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Israel: Netanyahu informs Prez that he has succeeded in forming next govt

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Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he has been able to form the next government that would “work for the good of all Israeli citizens”, minutes before the midnight deadline.

Netanyahu, 73, informed President Isaac Herzog late on Wednesday paving the way for the swearing-in no later than January 2, or even earlier.

In November, President Herzog officially invited Netanyahu to form the new government. He has won the backing of 64 Members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, in a phone call to Herzog said that he was ready to form the next government “thanks to the enormous public support we received in the last elections” that would “work for the good of all Israeli citizens”.

He made the call a few minutes before the end of a ten-day extension given by the President following the 28 days initial period the Prime Minister-designate received at being tasked to form the government.

The new government will have the support of 64 members in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), all drawn from the right wing consisting of Netanyahu’s Likud party supported by the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and the far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Noam.

Netanyahu first made the announcement of his success in a terse tweet, “I got it”, and then later also put a post of his telephonic message to the Israeli President.

Sworn-in

Knesset speaker Yariv Levin is now expected to inform the lawmakers that a new government has been formed which should be sworn-in in no more than seven days following the announcement.

With the Hanukkah holidays in Israel, the Knesset will convene only on December 26, which would mean that the swearing-in of the government must happen no later than January 2.

Despite a clear mandate for the right wing to form the next government under Netanyahu in November 1 elections, the negotiations between the coalition partners came down to the wire, with the hardliner Otzma Yehudit party saying an hour before the deadline that it was still locked in negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud and it “wasn’t clear” if the two sides would reach an agreement.

The parties included in the government had run in the elections with a clear understanding that the Likud party Chairman, Netanyahu, would lead the next government if they were to get a majority, but they drove a hard bargain in reaching coalition agreements.

Far-right influence

Securing far-reaching policy and appointment concessions that will drive judicial reform, may change security service command structures, retroactively legalise and expand settlements, introduce far-right influence in secular education, and expand religious influence over state and social institutions.

Critics have raised concerns that the expected changes could impact the fundamental character of Israel’s polity leading to changes that could harm Israel’s internal cohesion, risk putting its delicate ties with the world Jewry in jeopardy, and also put the country at the receiving end of international condemnation due to its hardline position on the long-standing acceptance of a two-state solution to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The new government where the right-wing Likud party comprises the left flank of the coalition is a major shift from the previous one which for the first time in Israel’s history had not only parties drawn from the Left, Right and Centre, but also enjoyed the support of an Arab party.

Some political analysts believe that the “Jewish and democratic” conception of Israel’s polity is likely to come under severe challenge with the nature of changes proposed in the coalition agreements of the shaping government. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party won 32 seats in the Knesset while outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid got 24 seats.

Three fast-track legislative changes demanded by Netanyahu’s allies as conditions for swearing in of the new government underscore the democratic issue, an analyst for Times of Israel (TOI) pointed out.

Expanding political control

A bid to expand political control over the police force by incoming National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, has been criticised by the Attorney General’s office for “insufficiently balancing” police independence and ministerial authority.

Religious Zionism’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, is pushing to change the quasi-constitutional Basic Law to enable his appointment as an independent minister in the Defence Ministry in charge of West Bank settlements, which forms his key voting constituency.

Smotrich advocates for Israel annexing the West Bank, home to about 5,00,000 Jewish settlers and nearly 3 million Palestinians. Critics have said that his appointment to the sensitive post and coalition promises to legalise wildcat settlements may lead to de facto annexation, as well as disrupt operational command structures.

“Annexation would force Israel into either a democratic or identity crisis, whereby it would either need to deny full citizenship to Palestinians incorporated into the state, or tip scales away from a Jewish majority in the electorate”, notes Carrie Keller-Lynn of TOI.

Ultra-orthodox Shas party’s leader, Aryeh Deri, is demanding a change to the Basic Law to clear his way to ministership in the light of his recent suspended sentence for tax fraud. However, the biggest debate revolves around the government’s push to increase political control over the judiciary.

Key proposals

Three key proposals being discussed are a move to legislate an “override clause” by which the Knesset can reinstate any law invalidated by the Supreme Court, put judicial appointments under political control as opposed to the current hybrid political-professional-judicial appointments panel, and to split the role of the Attorney General as both the head of the state prosecution and the government’s legal adviser.

Likud has also said it plans to turn legal advisers in government ministries into positions of trust, which means they would be hired and fired at political will. Currently, government legal advisers are subordinate to the attorney general, in order to maintain the independence of their advice.

Netanyahu, who is currently facing charges of corruption, has been carefully quiet on the issue of judicial reform but his close confidante and new Knesset speaker, Levin, is a staunch supporter of judicial reforms and is likely to become the Justice Minister in the new government.

The Prime Minister-designate has denied any wrongdoing. His Likud party supporters and lawmakers have expressed distrust in the judicial system and the Attorney General (AG), with several of them saying that they are weighing firing the AG once they are formally in power.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has cautioned that judicial reform, as well as the ongoing legislative blitz, could render Israel “a democracy in name only”.

The other factions in the coalition also have their issues with Israel’s judiciary giving a semblance of a united fight against the institution. The ultra-Orthodox community has long been in tension with the Supreme Court, claiming its secular laws overreach into the religious lifestyle.

Jewish front

Shas and UTJ are especially interested in an override clause that would enable them to maintain legislation that will solidify ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military conscription. On the Jewish front, the incoming coalition’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox members have pressed to strengthen the Orthodox conception of Judaism, proposals not widely supported within Likud.

Religious Zionism, the one-man Noam party and ultra-Orthodox factions support ending citizenship eligibility for the grandchildren of Jews, who are not themselves Jewish according to religious law.

Likud lawmakers however have pushed back against narrowing the scope of the Law of Return, which is a crucial connection between Israel and the global Jewish diaspora. The parties also want to end recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for citizenship purposes.

Foreign non-Orthodox conversions are accepted under the Law of Return, but no non-Orthodox conversions are accepted under the State Rabbinate. Religious Zionism has also been at loggerheads with the Judiciary on issues related to the West Bank.

Details of coalition agreements are not yet available. They do not need to be finalised and submitted to the Knesset until 24 hours before the swearing-in ceremony. The outcome of the election, the fifth in less than four years, ended an unprecedented period of political deadlock that began in 2019, when Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.



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