After a year and a half in opposition, Binyamin Netanyahu has returned as prime minister for a sixth term at the head of a solidly right-wing and religious coalition.
The Knesset parliament swore in the new government on Thursday, almost two months after Israel’s longest-serving leader won the November 1st election.
During the eight weeks of gruelling coalition negotiations Mr Netanyahu made widespread concessions to his new coalition partners in terms of ministerial portfolios and commitments to a radical far-right and religious agenda that the new opposition claims endangers Israeli democracy.
Mr Netanyahu told the Knesset that his new government will prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and will expand the circle of peace with Arab countries with the goal of ending the Israeli-Arab conflict.
He stressed that his government would act to restore personal security to Israeli citizens and restore governance.
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Mr Netanyahu was interrupted repeatedly by members of the outgoing coalition who shouted “shame” and “weak”. He called on them to respect the public’s decision.
“I hear the opposition’s constant laments about ‘the end of the state’, ‘the end of democracy’, members of the opposition, losing the elections is not the end of democracy – this is the essence of democracy.”
Outgoing prime minister and incoming opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, said his government was leaving Israel in excellent shape. “Don’t ruin it, we’ll be back shortly,” he said.
He noted that ties with Saudi Arabia have improved even though the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. “We laid down the foundations for Saudi Arabia to fully join the Abraham Accords,” he explained in reference to the normalisation agreements Israel signed with a number of Arab states in recent years. “If the new government will follow the path we laid out, it is possible to normalise ties with the Saudis in the near future.”
The acrimony is such between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lapid that there will be no traditional ceremony at the prime minister’s office handing over power. Mr Lapid left a note on the prime minister’s desk, which said: “Lapid 2024″.
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The new coalition is committed to expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The policy guidelines declare that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel” which includes the West Bank.
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, in addition to his role as finance minister, will also oversee settlement construction and control much of the decisions affecting day-to-day lives of Palestinians.
A spokesperson for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas warned the plans for settlement expansion “constitute a dangerous escalation and will have repercussions for the region”.
The new government also plans to curb the power of the judicial branch and change an anti-discrimination law to allow doctors and businesses such as hotels to refuse to provide a service if doing so would violate the provider’s religious beliefs.
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