Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized his right-religious coalition on Wednesday, setting out government guidelines that stressed the Jewish people’s “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” and vowing to bolster the settlement of “the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank).
Ahead of the new government’s scheduled swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset on Thursday, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party also signed coalition deals with its two ultra-Orthodox partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as with the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties. Together, the 64-strong coalition in the 120-member Knesset represents the most hardline right-wing government in the 75-year history of modern Israel.
Two of the coalition agreements provide for legislation that would allow service providers to refuse service on the grounds of their religious beliefs — a legislative initiative seen by critics as legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people and other targeted sectors. Plans for such legislation — which one incoming minister from Religious Zionism said could enable doctors to refuse treatment, and another said could enable a hotel to refuse service to gay people — have sparked public expressions of concern by President Isaac Herzog, among others.
Netanyahu promised this week to prevent discrimination, but the clause remained in the agreements. He has also vowed that LGBTQ rights will not be harmed, and that Israel’s democracy will be protected.
In its separate coalition deal with the Religious Zionism party, Netanyahu’s Likud committed in principle to annexing the West Bank. Israeli sovereignty will be “extended to Judea and Samaria,” the non-binding agreement states, subject to the prime minister’s considerations regarding “timing, and the weighing of the national and international interests of the State of Israel.” In that agreement, Netanyahu also pledges to legalize settlement outposts currently considered illegal by the Israeli government.
Netanyahu sought to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, including all the settlements, when he was previously prime minister in 2020, but canceled that plan when it became clear it did not have the support of the Trump administration. He is unlikely to do so under US President Joe Biden.
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In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich said there would be no “changing the political or legal status” of the West Bank, indicating that annexation would not immediately take place.
In its guidelines, which are not binding, the coalition also promised to maintain the “status quo on issues of religion and state… including with regard to the holy places” — indicating that it would not authorize Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount as several of Likud’s partners had urged.
Referring to the declared plans of all coalition partners to fundamentally remake the sensitive balance of power between Israel’s political leadership and its judiciary, the guidelines specified that the government “will take steps to guarantee governance and to restore the proper balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.”
In its separate, non-binding accords with the coalition partners, the incoming government specified that it would enact an “override” clause that would allow parliament to re-legislate laws struck down by the High Court of Justice as contradicting Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. It did not specify, however, exactly how this “override clause” would be formulated.
Critics of the incoming coalition, including members of the outgoing government led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as well as dozens of retired judges who penned a protest letter this week, have warned that this legislation poses a direct risk to Israeli democracy.
The coalition guidelines do not specify a commitment to Israel as a democratic state. They say the government “will preserve the Jewish character of the state and the heritage of Israel, and will respect the practices and traditions of members of all religions in the country in accordance with the values of the Declaration of Independence.”
Likud’s agreements with its partners do not state that the coalition will lift a ban on racist candidates running for and serving in the Knesset, as had been demanded by the far-right Otzma Yehudit coalition party.
Some of the agreements provide for legislation to amend Israel’s Law of Return, which governs immigration policy, in order to make it harder for people who are not Jewish according to halacha to receive automatic immigration rights. They also provide for amendments to reject the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed in Israel, for citizenship purposes. Both of these changes risk harm to Israel’s ties with Jews in the Diaspora, many millions of whom are affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
The coalition agreements provide for boosted funding for ultra-Orthodox men in full-time Torah study and to finance a range of other demands presented by the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as detailing initiatives and budgets to bolster “Jewish identity.”
The coalition guidelines also pledge that Israel under the new government will “continue the struggle against Iran’s nuclear program”; “promote peace with all our neighbors while preserving Israel’s security, historical and national interests”; promote social justice, reduce the cost of living and combat poverty; seek to boost Jewish immigration; prioritize education; and fight a deadly crime wave in the Arab sector.
Key appointments in the incoming coalition include that of Likud MK Yoav Gallant, a former IDF general, as defense minister. Alongside him in the Defense Ministry will be Smotrich of the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism, who backs Israeli sovereignty throughout the West Bank without equal rights for Palestinians, and who is being granted wide-ranging authority over the civil affairs of Jewish settlements and Palestinians in the territory.
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the ideologically similar Otzma Yehudit, meanwhile, has been given the role of national security minister, with unprecedented authority over the police.
Laws enabling Smotrich and Ben Gvir to take up these expanded roles were rushed through the Knesset in recent days, as was legislation enabling Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return as a minister even though he is serving a suspended sentence imposed earlier this year for tax offenses.
Netanyahu is returning to power after he was ousted from office last year, having served as prime minister from 2009 to 2021. He will take office while on trial for allegedly accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud, charges he denies.
The Biden administration has said it strongly opposes settlement expansion and has rebuked the Israeli government for it in the past.
Earlier on Wednesday, Herzog expressed “deep concern” about the incoming government and its positions on LGBTQ rights, racism and the country’s Arab minority in a rare meeting called with Ben Gvir.
Herzog’s office said the president urged Ben Gvir to “calm the stormy waters and to be attentive to and internalize criticism” about the incoming government’s stance on LGBTQ issues, Arab Israelis, and the earlier proposed bill to lift a ban on politicians supporting racism and terrorism from serving in the Knesset.
Reported by Carrie Keller-Lynn, Jeremy Sharon and Michael Bachner.
AP contributed to this report.