With inputs from Agencies
There is something Shakespearean about Benjamin Netanyahu’s downfall, writes Dov Waxman, of the University of California, in The Conversation.
“As in a scene from Julius Caesar, who was assassinated by Roman senators, Netanyahu was deposed by his former underlings, the leaders of the three right-wing parties that have joined the new government – Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, all of whom once worked for Netanyahu. If two of these men had remained loyal to Netanyahu, as they had been for years, then he would still be in power today.”
Israel’s parliament on June 13 narrowly approved a new coalition government, ending the historic 12-year rule of Netanyahu and sending the polarising leader into the opposition. Bennett became Prime Minister after the 60-59 vote. Netanyahu or King Bibi, as he’s popularly known, ruled Israel for 15 years, including a short stint in the 1990s. He returned to power in 2009, and for the past 12 years, dominated Israeli politics and came to personify Israel in the eyes of the world.
A Fragile Coalition
The new coalition holds only a slight majority in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and includes parties from the right, left and centre. Each party signed a coalition agreement, but just about the only things they agree on are that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, should leave office, and that the country cannot endure another back-to-back election.
The coalition consists of eight parties, including a small Arab party that has made history by joining a government for the first time. Israel’s Arab citizens make up 20% of the population and face widespread discrimination. They have close familial ties to the Palestinians and largely identify with their cause.
Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years, followed by the centrist Yair Lapid, a former journalist who was the driving force behind the coalition. But that’s only if the government survives that long. Netanyahu, who intends to stay on as opposition leader, is waiting in the wings.
Old New Government?
The new government has vowed to chart a new course aimed at healing the country’s divisions and restoring a sense of normalcy. Bennett is a religious ultranationalist who supports settlement expansion and is opposed to a Palestinian state. But he risks losing his job if he alienates his dovish coalition partners. That will likely mean a continuation of Netanyahu’s approach of managing the decades-old conflict without trying to end it. Annexing the occupied West Bank and invading Gaza are probably off the table, but so are any major concessions to the Palestinians.
Every Israeli government has expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for their future state. This government is expected to do so in a subdued way that avoids angering the Biden administration, which is pushing for restraint and revival of peace talks.
The new government is expected to maintain Netanyahu’s hard-line stance on Iran as well and oppose Biden’s efforts to revive its international nuclear deal. But senior officials have already vowed to do so behind closed doors.
The biggest change will likely be felt domestically, as the government struggles to heal the divisions in Israeli society that opened up during the Netanyahu years, between Jews and Arabs and between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis. “The government will work for all the Israeli public — religious, secular, ultra-orthodox, Arab — without exception, as one,” Bennett said. “We will work together, out of partnership and national responsibility, and I believe we will succeed.”
Here’s what is likely to change and what will remain the same.
Stance on Iran
Ebrahmin Raisi’s ascendancy as president comes at a sensitive time, as Iran and world powers ramp up efforts to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal. Israel was staunchly opposed to the landmark deal and welcomed then-President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from it. Since then, the agreement has unravelled, with Iran abandoning all its limitations on enrichment. Tehran is currently enriching uranium at its highest levels ever.
Bennett sees Raisi’s election as “the last chance for the world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement and to understand who they’re doing business with. These guys are murderers, mass murderers.” Israel, which is believed to have its own undeclared nuclear arsenal, has long opposed arch-enemy Iran’s nuclear programme and has vowed to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
At a memorial ceremony for Israelis killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Bennett warned Hamas, Gaza’s militant rulers, that Israel “will not tolerate violence, we will not tolerate a drizzle.” He appeared to be referring to incendiary balloons launched from Gaza in recent days that have set fields ablaze inside Israel. Recently, Israel launched airstrikes on two occasions in response to the balloons sent by activists mobilised by Hamas.
Last month’s Gaza war was halted by an informal cease-fire. Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on the territory when it seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas from importing military resources, while the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as collective punishment of the territory’s more than two million Palestinian residents.
Relations with US
President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett are ushering in an era no longer defined by the powerful Netayahu, who repeatedly defied the Obama administration and then reaped the rewards of a warm relationship with Trump. Israel has long regarded the US as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and international standing while the US counts on Israel’s military and intelligence prowess in a turbulent Middle East.
Shortly after taking office, the new Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, recognised the challenges Israel faces in Washington. “We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they are angry,” Lapid said. “We need to change the way we work with them.”
A key test will be on Iran. Biden has sought to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Obama saw as a signature foreign policy achievement. Trump withdrew from the pact to cheers from pro-Israel US lawmakers and Israel. The new Israeli government remains staunchly opposed to Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, says that rather than trying to scuttle any agreement with Iran, the new government will press the US to keep some sanctions on Iran in place and seek “strategic compensation” for Israel as part of any return to the deal.
Resolving differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another significant challenge. Biden has restored Trump-slashed US assistance to the Palestinians, which in just four months totals more than $300 million. He announced his administration’s intent to re-open the US Consulate in Jerusalem, closed by Trump.
Yet Biden has not signaled any move to alter Trump’s most significant pro-Israel steps. Those include his abandonment of longstanding US policy that settlements are illegitimate under international law, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Biden also hopes to expand Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements that the Trump administration forged in its final months in office.
The US is now pressing Israel to refrain from any unilateral steps — such as settlement expansion or evictions — that could hinder the revival of the peace process. Bennett is a strong supporter of the settlements and is opposed to Palestinian statehood, but he is also seen by many as a pragmatist.
Little Interest in Palestinians
Israel’s new government has shown little interest in addressing the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, but it may not have a choice. Jewish ultranationalists are already staging provocations aimed at splitting the coalition and bringing about a return to right-wing rule. In doing so, they risk escalating tensions with the Palestinians.
Bennett’s best hope for maintaining his ruling coalition will be to manage the conflict, the same approach favoured by his predecessor. But that method failed to prevent three Gaza wars and countless smaller eruptions.
That’s because the status quo for Palestinians involves expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, looming evictions in Jerusalem, home demolitions, deadly shootings and an array of discriminatory measures that two well-known human rights groups say amount to apartheid. In Gaza, which has been under a crippling blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power in 2007, it’s even worse.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians want for a future state. The settlements are seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as a major obstacle to peace because they make it nearly impossible to create a contiguous, viable state of Palestine alongside Israel.
Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded the settlements, and this one is unlikely to be an exception. “They talk about it being a government of change, but it’s just going to entrench the status quo,” said Waleed Assaf, a Palestinian official who coordinates protests against West Bank settlements. “Bennett is a copy of Netanyahu, and he might even be more radical.”
Naftali Bennett embodies many of the contradictions that define the 73-year-old nation. He’s a religious Jew, who regularly wears a kippa, the skullcap worn by observant Jews. He made his millions in the mostly secular hi-tech sector.
He briefly served as head of the West Bank settler’s council, Yesha, before entering the Knesset in 2013. Bennett later served as Cabinet minister of diaspora affairs, education and defence in various Netanyahu-led governments. “He’s a right-wing leader, a security hard-liner, but at the same time very pragmatic,” said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, who has known Bennett for decades.
The 49-year-old served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years, but they parted ways after a mysterious falling out that Israeli media linked to Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who wields great influence over her husband’s inner circle. Bennett represents a third generation of Israeli leaders, after the founders of the state and Netanyahu’s generation. “He’s Israel 3.0,” Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, wrote in a recent profile of Bennett.
No Quiet Retirement
After a quarter-century at the highest levels of Israeli politics, no one expects the 71-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu, dubbed the “King of Israel”, to quietly retire. As opposition leader and the head of the largest party in parliament, Likud, Netanyahu is expected to continue doing everything in his power to bring down the government. “I will lead you in the daily struggle against this evil and dangerous leftist government in order to topple it,” he said. “God willing, it will happen a lot faster than what you think.”
But his domineering presence could continue to bind his opponents together. Netanyahu could face a challenge from within his defeated Likud party, which includes a number of would-be successors. They know that without the polarisation around Netanyahu, the Likud would be able to assemble a strong, stable, right-wing government. But Netanyahu retains a strong hold on the party’s institutions and its base, and senior members are unlikely to challenge him unless his downfall is assured.
Netanyahu’s place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
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