Scraping through with a razor thin majority vote of 60-59, in the 120-member Knesset—Israel’s parliament—a strange new coalition is set to form the government in West Jerusalem. The 49-year-old Naftali Bennet, the incoming PM, is a millionaire businessman in the high-technology sector. He is the extreme right-wing leader of Yamina—which literally means rightwards in Hebrew—the political party that won just 7 seats in the Knesset.
Though Israel is no stranger to coalition governments since its independence in 1948, the coalition which Naftali will lead is surely one of the strangest in Israel’s history. Politically, the coalition stretches across the political spectrum, with deep ideological differences between its eight constituent parties.
Benjamin Netanyahu Not Out of Equation Yet
Benjamin Netanyahu, the 71-year-old Israeli leader, was the longest serving and controversial leader of the Likud party and Israeli PM for 12 uninterrupted years, will finally move to the opposition benches. Bennett has promised to heal the wounds of a divided nation, a task, his former ally and now rival Netanyahu, was charged with bringing about.
Be that as it may, Israel had finally emerged out of political instability that has led to four general elections in the last two years. Netanyahu has made it clear that he will oppose the new government. He has said "I will lead you in the daily struggle against this evil and dangerous leftist government in order to topple it,"…. "God willing, it will happen a lot faster than what you think." Though, facing corruption charges which were kept in abeyance while he was PM, Netanyahu has made it clear that he is not quitting the political stage.
Much admired by his supporters, he is also criticised as a leader who deliberately chose to base his politics on divide and rule tactics and authoritarian impulses.
His policies found favour among many in Israeli society, deeply divided on religious and secular lines among the Jewish people and the Muslim Israeli Arabs, the latter comprising 21% of Israel’s 9 million population.
His party Likud, emerged as the largest party in the Knesset with 30 seats. Netanyahu has served for 15 years in two stints as PM and he has secured his place in Israel’s history. He has made Israel wealthier but polarised. Known as a political magician, it would too early to write his political obituary. He will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of the missteps by the new governing coalition and may get another shot at forming a coalition government in future.
Bennet’s Balancing Skills to be Tested in Next 2 Years
The unlikely coalition that takes over the reins of the government was united on ousting Netanyahu. There are three coalition leaders who were erstwhile allies of Netanyahu and shared his right -wing political beliefs. Bennet, the new PM is a former Chief of Staff of Netanyahu and a minister, is a hard liner and further to the right of his former boss. His Yamina party’s popularity is limited to religious Jews and the settler community which has spearheaded the capture of Palestinian land in the West Bank and residential areas in East Jerusalem to settle Jews.
Both Netanyahu and Bennet oppose an independent and sovereign Palestinian state and the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. Bennet has an unenviable balancing act to follow in the two years that he will be PM, after which the post will go to Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid, the centrist party.
A huge challenge will be to maintain ties with the Arab party which is likely to press demands of the Israeli Arabs and their Palestinian brethren. Israeli Arabs have ling complained of discrimination and targeted by right-wingers of being “terrorist” sympathizers. Moreover, between Bennet and Lapid, each one will retain a veto on policies as Lapid will hold the important foreign affairs portfolio. Hence, no movement on the Palestinian issue can be expected.
India-Israel Relations Won’t Be Affected by Bennet Replacing Bibi
India-Israel ties are unlikely to be affected by the change in government in Israel. Among various world leaders who have congratulated Bennet, PM Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message has evoked a warm response from Bennet. He said he was looking forward to working with PM Modi to further develop bilateral ties which he called "unique and warm”. India and Israel will celebrate 30 years of diplomatic ties in 2022.
PM-in-waiting and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also added that his government will work to advance strategic relations with India. Lapid has also responded to the congratulatory message from India’s EAM S Jaishankar, inviting him to visit Israel soon.
Clearly, India-Israel ties have become autonomous of political changes in Israel and have developed a momentum that is anchored in mutual congruence of long-term interests. Netanyahu had invested considerable personal effort in bilateral ties with India and the personal chemistry with PM Modi was quite unique, particularly after PM Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the first ever by an Indian PM. Bilateral ties have advanced to an extent that Israel is today the second largest supplier of defence and technology products to India. During the ongoing COVID pandemic, bilateral cooperation in the medical sector has been stepped up. Israel is a leader in medical technology and was the first country to vaccinate maximum number of her population.
India’s More Balanced Approach Towards Israel-Palestine Conflict
No government in Israel or India, regardless of its political ideology, is likely to rock the boat in so far as bilateral ties with India are concerned. PM Modi’s government’s statement in the UNSC, during the discussion on the recent 11-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas in Gaza was a balanced one.
India also abstained from voting on the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that sought an independent enquiry into the bombing of Gaza and Israel’s violations of human rights of the Palestinians.
As bilateral ties have strengthened, India’s position has moved from to a more balanced position in the Israel-Palestine dispute though, India has maintained her consistent support for the two-state solution that was envisaged in the UN resolution of 1947 and reiterated in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
Biden and Bennet to Find Their Feet Together?
The change in government is Israel comes at a time when the Biden Administration in the USA is finding its feet. Netanyahu had a difficult relationship with President Obama when Biden was Vice-President. Changes in US policy like reopening the Consulate in East Jerusalem which mainly liaises with the Palestinians and grant of funds for reconstruction in Gaza, after the 11-day conflict, already shows the beginning of a more nuanced approach by the Biden Administration.
Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel, like all American Presidents. Israel cannot cross a red line with the USA. Biden may also prefer a period of quiet and inaction from the new government which might suit both sides. After the overwhelming support of the former Trump Administration, Israel will find the Biden Administration somewhat less accommodating though, it is unlikely to reverse any decision like the shifting of the US Embassy to West Jerusalem.
(The author is a former Secretary in MEA and Ambassador; a founder Director of DeepStrat, a think tank, he has served as DCM in Israel and is currently, a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)