Lapid: Normalization with Saudi Arabia very close

Netanyahu presents new government’s agenda; Lapid: ‘Try not to destroy the country’

Several MKs from incoming opposition ejected from plenum for heckling as incoming PM outlines plans ahead of swear-in; thousands protest outside Knesset against hardline coalition

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents his new government to the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents his new government to the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

In a stormy session at the Knesset on Thursday that saw a number of lawmakers ejected, incoming premier Benjamin Netanyahu presented his coalition and its agenda, as outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid said he was passing the baton “with a sense of disquiet.”

As the session got underway in the Knesset to cap a return to power for Netanyahu as the head of the country’s most hardline government to date, there was a demonstration outside. According to Channel 13 news, police estimated there were around 3,000 protestors.

Inside the plenum, Netanyahu was interrupted by heckles from the opposition as he outlined the three main missions of his government: stopping the Iran nuclear program, developing state infrastructure with emphasis on connecting peripheral communities to the country’s center, and bolstering law and order.

Netanyahu also said his government will combat the rising cost of living and improve education.

His comments were interrupted by shouts of “weak” and “shame” from the opposition benches.

Netanyahu responded that he expected the opposition to “respect the voters’ decision and stop rebelling against the elected government.”

After a number of warnings throughout the session, six MKs from the incoming opposition were ejected from the plenum.

Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben Ari heckles incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

In his speech, Netanyahu accused opposition lawmakers of not accepting the results of the November 1 election, despite the fact that the legitimacy of the ballot has never been questioned.

“I hear the constant cries of the opposition about the end of the country and democracy,” Netanyahu said.

“Losing elections isn’t the end of democracy — it’s the essence of democracy,” he said.

Netanyahu heads a government comprising his Likud party along with five far-right and Haredi factions.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (L) speaks to Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

His allies are pushing for dramatic changes that critics say could harm human rights, alienate large swaths of the citizenry, 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 American Jewish community.

At the conclusion of the main part of his speech, Netanyahu placed a kippa on his head and recited the Jewish prayer for a new beginning.

Incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu puts on a kippa before reciting a blessing for his new government during his address to the Knesset introducing his ministers, December 29, 2022. (Amir Cohen / Pool / AFP)

He then listed the ministers who will serve in his government.

The vast majority of ministerial portfolios had already been announced. However, there were still some surprises, and further appointments were announced even after his speech.

The incoming coalition will have 31 ministers and four deputy ministers. There are only five female ministers.

Cabinet seats — which come with power and perks — are doled out to parties that join the government as well as to stalwarts within the ruling party. Sometimes positions are created for this purpose.

Likud MK Eli Cohen will be foreign minister, a role that had been hotly contested among lawmakers from the Likud party as one of the few senior roles that had not been handed to other factions in the coalition.

Netanyahu also announced that key ally and confidant Ron Dermer, who previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, would become strategic affairs minister within the Prime Minister’s Office. It remains to be seen what responsibilities will be given to Dermer, but he has shown interest in being Netanyahu’s main adviser on ties with Washington.

Dermer had reportedly been in the running for the Foreign Ministry, as was Likud’s Israel Katz, who instead will head up the Energy Ministry for the first year or two — the issue was in flux — before taking over from Cohen.

Netanyahu also named Likud MK Yoav Kisch as regional cooperation minister, a role he will assume in addition to those of education minister and coordinator between the government and the Knesset.

It was later announced that Likud’s Gila Gamliel will serve as intelligence minister, but won’t be sworn in until Monday.

At the conclusion of Netanyahu’s speech, Lapid declared that “with a sense of disquiet, we are passing the baton to the new government.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The incoming opposition leader then listed the achievements of the government headed by himself and his predecessor Naftali Bennett.

“Contrary to all the predictions and angry prophecies, our government succeeded in stopping the re-signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran,” Lapid said.

“We started a dialogue with the Saudis, which initially allowed flights over its territory and the arrival of worshipers to Mecca,” he said. “However, more importantly, we have laid the groundwork for Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords. If the government continues on this path, it is possible that normalization with Saudi Arabia will be reached within a short period of time.”

“We are giving you a state that is in excellent condition with a strong economy, improved security and some of the best international standing ever; try not to destroy it — we will be back,” Lapid concluded.

During Lapid’s speech, Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh was ejected for heckling.

Yesh Atid’s Orna Barbivai was next to speak, highlighting the concerns of the LGBTQ community.

“People are afraid outside, they are afraid of the incoming government,” she said. Addressing Likud lawmakers, Barbivai said, “I hope that you ensure they have nothing to be afraid of.”

Outside the Knesset, several thousand demonstrators waved Israeli and Pride flags and chanted, “We don’t want fascists in the Knesset.” Another protest was expected in Tel Aviv later in the day.

Protesters shout slogans and hold banners against incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Netanyahu has largely brushed off concerns over his incoming government, vowing not to harm LGBTQ and other minority rights despite the signing of coalition agreements that state otherwise and the inclusion of an anti-LGBTQ party in the government that will have control over some educational programming in schools.

Coalition agreements also include a commitment to pass a controversial High Court override law designed to reduce judicial checks on executive and legislative power, and a declarative, if somewhat vague, commitment to annex the West Bank to Israel.

In addition, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party has secured an agreement to slice off the Border Police from the Israel Police and place the force under the direct control of the new national security minister, far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir.

The deals, if implemented, will also see far-reaching policy changes on religion and state, including enabling gender-segregated public events, restricting eligibility for Jewish immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, and increased funding for social welfare and religious education. Coalition deals are not legally binding and are not always fully implemented.

AP, Carrie Keller-Lynn and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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