Monday, December 6, 2021

New Israeli Government Formed

By: Prof. P R KUMARASWAMY, School of International Studies, JNU

After months of uncertainty and negotiations, last Sunday, the Israeli Knesset approved a new government under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, with Yair Lapid as Alternative Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. The eight-party coalition is diverse and narrow and could muster only 60 votes in the 120-member house, (with one of its members choosing to abstain) during the critical Knesset vote. It comprises three right-wing parties, two-centrist parties, two-left-wing parties and an Arab-Islamist party.

The formation of the Bennett-Lapid government came following the collapse of a unity government under Benjamin Netanyahu that resulted in Israel going for Knesset elections last March, the fourth in two years. The popular revulsion against a possible fifth election compelled strange bedfellows—parties who are more nationalistic than the Likud and Arab-Islamist Ra’am party—to cohabit to form the most diverse coalition in Israel’s history.

The coalition government establishes several precedents; it has the first religiously observant person as prime minister; for the first time since the establishment of Israel, the government also includes an Arab party; and it has eight women cabinet ministers, the highest in the country’s history.

The new government is committed to spending over US$ 9 billion through 2026 to bridge and overcome the socio-economic disadvantages of the Arab population. It also seeks to bring several religious reforms, including public travel on the Jewish Sabbath; these could be red-lines for the religious parties. However, right-wing as well as Arab parties face internal opposition over their cohabitation and the possible dilution of their ideological position.

Moreover, with only 61 members, the ruling coalition faces a united and determined opposition. In his farewell speech before the Knesset, Mr. Netanyahu vowed to bring down the nascent government sooner than later. With their differing views on political settlements with Palestinians and the future of the occupied West Bank and the question of Jerusalem, the narrow Bennett-Lapid government raises concern over its stability and survival.

In the initial weeks and months, the government will be walking on shells and moving gingerly on foreign policy issues. Improving ties with the Biden Administration will be its top priority. Prime Minister Bennett would also be eager to slow down the ongoing Vienna talks aimed at the US returning to the nuclear deal with Iran.

On the bilateral front, India recognised the change in Israel. In his tweet to the newly elected leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled that coming January marks the “30 years of up-gradation of diplomatic relations.” He also expressed his desire to meet the new Israeli Prime Minister towards “deepening the strategic partnership” between the two countries. Prime Minister Bennett was quick to reciprocate and committed himself to work with the Indian leader “to further develop the unique and warm relations between our two democracies.”

Prime Minister Modi, who developed good chemistry with Benjamin Netanyahu, choose to send a warm personal message to the outgoing Israeli leader wherein he observed: “As you complete your successful tenure as the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, I convey my profound gratitude for your leadership and personal attention to India-Israel strategic partnership.” In response, Netanyahu referred to “the strong alliance we forged between India and Israel.”

Similarly, External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar greeted his Israeli counterpart and Alternative Prime Minister Yair Lapid and pledged to work with the new government and “further advance our multifaceted strategic partnership.” He also took part in an online farewell event for the outgoing Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

The manner in which India embraced the new government while appreciating the contribution of outgoing Prime Minister Netanyahu highlight the bipartisan nature of the Indo-Israeli relations.

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