Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday completed a dramatic return as Israel’s prime minister, after being sworn in as the leader of what is likely to be the country’s most right-wing government in history.
Netanyahu and his government were sworn in on Thursday for his sixth term as prime minister, 18 months after he was ousted from power.
He returns with the support of several far-right figures once consigned to the fringes of Israeli politics, after cobbling together a coalition shortly before last week’s deadline.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party will fill some of the most important cabinet positions, including foreign minister, defense minister and justice minister.
But a number of politicians from the far right of Israel’s political spectrum were set to be appointed to ministerial posts, despite controversy over their positions during the run-up to November’s election, which was won by a Netanyahu-led bloc of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties.
Itamar Ben Gvir, an extremist who has been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism, will take on a newly expanded public security role, renamed national security minister, overseeing police in Israel plus some police activity in the occupied West Bank.
Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, has been named minister of finance, and has also been given power to appoint the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli military unit which among its duties handles border crossings and permits for Palestinians.
During his campaign, Smotrich had proposed a series of drastic legal reforms, seen by many critics as a clear way to undercut judicial independence. This includes dropping the ability to charge a public servant with fraud and breach of trust – a charge Netanyahu faces in his ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty and called that trial a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup,” and has called for changes to Israel’s judiciary system.
Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas, will serve as interior minister and minister of health.
As the new ministers were preparing to be sworn in at the Knesset, the country’s parliament, around 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside to protest Netanyahu’s return to office, the Jerusalem Police spokesperson said.
The rightward shift in the Israeli government has raised eyebrows abroad and at home. On Wednesday, over 100 retired Israeli ambassadors and foreign ministry officials expressed concerns about Israel’s incoming government in a signed letter to Netanyahu.
The ex-diplomats, including former ambassadors to France, India, and Turkey, expressed “profound concern at the serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, its international standing and its core interests abroad emanating from what will apparently be the policy of the incoming Government.”
The letter pointed to “statements made by potential senior office-holders in the Government and the Knesset,” reports of policy changes in the West Bank, and “some possible extreme and discriminatory laws” as a point of concern.
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides congratulated Netanyahu on Thursday, writing on Twitter: “Here’s to the rock solid US-Israel relationship and unbreakable ties.” Nides is married to Virginia Moseley, CNN US Executive Vice President for Editorial.
A National Security Council spokesperson noted Netanyahu has “repeatedly said he will set the policy of his government” as he enters a coalition with far-right parties.
“As we have made clear, we do not support policies that endanger the viability of a two-state solution or contradict our mutual interests and values,” the spokesperson said.
Biden administration officials have largely avoided addressing the ultra-right components of the new Israeli government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that the US “will engage with and judge our partners in Israel on the basis of the policies they pursue, not the personalities that happen to form the government.”
Netanyahu’s slim November victory came in the fifth Israeli election in less than four years, amid a period of protracted political chaos during which he has remained a dominant figure.
In his address to the Knesset on Thursday, Netanyahu said that of the three major tasks assigned to his government, the first will be to “thwart Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.” The second priority would be to develop the country’s infrastructure, including the launching of a bullet train and the third would be to sign more peace agreements with Arab nations “in order to end the Israeli-Arab conflict.”
Netanyahu was already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having previously held the post from 2009 to 2021 and before that for one term in the late 1990s.
Israel also got its first openly gay speaker of parliament on Thursday. Amir Ohana, a former minister of justice and public security, is a member of the Knesset representing Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Some ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who had refused to attend his swearing-in at the Knesset seven years ago were among those who voted for him on Thursday.
Ahead of the parliamentary vote on the new government, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid tweeted: “We pass on to you a state in excellent condition. Try not to ruin it, we’ll be right back. The handover files are ready.”
With additional reporting by Kareem El Damanhoury
Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.