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Netanyahu fails to assuage concerns over Israel far-right government

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Already dogged by criticism at home and abroad, a new Israeli government is set to be sworn in on Thursday, the final stroke in Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s political comeback.

The veteran leader, 73 and on trial for corruption charges he denies, has had to calm concerns for the fate of civil liberties, diplomacy and clean governance since his bloc of nationalist and Jewish religious parties secured a parliamentary majority in a November 1 election.

His alliance with the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties has stirred unease given their opposition to Palestinian statehood and some members’ past agitation against Israel’s justice system, Arab minority and LGBT rights.

Fending off criticism, Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to promote tolerance and pursue peace.

“We will establish a stable government for a full term that will take care of all Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

Israel’s longest serving leader, he was prime minister for three years in the 1990s and then from 2009-2021, albeit at times heading a caretaker government ahead of elections.

The new government policy outline, published on Wednesday, said it would strive for peace with all of Israel’s neighbours.

The first guiding principle listed, however, cited assertions of “exclusive and unassailable” Jewish national rights “throughout the land of Israel,” terminology that appeared to include the West Bank and East Jerusalem – among the territories that the Palestinians seek for a state.

For the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s government line-up has simply darkened an already bleak view, putting their hopes of statehood further out of reach. Violence in the West Bank has surged this year.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday bemoaned what he called “the establishment of an Israeli government whose motto is extremism and apartheid.”

On wider diplomatic circles, Netanyahu has said he hopes for a breakthrough in forming diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia as he did in 2020 with other Gulf states that share Israel’s concerns about Iran.

Riyadh has signalled no change in its position that any progress with Israel was contingent on Palestinian statehood.

The appointment to police minister of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler convicted in 2007 of incitement against Arabs and support for a Jewish militant group on Israeli and US terrorist watchlists, has stirred concern at home and abroad.

Ben-Gvir, a lawyer, says his positions have become more moderate.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, warned on Sunday against causing potential harm to individuals’ rights. Israeli businesses have decried calls to revise the country’s anti-discrimination law.