Israel’s longest serving leader Benjamin Netanyahu secured a mandate today to form a new government despite still being on trial for corruption charges.
The veteran politician was given the green light to form his government by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog – paving the way for him to lead what could be the most-right wing administration in the country’s history.
After a period of unprecedented political gridlock saw five electoral votes in less than four years, the November 1 election gave Netanyahu and his far-right allies a clear majority in the 120-seat parliament.
As the votes were being counted, Israeli-Palestinian violence was flaring, with at least four Palestinians killed in separate incidents, and an Israeli police officer wounded lightly in a stabbing.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office announced he had conceded defeat to Netanyahu,saying: ‘I wish Netanyahu success, for the sake of the people of Israel and the state of Israel.’
Speaking today at a ceremony in Jerusalem, Mr Herzog said: ‘I have decided to assign to you, Benjamin Netanyahu, the task of forming a government.’
Israel’s longest serving leader Benjamin Netanyahu secured a mandate from president Isaac Herzog today to form a new government. Pictured: Netanyahu (left) and Herzog (right) at a ceremony in Jerusalem today
The veteran politician was given the green light to form his government despite being on trial for corruption charges
Accepting the task (pictured speaking after), the right-wing politician known as ‘Bibi’ vowed to serve all Israelis as he attempted to quash any doubts
Accepting the task, the right-wing politician known as ‘Bibi’ vowed to serve all Israelis as he attempted to quash any doubts.
‘Those who votes for us and those who did not – it is my responsibility,’ he said.
Netanyahu, who is fighting corruption allegations in court, will have at least 28 days to build a coalition with his allies which are comprised of two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and a rising extreme-right alliance called Religious Zionism.
Herzog did choose to address Netanyahu’s ongoing trial, saying: ‘I am not oblivious, of course, to the fact that there are ongoing legal proceedings… and I do not trivialise this at all’.
But he said that recent precedent made clear Netanyahu could serve as premier and defend himself.
Netanyahu can seek a two-week extension to his initial mandate but is expected to announce a coalition deal reasonably quickly, given broad ideological unity within the incoming government.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, co-leaders of the Religious Zionism bloc, have publicly demanded control of two key ministries – public security and defence – at a time when Israeli-Palestinian violence has soared.
Netanyahu has already served five terms: the first from June 1996 to July 1999, and four further terms consecutively from March 2009 and June 2021.
Benjamin Netanyahu thanked his supporters at an election event in Jerusalem on November 1, when the politician was on the cusp of returning as prime minister
Pictured: Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid reacted as they follow the election results at the party’s campaign headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on November 1, 2022
The most recent election focused largely on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern. On trial for a slew of corruption charges, Netanyahu, is seen by supporters as the victim of a witch hunt and vilified by opponents as a crook and threat to democracy.
Netanyahu’s fourth and fifth terms were overshadowed by investigations into alleged bribery, fraud and a breach of trust. Israel’s Police began investigating him in 2016, and recommended indictments. He was officially indicted in later 2019.
He denies all charges against him.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, co-leaders of the Religious Zionism bloc, have publicly demanded control of two key ministries – public security and defence – at a time when Israeli-Palestinian violence has soared. Pictured: Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli forces clash on November 11
Reports say that Netanyahu is reluctant to hand Smotrich the sensitive defence portfolio but that the Religious Zionism co-leader is open to becoming finance minister instead.
However, head of the ultra-Orthodoz Shas party Ayre Deri is also keen on the role. The pair met this afternoon in a bid to reach an agreement.
Netanyahu’s next moves will be closely scrutinised, as unease mounts in some quarters over his policy plans and the goals of his controversial partners.
Who is Ben-Gvir? The far-right leader of Israel’s Religious Zionism bloc
Ben-Gvir is a disciple of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.
Kahane’s agenda called for banning intermarriage between Arabs and Jews, stripping Arabs of Israeli citizenship and expelling large numbers of Palestinians.
But while Kahane was seen as a pariah, Ben-Gvir is one of Israel’s most popular politicians, thanks to his frequent media appearances, cheerful demeanour, knack for deflecting criticism and calls for a harder line against Palestinians at a time of heavy fighting in the occupied West Bank. Young ultra-Orthodox men are among his strongest supporters.
Ben-Gvir lives in the hard-line West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba and is a strong proponent of settlement construction. He has described Arab colleagues in parliament as ‘terrorists,’ called for deporting those who are ‘disloyal’ and recently brandished a handgun in a tense Palestinian neighbourhood of Jerusalem as he called on police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers.
‘We want to make a total separation between those who are loyal to the state of Israel – and we don’t have any problem with them – and those who undermine our dear country,’ he said.
Muhammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, said the rise of Israel’s far right was ‘a natural result of the growing manifestations of extremism and racism in Israeli society.’
Reporting by AP
But he insisted that those seeking to ‘prophetise catastrophe and scare the public’ are misguided.
‘It’s not the first time we have heard this kind of talk,’ he said. ‘It was wrong then and it is still wrong today.’
The new government is however widely expected to pass sweeping judicial reforms, a long-held priority of Israel’s right. That could include giving parliament the right to override the supreme court any time it declares legislation to be illegal.
Netanyahu’s government may also take full control over appointing supreme court judges, a task currently performed by a panel of lawmakers, sitting judges and lawyers.
Suzie Navot, a constitutional law professor at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said ‘it is difficult for me to exaggerate the damage and danger’ of such reforms.
The centrist Yesh Atid party of outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday condemned a ‘dark day for Israel’s democracy,’ in an apparent reference to the judicial reform package.
Yesh Atid charged that the incoming government’s goal was to ‘save Netanyahu from his trial’.
Ben-Gvir, a firebrand known for anti-Arab rhetoric and incendiary calls for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, has repeatedly called for security services to confront Palestinian unrest more harshly.
Recent months have been the deadliest in years in the Israeli-occupied West Bank according to the United Nations, with near daily army raids and an increase in attacks on Israeli forces.
Harrowing pictures showed people carrying the dead body of 18-year-old Mosab Nafl, who was shot dead by the Israeli army in Sinjil Village of Ramallah, West Bank on November 5.
Herzog, whose role is largely symbolic, was reported to have tried to convince outgoing premier Lapid and his defence minister Benny Gantz to form a unity cabinet with Netanyahu, in order to keep Ben-Gvir from entering government.
The presidency publicly denied the claims.
But Herzog this week told Ben-Gvir that he had received ‘questions from Israeli citizens and world leaders… very sensitive questions on human rights’.
The president added: ‘There is a certain image of you and your party which seems – and I’ll say it in all honesty – worrying in many regards.’
The 46-year-old is a disciple of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.
The trickle of phone calls by world leaders congratulating Netanyahu on his election victory continued Sunday, with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa expressing his desire to bring cooperation between the countries to new heights, the Israeli leader’s office said.
Israel and Bahrain normalised ties in 2020.