On eve of Israel’s new government, far-rightists offer reassurances

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Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu finalized coalition deals on Wednesday as his prospective far-right partners offered reassurances that they would serve all Israelis and not radically shift strategy in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, a conservative whose bloc of nationalist and religious parties won a clear election victory last month, is expected to swear in his new government on Thursday, completing his political comeback with a record sixth term in office.

The inclusion of the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties has stirred concern at home and abroad given their leaders opposition to Palestinian statehood and past agitation against Israel’s justice system and Arab minority rights.

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Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, who will be finance minister and hold authority over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, said he would “strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he said Israel’s far-right wanted to bring it “more closely in line with the liberal American model” - which, he said, would entail guaranteed freedom of worship and reform to “balance” the justice system.

Suggesting a shelving of past calls on Israel to annex the West Bank - a move that could spell diplomatic rupture with Washington and Arab states - Smotrich said his settlements plan “doesn’t entail changing (their) political or legal status.”

With peace talks on establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem dormant since 2014, and with no sign of their revival, Netanyahu’s emerging government has darkened an already bleak Palestinian view.

This year saw some of the worst violence in the West Bank in several years as Israeli forces cracked down on Palestinian unrest and militant attacks, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday bemoaned what he called “the establishment of an Israeli government whose motto is extremism and apartheid.”

Smotrich’s party platform says that as formal annexation was not diplomatically feasible at present, it will seek “de-facto sovereignty” and bolster Israel’s settlements.

The run-up to the swearing-in of the Netanyahu government saw a rush of legislation to satisfy coalition partners, including a bill expanding the authorities of Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir as designated minister for police.

Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of incitement against Arabs and supporting an outlawed Jewish militant group. He has disavowed some of his past conduct. But President Isaac Herzog, meeting Ben-Gvir on Wednesday, reminded him of the “worries” stirred up in Israel and among foreign Jews over his ascendancy.

In a statement, Herzog's office quoted Ben-Gvir as saying that he would “bolster the sense of security in the streets for us all” and that his party and Religious Zionism “have no intention of excluding or harming any sector of society.”

The government’s guiding principles, published by Netanyahu's Likud party, upheld a so-called “status quo” in holy places, which includes an Israeli ban on Jewish prayer at the sl-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, which is also Judaism’s most sacred site and vestige of its two ancient temples.

That appeared to put paid to Ben-Gvir’s past calls for the ban to be scrapped.

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