JERUSALEM (AP) — Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power Thursday for an unprecedented sixth term as Israeli prime minister, taking over the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in the country’s 74-year history. .
The swearing-in ceremony capped a remarkable comeback for Netanyahu, who was ousted last year after 12 consecutive years in power. But he faces many challengesleading an alliance of religious and far-right parties that could cause national and regional unrest and alienate Israel’s closest allies.
His new government has pledged to prioritize settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, provide massive grants to its ultra-Orthodox allies and push for sweeping reform of the justice system that critics say could endanger the democratic institutions of the country. The plans sparked an outcry in Israeli society, drawing criticism from the military, LGBTQ rights groups, the business community and others, and sparking concern abroad.
In a stormy parliamentary session ahead of his swearing-in, the combative Netanyahu took aim at his critics, accusing the opposition of trying to scare the public.
“I hear the constant cries from the opposition about the end of the country and of democracy,” Netanyahu said from the podium. “Members of the opposition: losing in elections is not the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy.”
His speech was repeatedly interrupted by boos and jeers from his opponents, who chanted “weak, weak” – an apparent reference to the many concessions he made to his new partners in power.
Netanyahu later held a brief meeting with his new cabinet, saying his priorities would include halting Iran’s nuclear program, strengthening law and order, and tackling the country’s high cost of living. , and the expansion of Israel’s nascent relations with the Arab world.
‘I am moved because of the great trust that the people of Israel have placed in us,’ he told ministers, adding that he was delighted to work with the ‘excellent team’ he has assembled . “Let’s get to work.”
Netanyahu is the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having served in office for a total of 15 years, including a stint in the 1990s. diverse united by little more than their opposition to his regime.
That coalition collapsed in June, and Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies secured a clear parliamentary majority in November elections.
The country remains deeply divided over Netanyahu, who remains on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three corruption cases. He denies all the charges, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by hostile media, police and prosecutors.
Netanyahu now leads a government made up of a hardline religious ultranationalist party dominated by West Bank settlers, two ultra-Orthodox parties and his nationalist Likud party. They approved a set of coalition guidelines and agreements that go well beyond the goals he set out on Thursday and, some say, risk undermining Israel’s democratic institutions and deepening the conflict with the Palestinians.
A long-time hardliner on the Palestinians, Netanyahu is already a strong supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is only expected to kick into high gear under the new government. Netanyahu created a special cabinet post giving an incendiary settler leader broad authority over settlement policies. The coalition’s platform asserts that “the Jewish people have exclusive and indisputable rights” to all of Israel and the Palestinian territories and promises to make settlement expansion a top priority.
This includes the legalization of dozens of rogue outposts and a commitment to annex the entire territory, a step that would stifle any remaining hope of a Palestinian state and spark strong international opposition.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – territories the Palestinians seek for a future state. Israel has built dozens of Jewish settlements that house around 500,000 Israelis who live alongside around 2.5 million Palestinians.
Most of the international community views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States has already warned the new government against any move that could further undermine hopes for an independent Palestinian state.
President Joe Biden on Thursday called Netanyahu “a friend for decades” and said he looked forward to working with him “to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including including threats from Iran.
But, Biden warned, the United States “will continue to support the two-state solution and oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values.”
At home, the new government has alarmed good governance groups with its plans to overhaul the judiciary – including a proposal that would limit the power of the independent judiciary by allowing parliament to overrule Supreme Court rulings. Critics say it will destroy the country’s system of checks and balances and pave the way for Netanyahu’s criminal trial to be overturned.
The rollback of minority and LGBTQ rights is also a cause for concern. Religious Zionism party members say they will propose an amendment to the country’s anti-discrimination law that would allow businesses and doctors to discriminate against the LGBTQ community on the basis of religious faith.
In front of the parliament, several thousand demonstrators waved Israeli and rainbow gay pride flags. “We don’t want fascists in the Knesset! they chanted. Crowds of LGBTQ supporters shouting “Shame!” blocked the entrance to a major junction and highway in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has promised to protect minority and LGBTQ rights. Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist, was elected the first openly gay speaker of parliament on Thursday in front of his partner and their two children.
On stage, Ohana turned to them and promised that the new government would respect everyone. “This Knesset, under this speaker, will not hurt them or any child or any other family, period,” he said.
LGBTQ groups have welcomed Ohana’s appointment, but fear the new government will use his appointment as a smokescreen to reverse the gains the community has made in recent years.
Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister who now serves as leader of the opposition, told parliament he was handing over to the new government “a country in excellent shape, with a strong economy, with improved defensive capabilities and a strong deterrence, with one of the best international rankings of all time.
“Try not to destroy it. We will be back soon,” Lapid said.
Associated Press writers Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Darlene Superville in Kingshill, US Virgin Islands contributed to this report.