The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Far-right Israeli government sworn in amid surge of resistance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents the new government to parliament in Jerusalem on Thursday. (Amir Cohen/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
7 min

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated the most right-wing government in Israel’s history on Thursday, launching a divisive chapter of national politics that pits newly influential ultrareligious, ultranationalist leaders against an opposition that warns democracy is in peril.

The new government returns Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving leader, who is embroiled in a corruption trial — to power for the third time, after a year and a half on the sidelines. His coalition, which controls 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, was billed as a return to stability after years of political crisis. But it is anchored by Religious Zionism, a bloc of once-fringe, far-right parties that have promised to transform the country in their image.

They are already pursuing plans to restrict the rights of minorities, alter the system of governmental checks and balances, hollow out the Israeli judiciary, exert influence over the army and security forces, and allow harsher treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

“This is not the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy!” Netanyahu said at the inauguration event at the Knesset on Thursday, a declaration that was met by intermittent cheers from his supporters and boos from other members, who screamed, “You’re a disgrace!” before being escorted out of the hall by security personnel. Outside the building, hundreds gathered to demonstrate against the incoming government, hoisting posters with slogans including “crime minister” and “BIBlical disaster,” a play on Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi.

“Try very hard not to ruin it; we’ll be right back,” said Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, whose governing coalition included an Arab Islamist party for the first time in Israel’s history.

The inauguration event followed marathon last-minute negotiations to distribute ministries after Netanyahu had promised many of the most influential portfolios to Religious Zionism parties. The result is a government that represents a relatively narrow constituency but is among the most bloated in history and filled with rotation agreements.

Eli Cohen, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, will rotate as foreign minister with another Likud member, Israel Katz. Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism bloc, are set to rotate as finance minister. And Netanyahu tapped former Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, widely seen as his preferred successor, as minister of strategic affairs.

Since clinching victory in the Nov. 1 parliamentary elections, Netanyahu has repeatedly promised that he will rein in the far-right factions whose policies risk imperiling Israel’s democratic institutions. One legislative proposal would give the far-right members of the coalition unprecedented power to appoint judges and to override decisions by the Supreme Court. The new administration also may make changes through inaction: With only four women, down from nine in the outgoing coalition, the government has announced it will not adopt an international agreement that aims to prevent violence against women.

Although Netanyahu has said he will protect minorities, he has signed on to an agreement canceling an anti-discrimination law, allowing hospitals, hotels and other businesses to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community and others on the basis of religious belief. “As long as there are enough other doctors who can provide a service, it is forbidden to force a doctor to give treatment that contradicts their religious position,” said Orit Struck, a politician from Religious Zionism who will head the newly established National Missions Ministry.

Netanyahu has also helped push through legislation in recent days allowing politicians with past criminal convictions to take office — including Deri, a close ally who was convicted of tax fraud, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power party, who was convicted of supporting a terrorist group and of racist incitement.

Ben Gvir is slated to serve as head of a rebranded and significantly expanded National Security Ministry — giving him control over the police, including forces that operate in the occupied West Bank, where near-daily, often-deadly Israeli raids on Palestinians have inflamed an already fragile security situation.

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Religious Zionism, which includes two members who live in the hard-line settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, has vowed to change the status quo in the West Bank. Netanyahu said Wednesday that the government will make settlement expansion a top priority and agreed to a demand by Ben Gvir to spend $2 billion upgrading roads, cellphone reception and other infrastructure in the contested territory.

Homesh, an illegal West Bank settlement forcibly dismantled by Israel in 2005, will be legalized and reopened for settlement within the coming year, Likud members said.

The Biden administration has expressed concern over the new government and has been scrambling for workarounds to avoid dealing directly with some of its members, according to Israeli media. In a statement Thursday, President Biden said he looked forward to working with Netanyahu, while warning that “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.”

In the coming months, Netanyahu’s partners could also pass legislation that would derail, or potentially cancel, his corruption trial.

In response, protests have been mounting across the country. Sheba Medical Center, along with several other Israeli hospitals, said in an Instagram video Monday: “We treat everyone.” Prominent figures from the judicial system and owners of tech companies and other businesses have warned they will cease working with government bodies if the law is changed to allow discrimination.

“We believe and hope that among our clients and the companies and service providers we work with, there are certain basic values, and that through collaborations and the unifying of forces we will be able to preserve an egalitarian, tolerant and respecting society in the state of Israel,” read a letter from 21 prominent Israeli law firms issued on Tuesday.

In a rare meeting Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog told Ben Gvir that it was his responsibility to calm the “stormy winds” that his government has caused among millions in Israel and in the international Jewish community. But many worry that Religious Zionism will be beyond managing.

In recent weeks, the Israeli news site Ynet published two “black lists” that were drafted in 2019 and updated this year by Avi Maoz’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-Arab party, which is a member of Religious Zionism. One list includes the names, sexual orientations, photos and other identifying details of prominent LGBTQ journalists, feminist researchers and liberal figures in the public education system.

A second list names dozens of justice system officials, academics and even interns who were involved in a civil society workshop that Maoz describes as part of a “deep state, shadow government.” He says the group’s lessons on integrating Arab citizens and fighting racism are part of a “radical left” plot.

The report sent shock waves across Israel, but Netanyahu did not issue a condemnation.

“This is a particularly slippery and dangerous slope,” Adir Yanko, a gay Israeli journalist listed by the party, wrote in Ynet. “What begins in the gay community could spread to other groups that currently feel very safe. … Turning a blind eye is not an option.”