Netanyahu accepts mandate to form Israeli government

Far-right and religious parties take centre stage as former prime minister returns to power

Israeli president Isaac Herzog delivers elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu the task to form a new government at the president residence in Jerusalem. EPA
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Prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted a mandate to form Israel's next Cabinet, paving the way for one of the country's most right-wing governments in living memory.

Mr Netanyahu, who was in power from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2021, was asked to form a government by President Isaac Herzog on Sunday after securing victory in the November 1 elections, the fifth in the last four years.

Mr Netanyahu pledged to form a “stable and responsible government”, representing all residents of Israel “without exception”.

“I intend to be the prime minister of everyone — those who voted for me and those who did not vote for me,” he said in a ceremony in Jerusalem.

He also dismissed concerns over Israel's “health” and future as a democracy, refuting fears the country is “entering a dark tunnel”, and called for more peace agreements with Arab countries.

The incoming PM says he will work for “peace out of strength, peace in return for peace, with additional Arab states, and thus largely to end the Israeli-Arab conflict”.

Mr Herzog said Mr Netyanahu's continuing corruption trial, which he “does not take lightly”, but said it did not pose a legal obstacle to the veteran leader returning to power.

Departing prime minister Yair Lapid said the ushering in of the new government following his short-lived centrist rule was “a dark day for Israeli democracy”.

“The incoming prime minister can be blackmailed by his [coalition] partners, whose only joint purpose is to rescue him from his trial and to take Israel back in time,” said the Yesh Atid leader.

Public broadcaster Kan reports Cabinet formation talks may take a week amid disputes between Mr Netanyahu's Likud and Religious Zionism, the second-largest party in the winning bloc.

Jointly headed by Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, who united their factions for the elections following pleas from Mr Netanyahu, the party is said to have been angered by Likud “dragging its feet” in signing agreements.

Ben-Gvir is expected to assume the role of minister of public security, in charge of Israel's police force. His emergence as political kingmaker spells a dramatic turn of fortunes for the ultraconservative, who was banned from the Knesset for inciting racism.

Mr Netanyahu refused to share a stage with him at a holiday event in October, and the US has reportedly considered a “no-contact” policy with Ben-Gvir, a proponent of the extremist Kahanism movement, designated a terrorist group in the US, which has called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.

 Israeli far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir celebrates his party's success in the elections. AP

Ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Aryeh Deri, a former interior minister twice convicted of bribery and tax offences, has reportedly demanded the finance ministry, while Smotrich has asked for defence, amid resistance from top defence officials and Mr Netanyahu, who wants to reserve the ministry for Likud.

The Religious Zionism leader has also demanded the religious affairs and education ministries.

Mr Netyanahu's right-wing and religious allies have made bold claims to various Cabinet positions after helping propel him back to power, granting the former PM a majority he failed to secure in previous elections.

It will come at a price, however, with Religious Zionism and Shas reportedly set to propose dramatic changes to Israel's laws, including invalidating non-Orthodox converts from claiming the right to immigrate to Israel.

The passage of new, right-wing legislation could threaten Israel's strong relations with US diaspora groups and ostracise Mr Netanyahu, a polarising figure still under trial on corruption charges.

It also comes as the UN voted on Friday to ask the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Lapid condemned the move, saying it may lead to “escalation”.

Updated: November 13, 2022, 2:32 PM