Netanyahu returns as PM, wins Knesset support for Israel’s most hardline government
Incoming coalition, approved by 63-54 votes, has pledged to hobble the High Court, consider West Bank annexation, and further centralize Orthodox control over state Jewish services
Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swore in Israel’s 37th government on Thursday, promising that his right-religious coalition will deliver political stability after five bumpy back-to-back elections since 2019.
Confidence in the government was confirmed by 63 of the 64 coalition members, constituting a relatively solid and cohesive majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Fifty-four MKs voted against.
With a total of 15 years in two stints in the country’s top seat — he is now beginning his third — Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. This will be his sixth government, and by allying far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties to his right-wing Likud, it will be his and the country’s most hardline to date.
According to coalition agreements signed between Likud and each of its five partner parties, as well as its published guiding principles, the incoming government will prioritize comprehensive judicial reform, including a commitment to pass a High Court override law designed to reduce judicial checks on executive and legislative power, expand settlement and consider West Bank annexation policy, combat the cost of living, and further centralize ultra-Orthodox control over state Jewish services.
Speaking to the Knesset plenum before the vote of confidence, Netanyahu presented three top priorities for his new government: stopping Iran’s nuclear program, developing state infrastructure — with an emphasis on connecting the so-called periphery to the center of the country — and restoring internal security and governance.
Many ministries have been split or repackaged. Others are scheduled for ministerial rotation, had pieces cleaved off or appended, or have more than one minister. Only five of the 31 ministers are women, and one, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Galit Distal Atbaryan, has yet to have a clear role delineated. Another, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, was appointed in the hours between when Netanyahu presented his government to the Knesset and the swearing-in.
Cabinet posts are among the key resources allocated by would-be prime ministers in their quest to cobble together parties into a coalition, along with budgets and policy points. Netanyahu has been criticized within his own party for making far-reaching concessions to allied parties.
One of those allied parties is the far-right Religious Zionism, which has pushed for settlement expansion, reform that would subjugate the judiciary to the Knesset, and the bolstering of Orthodox Judaism.
Party leader Bezalel Smotrich — who in addition to once describing himself as a “proud homophobe” and advocating for Arab-Jewish segregated maternity wards, was arrested by the Shin Bet in 2005 on suspicion of a planning a violent pro-settlement demonstration — will be an independent minister in the Defense Ministry overseeing Jewish and Palestinian construction the West Bank’s Area C.
Home to about 500,000 Jewish settlers and 300,000 Palestinians, Area C is the only part of the West Bank in which Jews live, and it is under Israeli civil and military control.
Other members of his party will receive appointments touching on settlements, Israel’s Jewish character and Diaspora relations, namely the newly formed National Missions Ministry and the Aliyah and Absorption Ministry. Smotrich will also start the term in the Finance Ministry, and is slated to rotate into a different ministry midterm.
Other policy goals secured by Religious Zionism include a declarative, if somewhat vague, commitment to annexing the West Bank to Israel, legalization of dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts, and the provision of large funds for road building and public transportation in the West Bank.
The party also obtained commitments to restrict immigration under the Law of Return, delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, and change discrimination laws to allow goods and service providers to refuse service based on religious belief.
Fellow far-right party Otzma Yehudit campaigned on a promise to restore internal security and governance to Israel, amid an ongoing wave of terror attacks and alleged under-policing in parts of the country.
The party’s firebrand leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, secured unprecedented control over law enforcement as part of his newly formed National Security Ministry. Repackaging it from the existing Public Security Ministry, Ben Gvir drew additional powers to himself in both passed and planned legislation, and has secured a staggering coalition promise to be given control of the Border Police.
The ultra-nationalist party also obtained commitments to advance legislation to change the legal liability of soldiers and security personnel for actions they take in the line of duty, institute a death penalty for convicted terrorists, strip other attackers of their nationality and deport them, review the possibility of downgrading prison conditions for Palestinian terror inmates, and ban the Palestinian flag from state-funded institutions and local municipal authorities.
A third far-right coalition partner, Noam, secured dramatic promises for its small, one-lawmaker faction. Newly installed Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Avi Maoz will head a well-funded Jewish National Identity office, through which he will take control of Israel’s program for processing Jewish immigration from former Soviet states — Nativ — as well as an Education Ministry unit overseeing extracurricular programming in public schools.
Maoz will also helm a newly announced Department for Jewish State Consciousness, which despite being funded and staffed in the coalition agreement, has yet to reveal its responsibilities and mandate.
Maoz and his Noam party hold anti-LGBTQ, misogynist, and anti-Jewish pluralist views. He, along with other religious parties, has pushed to tighten Jewish immigration criteria under the Law of Return, removing eligibility from many who are not considered Jews by Orthodox Jewish law.
Likud’s ultra-Orthodox partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, again found success in their demands on welfare and strengthening the standing of and funding for Orthodox Jewish religion.
Shas in particular secured billions of shekels in promises to advance its core agendas, including support for disadvantaged ctizens, benefits to the religious community and its institutions, and improved healthcare, especially in the so-called periphery.
On Tuesday, the incoming coalition passed legislation to clear Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s path to lead the interior and health ministries, despite his recent suspended sentence for tax fraud.
In the Interior Ministry, Deri has secured a promise to distribute NIS 1 billion in direct food assistance to needy families. He also has a NIS 5.85 budgetary promise to improve healthcare service and access, especially in underserved periphery communities.
The party will also have ministers in the welfare, religious services, and education ministries, where it will increase funding for non-official religious schools, without requiring them to study core curricular subjects.
UTJ and Shas also clinched a commitment to further reduce ultra-Orthodox military enlistment quotas. The majority of ultra-Orthodox men choose to pursue full-time religious study in lieu of military service, and a decade-long battle to integrate their communities into the military was a contributing factor to kicking off years of political instability at the end of 2018.
UTJ’s coalition agreement, which like all coalition agreements is not legally binding, contains additional far-reaching policy changes on religion and state, including enabling gender-segregated public events, narrowing the standards for Jewish immigration under the Law of Return, and nixing a plan to phase out old 2G and 3G cellular networks to protect so-called kosher phone lines.
Signing all coalition parties onto a clause to support Likud-led judicial reform, the ruling party has announced its intention to not only pass an override clause to let the Knesset reinstate any law invalidated by the Supreme Court, but also to convert government legal advisers to positions of trust, to change judicial appointment processes and terms, to raise the bar for the court to invalidate laws, and to split the attorney general’s role.
Shortly before the confidence vote on the 37th government, the plenum elected Likud MK Amir Ohana to be its next speaker.
A former minister of justice and of public security in past governments, Ohana is the Knesset’s first openly gay speaker.
In his first remarks as speaker, Ohana insisted that the incoming coalition won’t infringe upon LGBT rights. Directing the comments to his family, Ohana said, “this Knesset, under the leadership of this speaker, won’t hurt them or any other family, period.”
Ohana’s election was clinched on Wednesday, when Likud faction members chose him in an internal vote to succeed outgoing speaker Yariv Levin, who held the post for two weeks.
A former speaker and trusted Netanyahu ally, Levin took up the post briefly to oversee a three-part legislative blitz preceding Thursday’s swearing-in, and vacated the role on Thursday morning to become justice minister.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.