Middle East

Netanyahu returns as Israel’s prime minister as new hardline government is sworn in

Benjamin Netanyahu has been sworn in as Israel‘s prime minister again, at the head of a hard-right cabinet that promises to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The 73-year-old is the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having held office from 2009 until 2021 and a stint in the 1990s. He was ousted from office last year after four deadlocked elections by a coalition of eight parties solely united in their opposition to his rule.

Despite his political comeback, Mr Netanyahu remains on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three corruption cases. He denies all charges against him, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media, police and prosecutors.

His allies in the bloc of nationalist and religious parties that secured a parliamentary majority in elections in November. include the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties, which oppose Palestinian statehood and whose leaders – both West Bank settlers – have in the past agitated against Israel’s justice system and its Arab minority.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to promote tolerance and pursue peace. He told parliament that “ending the Israeli-Arab conflict” was his top priority, along with thwarting Iran’s nuclear programme and building up Israel’s military capacity.

Opponents heckled him with chants of “Weak! Weak!”. They say Mr Netanyahu had to make costly deals to secure new partners after centrist parties boycotted him over his legal woes. His government secured 63 of a possible 120 parliamentary votes in a confirmatory ballot, before the cabinet was sworn in. And despite the deeply conservative makeup of the right-wing majority, with a number of members who have made anti-LGBT+ comments, parliament elected Amir Ohana, an openly gay Netanyahu loyalist, as its new speaker.

For Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu’s line-up has darkened an already bleak outlook, with Jewish settlements set to expand in the West Bank – among territories where they hope to build a future state. Mr Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party said in its guidelines for the government that it would “promote and develop settlement” on lands to which “the Jewish people has an exclusive and unassailable right”.

Most world powers deem settlements built on land captured in war illegal.

“These guidelines constitute a dangerous escalation and will have repercussions for the region,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said.

Mr Abbas has criticised the new government saying its “motto is extremism and apartheid”. Such sentiments have been echoed within Israel, 21 per cent of whose population are Arab and often identify with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu, now entering his sixth term, says he will serve all Israelis. He also appears to have stopped short of seeking West Bank annexations – a policy he had previously championed and which would have pleased his settler base while putting Israel on a collision course with Washington and Arab states.

US President Joe Biden said that he looked forward to working with Mr Netanyahu and promoting regional peace, including between Israelis and Palestinians, with the new Israeli government.

“The United States will continue to support the two state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values,” he said in a statement released by the White House.

Mr Netanyahu’s appointments include Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of incitement against Arabs and support for a Jewish militant group, as minister for police. Ben-Gvir, a lawyer, says his views have become more moderate.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, warned on Sunday against causing potential harm to individuals’ rights. Businesses have decried calls to revise Israel’s anti-discrimination law.



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