Israel's Netanyahu tapped to form next government

Israel's veteran ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu secured a mandate Sunday to form a new government, paving the way for his comeback at the helm of what is expected to be the most right-wing administration in the country's history.

After a period of unprecedented political gridlock that forced five elections in less than four years, November 1 polls gave Netanyahu and his far-right allies a clear majority in the 120-seat parliament.

"I have decided to assign to you, Benjamin Netanyahu, the task of forming a government," President Isaac Herzog told him at a ceremony in Jerusalem.

Accepting the mandate, the 73-year-old Netanyahu vowed to serve all Israelis, "those who voted for us and those who did not -- it is my responsibility".

The veteran right-winger, who is fighting corruption allegations in court, will have at least 28 days to build a coalition with his allies -- two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties a rising extreme-right alliance called Religious Zionism.

Herzog noted Netanyahu's ongoing trial, saying: "I am not oblivious, of course, to the fact that there are ongoing legal proceedings against Mr Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, and I do not trivialise this at all".

But he noted that recent precedent made clear Netanyahu could serve as prime minister while contesting the allegations.

Netanyahu's next moves will be closely scrutinised as unease mounts in some quarters over his policy plans and the goals of his controversial governing partners.

The new government is widely expected to pass sweeping judicial reforms, a long-held priority of Israel's right. That could include a so-called "override clause" giving parliament the right to overrule the supreme court any time it declares legislation to be illegal.

Netanyahu's government may also take full control over appointing supreme court judges, a role currently held by a panel of lawmakers, sitting judges and lawyers.

"It is difficult for me to exaggerate the damage and danger" of the proposed reforms, said Suzie Navot, a constitutional law professor at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

- 'Very sensitive questions' -

Netanyahu can seek a two-week extension to his initial mandate, but is expected to announce a coalition deal reasonably quickly, given broad ideological unity within the incoming government.

Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, co-leaders of the Religious Zionism bloc, have publicly demanded control of two key ministries -- public security and defence.

Ben-Gvir, a firebrand known for anti-Arab rhetoric and incendiary calls for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, has repeatedly called for the security services to use more force in countering Palestinian unrest.

Violence has soared between Israel and the Palestinians this year.

Recent months have been the deadliest period in years in the Israeli-occupied West Bank according to the United Nations, with near daily army raids and an increase in clashes and attacks on Israeli forces.

Netanyahu's previous terms in office saw what little remained of the Middle East peace process collapse in a surge of Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Herzog, whose role is largely symbolic, was reported to have tried to convince outgoing premier Yair Lapid and his defence minister Benny Gantz to form a unity cabinet with Netanyahu, in order to keep Ben-Gvir from entering government.

The presidency publicly denied the claims.

But Herzog this week told Ben-Gvir that he had received "questions from Israeli citizens and world leaders... very sensitive questions on human rights".

"There is a certain image of you and your party which seems, and I'll say it in all honesty, worrying in many regards," he added.

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