After five elections that disrupted Israeli politics for nearly four years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally returned to power—18 months on from his removal—after receiving a majority of Knesset votes. Netanyahu and his government took the oath of office on 29 December 2022, for what is likely to be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. He has pledged to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, broaden peacemaking efforts with Arab countries, and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, alongside another set of domestic and foreign policies that have sparked international concern about the possibilities of inflaming the conflict with Palestinians, harming the judiciary, and restricting minority rights—despite Netanyahu’s promises to seek peace and protect civil rights.
Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power with a governing coalition that provoked enormous domestic and foreign controversy, especially since it forced him to strike numerous bargains and agreements that delayed the new government’s formation. Overall, the government’s composition involves a number of key implications:
1. Prominent presence of extreme right-wing figures: Netanyahu enjoys the support of extreme right-wing figures once only on the margins of Israeli politics. Members of the Likud Party hold some of the most important ministerial positions, including the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, justice, and education. A number of far-right politicians have also been appointed to important cabinet positions. For example, Itamar Ben-Gvir—an extremist convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting racism against Arabs—will take over the Ministry of National Security, which oversees the police in Israel and some police activities in the occupied West Bank. Aryeh Deri, the leader of the hardline Sephardic Shas Party, was also appointed Minister of Interior and Health.
2. Enshrining the dual leadership of the Ministry of Defense: In the new Israeli government, as part of Netanyahu’s negotiations with other political forces, the new custom of one ministry—the Ministry of Defense—being headed by two ministers was enshrined. The ministry will be headed by Yoav Galant from the Likud Party, in partnership with the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich will manage civil affairs in the West Bank, a new ministerial position in the Ministry of Defense.
3. Escalating controversy over Ministry of National Security powers: The Ministry of National Security—which emerged as an alternative to the Ministry of Internal Security—has brought about much controversy within Israel in recent months. According to Israeli media reports, the new ministry, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) Party, will expand its authority by removing law enforcement powers from other government ministries. The ministry is to assume control of the border police forces of the Judea and Samaria Division deployed in the West Bank, which had been subject to the Israeli army.
Notably, these changes displeased some military leaders in the state. For example, Israel’s Minister of Defense in the previous government, Benny Gantz, said during an appearance at a conference held by the Israel Democracy Institute on November 28 that transferring responsibility for the West Bank border guard unit to Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as subordinating the Israeli Army’s Civil Administration to the Ministry of Finance, would "help our enemies and endanger our soldiers in international courts, because there are many who will see that as the beginning of imposing Israeli sovereignty in the [West] Bank."
4. Netanyahu confirms the trust criterion in choices of officials: Although the formation of the new Israeli government was dominated by deals and agreements between Netanyahu and the political forces partnering with him, some choices revealed the presence of a trust factor. Evidence of this, perhaps, is Netanyahu’s decision to appoint former minister Tzachi Hanegbi from the Likud Party as head of the National Security Council. Hanegbi is known to be close to and trusted by Netanyahu. This may be the most likely factor in his choice for the role, especially since he was not elected to the Knesset in last November’s elections.
5. Decline in women’s representation in the new government: One striking observation in the composition of the new government involves the representation of women. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which included many religious parties, has moved towards restricting women’s freedom in Israel in an unprecedented way, which in turn has led to limited representation of women in the cabinet. While the previous government increased the number of women in its ranks to nine ministers, making them 30% of the government, women’s representation in the new government fell to five ministers, or 17%.
6. Continuing legal controversy over the formation of the new government: The composition of the new government has raised a huge legal debate. Some of Netanyahu’s opponents argued that his new government is a major challenge to the Israeli judiciary, as the judiciary has indicted Netanyahu in corruption cases, for which he is still on trial in the Jerusalem court. Some of his ministerial appointments have also sparked sharp criticism. The most prominent example could be Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri, who was convicted last year of tax evasion and received a suspended prison sentence in exchange for his immediate resignation from the Knesset.
Benjamin Netanyahu published the guiding principles and comprehensive agenda of his new coalition, in which he focused on a set of policies the new government will work to implement, especially promises he made during the Knesset session swearing in his new government. This government’s action items can be summarized as follows:
1. Obstructing the Iranian nuclear agreement: While presenting the composition of his government before the Knesset, Netanyahu announced that one of its priorities is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power by working to thwart its efforts to manufacture or obtain a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu categorically opposes any negotiations with Tehran, and played a major role in convincing the Trump administration to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018. He is expected to continue the policy of escalation towards Tehran, especially since a large aspect of his electoral campaign focused on accusing the former "change government" of laxity in dealing with Tehran.
In this regard, Tehran may resume precise covert operations targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, assassinating nuclear scientists, and providing support for the protests that have continued in Iran for several months.
2. Imposing restrictions on the Supreme Court of Israel: It is no secret that the right-wing government intends to amend many laws, especially those related to combating discrimination. This could change the nature of the relationship between religion and the state in Israel. In essence, the government’s parties are expected to work to pass a law that would withdraw the Supreme Court’s oversight power over laws passed by the Knesset. Currently, the court has the power to nullify or prevent the implementation of Knesset legislation. This step—if successful—is expected to contribute to increasing polarization with secular currents in Israel, which could see bypassing court rulings as a blow to "Israeli democracy" and an attack on the way of life in Israel.
3. Continuing to expand the peace agreements with Arab countries: Benjamin Netanyahu announced the appointment of former Minister of Intelligence Eli Cohen—who played a key role in normalizing relations between Israel and a number of countries in the region—as foreign minister. Netanyahu seeks to expand the normalization agreements to include other countries, thus completing what was done by the government of the outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The previous government revealed that it has laid the foundations for new countries to join the Abraham Accords, so the new government could complete them within a short period.
4. Adopting different economic policies: The economic agenda occupies a large portion of the new Israeli government’s attention, especially since right-wing parties have built much of their popularity by criticizing the economic policies of the previous "change government," especially as regards rising prices and the worsening housing crisis. Netanyahu and leaders of the extreme right-wing parties promised to adopt various policies to reduce the cost of living and prevent the rising prices of water, electricity, fuel, and property taxes. They also pledged to work to provide apartments and reduce housing costs, especially given a report by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicating a 19% increase in apartment prices since 2021.
5. A major shift in settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem: Extremist religious parties are likely to push for a major settlement shift in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, in addition to Judaization projects and changing the status quo in Jerusalem. This is especially likely given that some hardline figures, such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, have taken on important ministerial portfolios and the severity of repression against Palestinians has been increased. This would escalate tension with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, as well as inside the Green Line. Calls for boycotts and a decline in Arab voting turnout compared to Jews in the most recent elections show a decline in Arab citizens’ confidence in the ability to make change from within official Israeli institutional frameworks. All this could lead to further stumbling in negotiations, and a decline in the prospect of achieving peace with the Palestinians, as well as threatening any attempts by Netanyahu to expand the peace agreements with Arab countries.
According to Israeli media reports, the broad contours of the Netanyahu government include the implicit declaration of the annexation of the West Bank. The government’s agenda included asserting "the Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel," which is considered a unilateral declaration of the actual annexation of the West Bank—or at least large portions of it.
The new government is expected to face several obstacles while implementing its aforementioned agenda:
1. Continuing domestic protests: The new government faces widespread protests by the opposition, because it is the most right-wing government since 1948, or since the announcement of Israel’s establishment. This was clear amid demonstrations in Tel Aviv on the day Netanyahu and his government were sworn in before the Knesset, as well as in the resignation of Israel’s ambassador to France, Yael German. She accused Netanyahu and his government of violating Israeli principles based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, due to the government including representatives of parties with extreme principles, policies, and legislation. More than 100 retired Israeli ambassadors and foreign ministry officials also expressed their concerns that the new government’s policies would damage Israel’s foreign relations, international standing, and core interests abroad.
2. Persistent pressure from opposition forces: Opposition forces are likely to unite to place pressure on the Netanyahu government and work to bring it down quickly. This trend appeared, for example, in a joint statement issued on December 26 by Israeli opposition leaders Yair Lapid (the chairman of the Yesh Atid Party, Benny Gantz (leader of the State Camp coalition), Avigdor Lieberman (head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party), Merav Michaeli (leader of the Labor Party), and Mansour Abbas (leader of the United Arab List). The statement included an attack on Netanyahu, saying: "We will work together to fight this backward, anti-democratic government that is being established, which will dismantle Israel from within."
3. Increasing tensions with Palestinians: During his speech before the Knesset, Netanyahu pledged to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. This is likely to prompt extremist religious parties to make a major settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights through Judaization projects and changing the status quo in Jerusalem. This is especially likely given Netanyahu’s agreement to retroactively legalize around 100 settlement outposts previously built in the West Bank without Israeli government permission. This will escalate tensions with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
4. Complexities of Israel’s stance on the Ukraine war: The Ukrainian war is expected to pose a major challenge to the incoming Israeli government. Israel seeks to adopt a neutral stance on the war, which has been reflected in Israeli officials’ statements and Tel Aviv’s voting trends at the United Nations on resolutions related to the conflict. Most recently, Israel abstained from voting on November 14 for a resolution to oblige Russia to pay compensation for damages and losses caused by the Ukrainian war.
However, with escalating talk of Iranian military support for Russia, Netanyahu is expected to face great pressure to take a clear stance on the conflict that preserves Israel’s strategic interests with the United States and the West, while also ensuring that relations between Tel Aviv and Moscow are unaffected—especially regarding arrangements in Syria.
5. Disagreements with the US administration: The new Israeli government must manage its disagreements with the Democratic US administration. Despite US President Joe Biden’s announcement that he looks forward to working with Netanyahu, he will continue to support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, there are ongoing disputes about the US administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, the recent border demarcation agreement with Lebanon, potentially the limits of Israel’s intervention in the Ukrainian war, and the worry in many US circles over the strong rise of extremist religious currents. Therefore, the Netanyahu government will have to come to an understanding with Washington to manage those issues in a way that preserves Israeli interests. Washington is still waiting for the results of the policies the new Tel Aviv government intends to implement, to say nothing of the most extreme politicians included in the government, who the US administration does not welcome.
In conclusion, the composition of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government—and the policies it has pledged to pursue—raise concerns over increasing tensions with Palestinians, undermining the country’s judicial independence, and a decline in the protection of social minorities. The opposition has considered these matters steps that will limit the authority of the independent judiciary, harm the democratic system in Israel, and make minorities more vulnerable. Netanyahu’s return as prime minister comes at a critical moment for Israel, as it faces fundamental challenges including Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and increasing international criticism of its handling of the West Bank. Therefore, the new government will witness a state of fragmentation and conflict on the domestic and foreign fronts.