Benjamin Netanyahu has moved closer to forming what would be the most rightwing government in Israeli history, after his Likud grouping struck a coalition deal with the far-right Religious Zionism party.
Under the agreement, Religious Zionism, led by the far-right Bezalel Smotrich, will initially control the finance ministry and have a minister in the defence ministry responsible for overseeing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The deal is the latest in a series of coalition deals struck by Netanyahu that have given key positions in the incoming administration to figures who until recently inhabited the fringes of the country’s politics. They have since been catapulted towards the heart of government after their alliance, which Netanyahu helped broker, came third in last month’s election.
Last week, Netanyahu struck a deal with the extreme-right Jewish Power party that would make its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir — an ultranationalist previously convicted of incitement to racism who, until a couple of years ago, kept in his house a picture of a Jewish extremist who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque — the new national security minister.
Then, on Monday, Likud reached an agreement with the vehemently anti-LGBT+ Noam party that would put its leader, Avi Maoz — who has previously said that a woman’s greatest contribution to society is marrying and raising a family — in charge of a newly created body charged with the task of promoting Jewish identity.
The outlines of the incoming government have appalled centrist Israelis and sparked unease among some of the country’s allies. A former transport minister, Smotrich had initially sought the defence portfolio but, following lobbying against that by US officials, is now set to be finance minister.
The son of a rabbi who grew up in a religious West Bank settlement, Smotrich has railed against Israel’s Arab minority, saying during a parliamentary debate last year that Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, should have expelled all Arabs from the country.
“You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948,” he said to Arab lawmakers who had been heckling him.
He has also expressed hostility to the LGBT+ community, describing himself in 2015 as a “proud homophobe”. In 2006, he took part in a “Beast Parade” in protest against Israel’s Pride parades, during which activists marched goats and donkeys through Jerusalem carrying signs assailing the LGBT+ community. He has since expressed regret for his actions.
Smotrich’s party is opposed to Palestinian statehood and supports the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians seek as the heart of their future state, but which Israel has occupied since 1967.
Under the deal struck on Thursday evening, Religious Zionism will have authority over activity in the settlements, which are considered illegal by most of the international community, but the party will have to act “in co-ordination and agreement” with Netanyahu.
The party will also lead a parliamentary committee charged with overhauling the judiciary, paving the way for it to push through reforms that it says are needed to combat judicial over-reach.
But opponents fear that the mooted reforms, which include a plan to allow the parliament to override high court decisions, would remove crucial checks and balances on Israeli governments.
In a blistering attack earlier this week, outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid said the new government’s agenda would drag the country “into a dangerous, anti-democratic spiral that endangers the economy, harms security and will bring international sanctions upon us”.
In addition to Religious Zionism, Jewish Power and Noam, Netanyahu is also seeking to reach coalition deals with two religious parties that represent Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. He has until December 11 to form a coalition but can request a two-week extension if needed.