Israeli PM calls for unity after Netanyahu’s victory

Israeli PM calls for unity after Netanyahu’s victory

JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister called for national unity on Sunday, days after he was defeated in national elections by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by the far-right ultra-nationalist party.

At a memorial service for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned of deep divisions plaguing the country after a bitter campaign, Israel’s fifth election since 2019.

He appears to have targeted Religious Zionism, an extremist party whose leaders have repeatedly made anti-Arab, anti-LGBTQ comments. Religious Zionism has emerged as the third largest party in parliament and is expected to play a key role in Netanyahu’s government.

“There is no ‘us and them’, just us,” Lapid said in his first public comments since last week’s election. “The absolute majority of citizens of this country believe in the rule of law, democratic values ​​and mutual respect.”

“The vast majority of Israelis want a Judaism that unites us, not a Judaism that is a political tool and certainly not a Judaism that condones violence,” he added.

Netanyahu’s Likud party, along with Religious Zionism and a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, won a majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament in last Tuesday’s election. They are expected to form a new governing majority in the coming weeks.

Lapid’s outgoing coalition, a diverse collection of parties that included the first Arab party to participate in an Israeli government, won just 51 seats.

The election, like the previous four, focused on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern while he faces corruption charges.

Religious Zionism has pledged to push for new reforms that could weaken Israel’s judiciary, grant Netanyahu immunity and possibly drop criminal charges against him. Critics say this agenda will severely damage Israel’s democratic institutions.

Religious Zionism also takes a hard line against the Palestinians and Israel’s Palestinian minority.

“The vast majority of Israeli citizens do not want to let hatred dictate their lives,” Lapid said at a ceremony at Israel’s national cemetery. “We have to decide now, at this moment, where this country is going.”

Netanyahu did not attend the ceremony. But speaking later in parliament, Netanyahu said that after the election, “it’s time to get out of the trenches and learn how to work together.”

Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich complained that his constituents had been unfairly “demonized” by supporting Rabin’s murder, which he called “horrific”.

Smotrich’s rival, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is known to have gotten hold of a hood ornament taken from Rabin’s car weeks before the assassination. “Just as we got to this coat of arms, we can get to Rabin,” Ben-Gvir, who now holds a senior cabinet position, said at the time.

Rabin was killed in 1995. on November 4 by a Jewish extremist who opposed his peace efforts with the Palestinians.

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