For India & US, Here’s What Israel PM’s Potential Win Could Mean

If Netanyahu returns as PM, India-Israel bilateral ties will, no doubt, continue to grow.

6 min read
For India & US, Here’s What Israel PM’s Potential Win Could Mean

As Israel’s ‘caretaker’ PM Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu plunges into the task of government-formation, his trail of fraud, bribery and breach of trust continues.

Netanyahu has denounced the charges as a ‘witch-hunt’ and as ‘politically motivated’, a stand which sounds familiar, with similar declarations by Indian politicians accused of such charges.

The Israel PM’s trial on corruption charges is a black mark on his otherwise brilliant political career. If he becomes PM again, he can postpone the trial or try to get a second time immunity from Parliament. Netanyahu has faced backlash from many who are indignant that a person being tried for corruption is being given another chance to be PM.

Netanyahu has proven — time and again — that he is a master politician, and those who predicted his political demise have had to eat their words.

Israel’s History of Coalition Govts

Israel has lived with coalition governments for decades, with no single political party winning a majority in the 122-member Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. History has repeated itself in the recent general election. There is no clear winner again in the recent elections, Israel’s fourth in two years.

The right-wing Likud party heads the list of parties with 30 seats, well behind the 61 seats needed for a majority. Next in the list is the centrist Yesh Atid with 17 seats, then other parties from the left and right wings of the political spectrum, with seats in single digits, ranging from 4-9.

The Labour Party, which earlier produced PMs like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, seems to be in a state of permanent decline. Labour has managed to get only 7 seats.

The country’s left-wing parties have failed to mount a challenge to PM Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist appeal.

Why Forming a Govt May Be Tough for Netanyahu

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has invited Netanyahu to form a new government within 28 days, a task which looks like navigating a minefield, given the deep divisions among the parties. An extension of 14 days can be granted by President Rivlin, if Netanyahu fails to form a government. The President will then invite the leader of the party with the second highest number of seats.

The fluidity with which political parties in Israel break up and new parties emerge, makes Israel’s polity look like a perennial shifting mosaic.

Netanyahu has been PM for 12 straight years. Yet he has not been able to garner a majority in the last four elections. Israel’s political fault line revolves around the ideological contradiction of secular versus religious politics, apart from the Jewish-Arab discourse.

Netanyahu first became PM in 1996 when I was serving as a diplomat at the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The 71-year-old Israeli politician is now the longest serving PM of Israel from 1996-99 and 2009 till date.

There were several occasions when I got the opportunity to meet him during meetings with Indian dignitaries. Suave and fluent in English, he invariably made a favourable impression on visitors.

Netanyahu’s Notable Success In Both Domestic & Foreign Policy

Earlier, I had lived through the tragedy of the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. It was during PM Rabin’s tenure that India opened the first diplomatic mission in 1992. After Rabin’s assassination, Shimon Peres became PM, and in the 1996 election, the Netanyahu-led Likud party nosed ahead of the Labour party.

In June 1996, Netanyahu became the youngest PM in Israel’s history. The Likud party can count upon the support of its traditional right-wing and ultra-orthodox allies, but the numbers don’t add up to more than 52.

Both in domestic and foreign policy domains Netanyahu has achieved notable success, though some domestic policy decisions — like the permanent annexation of selected Palestinian land — ran into international criticism and was put on hold.

Backroom diplomacy, conducted by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, led to an understanding that led to the normalisation of relations with Gulf Arab states like UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and Sudan.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu highlighted this as his foreign policy success as a peacemaker, a claim which is credible.

President Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem was also seen as a feather in Netanyahu’s cap, though violative of UN Resolutions and also controversial.

Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital, but the city’s status remains subject to a final status resolution, in a comprehensive peace settlement. He has also sought to derive credit for the COVID vaccination campaign, being the first country to vaccinate the maximum number of its population.

Netanyahu Tries to Form Govt in Israel: What Will Go Down In Upcoming Negotiations?

Netanyahu’s exertions in cobbling together a coalition may ultimately veer towards wooing small Arab parties that might be anathema to his right-wing coalition partners. Anything is possible during the forthcoming negotiations, which will witness much horse-trading and unsavoury compromises that are the staple of Israeli coalition formation will.

Allotment of portfolios and other State appointments will be on the negotiating table. Several first-time MPs are extreme right wing and ultra conservatives. The left-wing parties, led by the Labour party, want to introduce legislation to limit the term of the PM. Those who oppose Netanyahu are too divided to mount a coherent strategy.

India-Israel relations have prospered under Netanyahu’s prime ministership.

The first ever visit by an Indian PM took place when PM Modi visited Israel in July 2017. Their personal bonding added an extra dimension to the strategic ties between the two countries.

Under India’s NDA government, bilateral ties have been fast-tracked, and Israel has emerged as India’s foremost strategic partner, in areas of vital interests like Defence, Technology, Agriculture, Trade, Pharmaceuticals, IT, Chemical Products.

Annual trade turnover has crossed USD 5.5 billion. This figure does not include acquisitions in the Defence sector. Investment by Indian IT companies in Israel has gone up manifold, and Israeli investment has flowed into renewable energy, real estate, agricultural and water management technologies.


Prospects of India-Israel Ties & Israel-US Ties With a Netanyahu Win

A recent report by Bloomberg News Service quotes the International Federation of Indo-Israel Chambers of Commerce (IFIICC) as having estimated that the India-Israel-UAE triangular strategic partnership has the potential of generating trade of around USD 100 billion by 2030.

Diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE have removed all barriers on travel and trade between these two countries.

If Netanyahu returns as PM, India-Israel bilateral ties will, no doubt, continue to grow, though any government in Jerusalem will ensure stability in bilateral ties. Netanyahu’s main headache, if he becomes PM, will be the American administration headed by President Biden, who is resurrecting President Obama’s policies to a large extent.

He has signalled the revival of the Iran nuclear deal [JCPOA] and support for a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine dispute. Netanyahu has vehemently opposed both.

Iran has pointed a finger at Israel for the recent cyberattack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant, at a time when the national security establishment of the US and Israel are in consultation.

President Biden has recently restored financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. The US has also decided to reopen the PLO liaison office in Washington which was shut down by President Trump. The only exception is the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Israel Up Against a Less-Accommodating US Admin Under Biden

Israel has denounced the American decision to provide financial assistance to the UNRWA, a UN agency which works to rehabilitate Palestinian refugees. Israel has always claimed that the UNRWA’s work has led to anti-Israel incitement and anti-Semitism in schools funded by the Agency.

One reason for restoring funding is the allegation that Israel has not helped the Palestinians receive the COVID vaccine, and passed the buck to the Palestinian Authority.

One reason for restoring funding is the allegation that Israel has not helped the Palestinians receive the COVID vaccine, and passed the buck to the Palestinian Authority.

(The author is a former Ambassador and former Secretary in MEA; he served as DCM in India’s Embassy in Israel from 1995-1999; a founder Director of DeepStrat, a think-tank, he 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.)

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