, Likud head tells president he’s mustered a majority; he has yet to finalize coalition deals with any of his partners

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu informs President Isaac Herzog that he has managed to form a government, in a phone call shortly before a midnight deadline, December 21, 2022 (Likud spokesperson)
Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu informs President Isaac Herzog that he has managed to form a government, in a phone call shortly before a midnight deadline, December 21, 2022 (Likud spokesperson)

Benjamin Netanyahu informed President Isaac Herzog late on Wednesday that he has come to agreements with his coalition partners to form Israel’s 37th government, delivering a promise of right-wing and religious-led political stability seven weeks after the country’s fifth election since 2019 and minutes before the expiration of his mandate to form the next government. The Likud leader has yet to finalize coalition agreements with any of his party’s intended partners, however.

In line with Israeli law, Netanyahu must now inform Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, who will announce the development during Monday’s legislative session. After that, Netanyahu will have seven days to swear in his government. Some Likud party sources say this is likely to happen before the January 2 deadline.

The negotiations between Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners came down to the wire, with the Otzma Yehudit party saying an hour before the deadline it was still locked in negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud and it “wasn’t clear” if the two sides would reach an agreement. Even after the deadline, however, full coalition agreements had yet to be signed between Likud and any of its partners.

Netanyahu finally called Herzog to announce his coalition around 20 minutes before the deadline, over a month after receiving the mandate to form a government.

Immediately afterward, shortly before midnight, Netanyahu publicly declared his government, tweeting simply: “I’ve done it.”

In a video of his conversation with Herzog, Netanyahu tells the president, “I wanted to inform you that, thanks to the immense public support we won in the elections, I have managed to set up a government which will take care of all the citizens of Israel. And I of course intend to establish it as quickly as possible.”

Herzog responded by thanking Netanyahu and wishing him success. “The obligation is to work for the entire Israeli people and public, and I hope you will all join up for this mission at this time,” he said. “Good luck.”

Israel’s largest party and a right-wing powerhouse, Likud will be on the left flank of the prime minister-designate’s incoming coalition. Far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Noam, as well as Netanyahu’s long-time ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, round out the 64-seat majority coalition in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.

Although the parties are largely reliant on each other to return to power after a year and a half in the opposition, Netanyahu’s partners have driven a hard bargain in negotiations, securing far-reaching policy and appointment concessions that will drive judicial reform, may change security service command structures, retroactively legalize and expand settlements, introduce far-right influence in secular education, and expand religious influence over state and social institutions.

In addition, the parties have promised to improve internal security amid a lingering terror wave and rampant violent crime in some areas, vowed to combat Israel’s soaring cost of living, and reaffirmed Netanyahu’s perennial promise to counter Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The change in government marks a major shift in tone from Israel’s outgoing, big-tent coalition led by prime ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, whose cross-spectrum coalition united in 2021 to drive out Netanyahu after a 12-year run in power. While all of Israel’s Zionist Knesset parties agree with the country’s self-conception as a Jewish and democratic state, the definitions of “Jewish” and “democratic” are a major dividing line between the incoming coalition and its predecessor.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and party leaders at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Three fast-tracked legislative changes demanded by Netanyahu’s allies as conditions for swearing in the announced government underscore the democratic issue.

The first, a bid to expand political control over the police force by incoming national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, has been criticized by the attorney general’s office for insufficiently balancing police independence and ministerial authority.

Meanwhile, Religious Zionism’s Bezalel 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 Jewish settlers and nearly 3 million Palestinians.

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.

Annexation would force Israel into either a democratic or identity crisis, whereby it would either need to deny full citizenship to Palestinians incorporated into the state, or tip scales away from a Jewish majority in the electorate.

Finally, Shas’s Aryeh Deri is also demanding a change to the same Basic Law, but to clear his way to helming two ministries, despite his recent suspended sentence for tax fraud.

The push by Deri, Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit’s Ben Gvir’s to receive their authorities and appointments before lending Netanyahu their parties’ combined 25 votes to swear in the government is forcing a compressed timeline for the consequential changes, but the three leaders have at times expressed their lack of trust in Netanyahu’s word.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (L) embraces Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir during a Knesset session at which a new speaker was elected, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The biggest democratic debate, however, revolves around the incoming government’s declared intention to increase political control over the judiciary. Three key proposals being discussed are a move to legislate an override clause, by which the Knesset can reinstate any law invalidated by the Supreme Court; to put judicial appointments under political control, as opposed to the current hybrid political-professional-judicial appointments panel; and to split the role of the attorney general as 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.

Although the bloc’s leading factions are united behind the plans for far-reaching judicial reform, they support it for different reasons. Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence and claims the charges are the product of a politically motivated police and prosecutor, slanted media and a weak attorney general. While he has been carefully quiet on judicial reform in recent years, his close confidant and new Knesset speaker Levin is a staunch judicial reform supporter and will likely helm the Justice Ministry.

Exacerbated by Netanyahu’s divisive trial, many Likud supporters and MKs have expressed distrust in the judicial system and the attorney general, and several Likud lawmakers have said they will weigh firing her once they are formally in power.

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

Religious Zionism has also pressed for extensive judicial reform, led by longtime Supreme Court critic MK Simcha Rothman and Smotrich. The settler community has long chaffed at Supreme Court rulings regarding the West Bank.

Illustrative: MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, waves an Israeli flag during the annual ‘Flags March’ next to Damascus gate, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The ultra-Orthodox community has long been in tension with the Supreme Court, claiming its secular rulings overreach into the religious lifestyle. Shas and UTJ are also especially interested in an override clause that would enable them to pass legislation that will solidify ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military conscription.

Set to expire on February 1, the current law sets quotas for ultra-Orthodox enlistment and nominally imposes sanctions on ultra-Orthodox institutions whose graduates do not enlist, but enforcement is extremely limited. Previous attempts to lower these weakly enforced bars have been blocked as unequal by the top court.

On the Jewish front, the incoming coalition’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox members have pressed to strengthen the Orthodox conception of Judaism in matters of state, in proposals not widely supported within Likud.

UTJ MK Yitzchak Goldknopf seen during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Religious Zionism, the one-man Noam party, and the two ultra-Orthodox factions support ending citizenship eligibility for the grandchildren of Jews, who are not themselves Jewish according to religious law. Likud MKs have pushed back against narrowing the Law of Return, which is a crucial connection between Israel and the global Jewish diaspora.

The parties also want to end recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for citizenship purposes. Foreign non-Orthodox conversions are accepted under the Law of Return, but no non-Orthodox conversions are accepted under the State Rabbinate, which holds to halachic (Orthodox Jewish law) standards.

While details of their full coalition agreements are not yet available, every party has signed an annex or letter with Likud detailing government appointments. The coalition agreements do not need to be finalized and submitted to the Knesset until 24 hours before the swearing-in ceremony. During the negotiation process, government bodies supervising Jewish identity have been parceled out to Religious Zionism and Noam, and tighter state oversight over Jewish institutions has been demanded by UTJ.

Additionally, control over municipal community centers will be transferred to Shas. This move is both in line with the party’s focus on serving underprivileged and rural populations, as well as providing a vehicle to implement traditional Jewish and religious programming in community centers, according to Shas party sources.

Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed Police Ordinance changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas will also retake control of the Religious Services Ministry, which will play a role in appointing the state’s next chief rabbis, as well as give it a chance to quickly roll back a rabbinic court appointment reform program implemented by former minister and liberal Orthodox Jew Matan Kahana.

UTJ, led by Knesset newcomer Yitzhak Goldknopf, has made a host of demands to firm up Orthodox control over religious matters and exert religious oversight on secular matters. Various proposals include stopping energy generation on Shabbat and expanding gender-segregated beaches, both of which Netanyahu has publicly nixed; increasing stipends for religious study; including a Chief Rabbinate representative on any panel weighing permits for work on Shabbat; forming and funding bodies to provide answers to the public on questions of Jewish law; allowing hospitals to ban hametz, or leavened wheat products, on Passover; requiring more religious studies in the state’s secular school system; and weighing the closure of the new Reform department in the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Noam party leader Avi Maoz speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And, most strikingly given that Noam is a one-man party not necessary to give a majority to the 64-member coalition, its leader Avi Maoz will head a Prime Minister’s Office unit in charge of Israel’s “Jewish national identity.”

As part of the office, Maoz is slated to take control over an Education Ministry unit in charge of approving external educational vendors, who play a critical role in public school programming. Especially prevalent in secular schools, these vendors cover a range of subjects from sexual health to bar mitzvah preparation.

Maoz’s Noam ran on an anti-LGBT, anti-pluralist agenda, and Maoz has decried female enlistment in the IDF.

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