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Israel's Netanyahu moves closer to forming far-right cabinet

FILE - Member of Knesset Aryeh Deri waves during the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party said Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022 it had reached a coalition deal with Shas, granting the ultra-Orthodox party control over several key ministries as it moved closer to forming a new government following Nov. 1 elections.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's designated prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reached a coalition deal Thursday with an ultra-Orthodox party, bringing him a step closer to forming what is expected to be the most right-wing and religious government in the country's history.

The Shas party has been a longtime ally of Netanyahu's Likud. Its base consists of working class religious Jews of Middle Eastern descent and it promotes a religious and social agenda. The party has no female representatives.

Netanyahu already has reached coalition deals with three far-right factions whose agendas include expanding West Bank settlements, tougher punishment for Palestinian attackers and anti-LGBTQ proposals.

Under the latest deal, the Shas party will control or hold senior posts in ministries for religious services, social affairs, education and interior affairs.

The party head, Aryeh Deri, will serve half a term as the minister of health and interior affairs, before becoming finance minister. He will also hold the post of deputy prime minister.

Last year, Deri was convicted for tax offenses as part of a plea deal and placed on probation. To allow him to serve as a Cabinet minister, the new government will have to approve new legislation overturning current laws that prohibit a convict on probation from holding the post.

The legal maneuver has drawn criticism that it undermines Israel's democratic institutions. It “makes a mockery of this criminal procedure,” said Amir Fuchs, senior researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Likud and its ultra-Orthodox and far-right partners captured a majority of seats in the Knesset, or parliament, in Nov. 1 elections, putting them in position to form a new government.

Netanyahu had a midnight Monday deadline to form a coalition, though Likud announced late Thursday that he had asked the country’s figurehead president for a two-week extension, as allowed under Israeli law.

If it takes office, the coalition is expected to promote legal reforms that will weaken Israel's judiciary and pave the way for Netanyahu's criminal trial to be frozen or dismissed.