Coalition Deal Puts Netanyahu on Brink of Power in Israel

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, announced on Wednesday that he had succeeded in forming a coalition government that is set to bring him back to power at the helm of the most right-wing administration in Israeli history.

Once finalized and ratified by Parliament in the coming days, the coalition deal will return Mr. Netanyahu to office just 18 months after he left it. His reliance on far-right factions has already raised concerns that Israel will drift away from liberal democracy.

Mr. Netanyahu will lead a hard-line six-party coalition whose members seek to upend the judicial system, reduce Palestinian autonomy in the occupied West Bank, further strengthen Israel’s Jewish character and maximize state support for the most religious Jews.

After five elections through four years of political disruption, the deal is set to give Israel an ideologically cohesive government for the first time since 2019. But analysts say that will not necessarily provide political stability. Despite their relative homogeneity, the coalition’s members frequently disagreed over policy during negotiations and took more than six weeks to formalize their partnership.

In a sign of the difficulties in reaching an agreement, Mr. Netanyahu announced the deal just minutes before a midnight deadline on Wednesday night.

The coalition’s formation also puts the country on course for a constitutional showdown between the government and the judiciary.

The government will be led by a prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption. Mr. Netanyahu denies any intention to use his office to influence the trial. But other members of his coalition have pledged to legalize some of the crimes of which he is accused and to reduce the influence of the attorney general, who oversees his prosecution.

Mr. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, he denies any intention to use his office to influence the trial.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week, the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, accused Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc of attempting to turn Israel into a “democracy in name, not in substance.” Her comments followed the coalition’s efforts to expand the government’s control over the police — and to allow Mr. Netanyahu’s pick for the interior ministry to take office despite a recent suspended prison sentence for tax fraud.

Coalition lawmakers have also proposed curbing the influence of the Supreme Court, reducing judicial oversight over their decisions in Parliament and potentially making it easier for the government to enact laws that would previously have been considered unconstitutional.

What to Know About Israel’s New Government

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is set to return to power at the helm of the most right-wing administration in Israeli history.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity after ethnic unrest and the subsequent inclusion of Arab lawmakers in the government.
  • Arab Allies: Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have a history of making anti-Arab statements. Three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 appear unconcerned.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

The Israeli right has long portrayed the Supreme Court as an unelected body that unfairly overrides elected governments, while the court’s supporters see it as a bulwark against the erosion of liberal democratic values and minority rights.

Mr. Netanyahu has dismissed these concerns, promising to rein in his partners and take a cautious approach to judicial reform.

“I’m the opposite of a strongman — I believe in democracies and obviously in the balance between the three branches of government,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a recent interview with Honestly, an American podcast.

Mr. Netanyahu added: “That balance has in many ways been impaired in Israel by the rise of unchecked judicial power, and correcting it is not destroying democracy — it’s protecting it.”

The relationship between the incoming government and the military will provide an early test of Mr. Netanyahu’s approach.

Mr. Netanyahu has already agreed to give control over parts of the military bureaucracy and security forces in the West Bank to two far-right allies, prompting a rare public intervention by the military chief of staff amid fears that the move will fragment the army’s chain of command.

Israeli soldiers during military exercise near the Kibbutz of Merom Golan this month.Credit…Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The announcement increases the likelihood of tensions between the government and large parts of the Jewish diaspora. Many liberal-leaning Jews outside of Israel have expressed wariness in recent weeks about Mr. Netanyahu’s new partners.

Several lawmakers in the new coalition have long criticized non-Orthodox movements in Judaism, to which the majority of American Jews adhere.

Though Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is largely secular, the other parties in his coalition are all religious, and two of them represent ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis, or Haredim. Once kingmakers in both right-wing and left-wing coalition, ultra-Orthodox politicians have gradually become staunch supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, in return for his promising to uphold the autonomy of the Haredi school system and subsidies for its students.

Future ministers in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet also include several far-right Jewish settlers who have a history of homophobia, antagonism toward Israel’s Arab minority and opposition to secular aspects of public life.

One, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was barred from serving in the Israeli Army because he was considered too extremist. He admires a hard-line rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship, and for years, he displayed a portrait in his home of an extremist Jewish settler who shot dead 29 Palestinians in 1994 in a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Despite criminal convictions for incitement to racism and support for a terrorist group, Mr. Ben-Gvir is set to be minister for national security, overseeing the police.

Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben Gvir, center, and Bezalel Smotrich, right, attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel’s parliament in November.Credit…Pool photo by Maya Alleruzzo

Another extremist in the alliance, Bezalel Smotrich, has previously expressed support for segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israeli maternity wards, for governing Israel according to the laws of the Torah and for Jewish property developers who won’t sell land to Arabs. Mr. Smotrich has been promised the finance ministry; his party will also oversee parts of the West Bank occupation.

Their rise reflects a long-term rightward drift within Israel society, which began decades ago and accelerated after the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s. A surge of Palestinian violence at that time nudged many Israelis toward the right-wing argument that the Palestinians were not serious about making peace.

The far right’s emergence also reflects more recent fears about perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity, which were exacerbated last year by a wave of violence between Arabs and Jews.

Those fears were also heightened when Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents formed a government in June last year with an independent Arab party, an unprecedented decision in Israeli history. That diverse alliance put aside their differences exclusively to force Mr. Netanyahu from power, causing him to leave office for the first time since 2009.

But the departing coalition’s heterogeneity was also its downfall. Its inclusion of Arab lawmakers helped increase the popularity of Israel’s far right and its lack of cohesion made it harder to govern, leading to a collapse over the summer.

That set the stage for an election on Nov. 1, Israel’s fifth since 2019, and allowed Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc to win a narrow majority.

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.

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