Barely 18 months after he was ousted as prime minister, battling corruption charges and estranged from former allies, Benjamin Netanyahu is poised for a remarkable return to power at the head of the most rightwing government in Israeli history.
Following an unexpectedly clear-cut victory in last month’s election, the Likud party has clinched provisional deals with all five of the far-right and religious groups with which the 73-year-old hopes to form a government. On Thursday night, Netanyahu requested that Israel’s president grant him a further two weeks to finalise the process.
The outline of the new government has been hailed by supporters, who see it as a once-in-a-generation chance to remake Israel in their own deeply conservative and religious image. But the anti-Arab, homophobic and sexist rhetoric of some of its potential key figures, along with plans to dismantle judicial checks and balances, have sparked a backlash from liberal opponents and growing unease among Israel’s allies.
“This election really is a turning point,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster. “It is a significant break from the past in terms of how extreme they are, and how openly committed they are to undermining democratic institutions and pushing the nuts and bolts of annexation [of the occupied West Bank].”
Much of the furore surrounding the new government has centred on two ultranationalists with a history of provocative anti-Arab rhetoric, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. An alliance headed by the pair and brokered by Netanyahu came third in last month’s election, giving them leverage to demand roles that will give them huge sway over relations between Israelis and Palestinians — both in Israel and in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
Ben-Gvir was previously convicted of incitement to racism and, until a couple of years ago, kept in his house a picture of a Jewish extremist who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque. He will be national security minister, with expanded powers and responsibility for Israel’s police.
Smotrich, a settler leader who once dubbed himself a “proud homophobe”, said last year that Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, made a mistake by not expelling all Arabs in 1948. He had sought the defence portfolio, but US officials were sufficiently concerned to lobby strongly against it, and instead he is set to be finance minister.
Palestinian officials fear that the appointment of the two men, who oppose Palestinian statehood and back the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank — which most of the international community considers illegal — will erode any lingering prospect of a two-state solution.
“They will employ [their new powers] to complete the processes . . . of the gradual and silent annexation of the West Bank,” the Palestinian Authority said on Wednesday.
In recent days, an outcry has also erupted over Netanyahu’s decision to make Avi Maoz — an ultranationalist known for his virulent opposition to LGBT+ rights — head of a body promoting Jewish identity, and give him powers over some extracurricular activities in schools.
Netanyahu has insisted he will not countenance any erosion of LGBT rights, and dismissed concerns that Maoz — who once said a woman’s biggest contribution to society was marrying and raising a family — would have an outsize influence over education.
“We will maintain the status quo on matters of religion and state,” he wrote on Facebook.
But liberal and secular Israelis are alarmed. More than 50 municipal officials and 300 school principals have protested against Maoz’s proposed role. “Israel is being transformed from a democracy to a theocracy,” Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Israel’s easy-going, beachside city, told Channel 12 News last week.
Another big domestic clash is looming over the incoming government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. Among the ideas that have been proposed are allowing a majority of lawmakers to override High Court rulings; giving politicians control over appointing judges; and cancelling the offence of breach of trust — one of the charges facing Netanyahu in his corruption trial.
Proponents argue the changes are needed to bring to heel an increasingly activist judiciary that has used powers it was never formally given to favour a broadly leftwing agenda.
But critics see them as an assault on Israel’s checks and balances that could potentially also help extricate Netanyahu from his legal woes. “There will be a government without restraints or oversight,” Avi Himi, head of the Israel Bar Association, told the Haaretz news site on Monday.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, and he and his allies have insisted that the legal reforms will not affect his trial.
Given their broad ideological alignment, Netanyahu and his allies were expected to form a government relatively quickly. But as talks have dragged on, some analysts have begun to wonder whether their rancorousness indicates that the coalition could prove less durable than its comfortable majority might suggest.
Shalom Lipner, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the far-reaching demands Netanyahu’s partners had sought to lock in during negotiations reflected their concerns that “once [he] resolves his personal problems, he will be far less inclined to meet their demands”. Lipner added: “They’re eminently conscious of the fact that their moment in the sun could be time-limited.”
But others argue Netanyahu’s lack of alternative partners means the new administration is likely to last long enough to fulfil at least some of its far-reaching ambitions.
“This government will not just be pushing to roll back the small changes by the previous one,” said Scheindlin. “They will be setting a fundamentally theocratic and coercive direction to what it means to be the Jewish state.”