JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's designated prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday announced a coalition deal that will give a hardline, pro-settler party control over a number of key government ministries and a senior role in overseeing the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The agreement with the Religious Zionism party marked an important breakthrough for Netanyahu as he tries to cobble together a government following Nov. 1 elections. But it also could set the stage for conflict with key allies, first and foremost the United States.
Netanyahu's Likud Party said that Religious Zionism would share control over the Finance Ministry, run the government ministry in charge of immigration and head a new ministry for “national missions.”
It said a party member would also hold a special ministerial level post in the Defense Ministry in charge of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, in coordination with Netanyahu.
“This is a significant additional step that nears us toward the formation of a right-wing, national government,” Netanyahu said.
The deal also gives Religious Zionism control of a parliamentary committee expected to approve sweeping reforms in the country's legal system. These are expected to include changes that could freeze or dismiss criminal charges against Netanyahu.
Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionism party, called the deal a “historic step.”
He said the emerging government would “restore security and governance, promote historic reform in the legal system, regulate and develop the settlement enterprise, strengthen Jewish identity in the spirit of religious Zionism and proudly wave the flag of Zionism.”
Smotrich is a leader of the West Bank settlement movement and is seeking a massive increase in construction of Jewish housing in occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The international community, including the U.S., overwhelmingly considers settlement construction illegal or illegitimate.
Netanyahu and his hardline allies captured a majority of seats in Nov. 1 parliamentary elections, putting him in a position to form a new government.
He has reached deals with two other hardline religious factions. Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist politician known for his anti-Arab rhetoric and provocative stunts, will be national security minister and oversee the country's police force. And Avi Maoz, known for his anti-LGBTQ views and disparaging remarks about non-Orthodox Jews, will be in charge of “Jewish identity.”
Netanyahu will now turn his attention to a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties as he seeks to complete the formation of his coalition government.
Netanyahu has until midnight on Dec. 11 to form a government, though he can seek an additional two weeks from the country's ceremonial president.