After five General Elections in Israel since 2019, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu again took the oath of office as prime minister on Thursday shortly after the Knesset passed a vote of confidence in his coalition government. Out of 120 MKs, 63 voted in favour of Israel's most extreme government to date; 54 voted against it.
Netanyahu, 73, heads a government including his Likud party along with five far-right and orthodox religious factions. He told the Knesset that his government has three prime objectives: stopping Iran's nuclear programme; developing Israel's infrastructure with an emphasis on connecting peripheral settler communities to the country's centre; and bolstering law and order.
He was heckled as he did so. The harsh criticism of his policies and coalition agreements with the far-right, extremist and convicted MKs, led to five lawmakers being ejected from the parliamentary chamber. Critics insist that Netanyahu's government will undermine human rights and politics in the occupation state, leading to confrontations with the Palestinians.
"I hear the constant cries of the opposition about the end of the country and democracy," said Netanyahu. "Losing elections is not the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy."
His predecessor Yair Lapid declared that it was "with a sense of disquiet" that he was passing the baton to the new government. "We are giving you a state that is in excellent condition with a strong economy, improved security and some of the best international standing ever," he told Netanyahu. "Try not to destroy it." Lapid added that he and his colleagues "will be back."
Despite the comfortable majority in the Knesset vote of confidence, Netanyahu's coalition has been under fire due to fears that it will undermine civil freedoms and human rights while imposing an extreme far-right religious agenda on the political process and the handling of the Palestinian issue. Protesters made this clear in a large demonstration in front of the Knesset even as the prime minister spoke inside. Extremists amongst his ministers, they pointed out, have already made candid promises to their extremist supporters to curb freedoms and rights.
According to the Times of Israel, the protesters insisted that they will never agree with "anti-democratic laws", and that "Bibi [Netanyahu], Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are destroying the foundations of Israel's democracy". This was a reference to the leaders of the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively.
"This government is carrying out a coup in Israel before our eyes, with its racism, corruption, neutering of the justice system, politicisation of the police and undermining of the chain of command in the [Israel Defence Forces]," said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Referring to the fact that Netanyahu is facing criminal charges, he added: "Those seeking to extract themselves from criminal trials have joined forces with racist messianics who distort Judaism, Zionism and humanity. Together they are bringing down democracy."
Barak not only defeated Netanyahu in 1999 to become prime minister, but also served under him as defence minister between 2009 and 2013. Netanyahu is currently facing trial on fraud, graft and breach of trust charges, and is being accused of engineering a coalition with the far-right parties that will change the law to allow him to evade accountability. At least two of his ministers have been convicted of serious crimes in the past.
At a demonstration organised last week by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Moshe Ya'alon, another former defence minister under Netanyahu and former member of his Likud party, warned that Netanyahu's government will lose "moral legitimacy" and turn Israel into a "pariah" in the international community, leading to its swift collapse "but not before causing economic, security and moral damage."
Speaking to Radio 103 FM following the formation of the government, Ya'alon said: "We see a government full of criminals headed by a person who fights the justice system due to his involvement in corruption charges. All of the coalition agreements are shameful. This actually harms us in the world as everyone is looking suspiciously at what Netanyahu is doing."
The movement stressed that, "We must stop the authorisation of the convicted criminal [Aryeh] Deri as a member of the government and the transformation of the police into a political militia by the criminal Ben Gvir, all under the auspices of the defendant Netanyahu who is destroying democracy to escape justice."
Deri has been convicted twice and served prison sentences for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as for tax offences. He has been approved by the Knesset to be the Interior and Health Minister in Netanyahu's government, two of the main ministries. Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of "inciting to racism" as a support of the Kach terrorist group.
"I think that this is the first time that we can say that the government in Israel is against the state," another former prime minister told Radio 103 FM. "I am calling on the mindful public come out and demonstrate with all their might to fight this government," said Ehud Olmert, who has himself spent time in prison for accepting bribes.
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