Stability with caveats

Netanyahu’s comeback with support of anti-Arab forces will ensure political stability in Israel but leave the country in splits on values of democracy and identity

Stability with caveats

The November 1 Israeli election signals the return to power by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by far right and religious parties forming a coalition.

After over a yearlong experiment of a mixed right-center-left-Arab coalition, the election results mark a decisive shift to the right in Israeli politics — having impact on Israel's relations in the region, the ongoing Palestinian conflict, and ties between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society. It was the first time that an Arab party had joined the government.

The possible formation of the most right-wing government in Israel's history not only spells the end of an already improbable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but could also pose a threat to the democratic safeguards of the country.

Netanyahu's Likud party, along with ultranationalist and ultra-orthodox allies, has captured 64 seats in the 120-member parliament in last week's election — the fifth in less than four years.

Although Netanyahu's victory and his comfortable majority puts an end to Israel's political instability, it leaves Israelis split over their leadership and over the values that define their state: Jewish or democratic. Netanyahu may hope for a durable return to the job he previously held for 15 years, thereby becoming the longest serving prime minister in the country's independent history.

The greatest concern is the inclusion of ultra-right-wing politicians. His far-right alliance politician Itamar Ben-Gvir openly calls for armed violence against Palestinians and Bezalel Smotrich, a religious extremist, is notorious for his homophobic statements.

They want deportation of "disloyal" Palestinians citizens of Israel and the annexation of the occupied West Bank. They are against the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They campaigned as Israeli's best protectors against Palestinian violence and Iran's nuclear programme.

Ben-Gvir is an anti-Arab, former follower of the banned Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism. Until his 2019 parliamentary election, he had a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron, in his living room.

For years he was politically untouchable but now, thanks to Netanyahu, he dominates the third-largest political force with Smotrich in Israel.

The rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich underscores how Israelis are shifting in favor of more right-wing candidates in recent years. Ben-Gvir has already said that he would like to be the minister in charge for internal security, which oversees the police. He supports dismantling of the Palestinian Authority — created as part of the Oslo Peace process, which many believe, could one day become the government of an independent Palestine state.

The alliance could also mark a turning point for the country's democracy and its judiciary. Netanyahu, who is entangled in a legal battle after being indicted on charges of bribery, corruption and breach of trust—which he vehemently denies—wants his legal problems to melt.

Senior members of his Likud party have been pressing for reform in the judicial system and other democratic safeguards such as reducing what they believe the judges' disproportionate power to challenge the authority of elected parliamentarians and the attorney general's power and independence. The religious hardliners in the alliance support this idea, which suits Netanyahu.

Some of the judicial reform laws being proposed, if passed in parliament, could either aid Netanyahu, 73, in his legal battle or annul the case against him entirely. Even if convicted, Netanyahu could remain as prime minister until the appeal process is over, and that could take a few years.

Ben-Gvir's presence in a governing coalition could raise tension with the US and other allies, especially Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It was under Netanyahu's government that Israel in 2020 normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco under the Abraham accord brokered by the then Trump administration.

Arab leaders were largely silent on the outcome of the Israeli election. However, observers are of the view that in the Gulf, where Arab concern over Iran's regional power dominates security strategy, Netanyahu's record of hardline opposition to Teheran has helped forge Israel's ties with Sunni Muslim Arab leaders.

For Gulf countries like the UAE, Iran is a main concern and Israel, no matter which government is in place, has always taken a strong line against Iran and its nuclear deal with global powers.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political analyst, quoted by Reuters, while describing the hardliners triumph as the "worst of the worst in Israeli politics", said it would have an impact on Palestinians and kill any talk of a two-state solution.

Palestinians are worried over the development. "The results confirm that we have no partner in Israel for peace," said Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestinian Authority.

In a recent interview to CNN, Netanyahu stated that his "chief diplomatic goal" would be to normalise diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. He said that Riyadh is inching towards normalisation anyway by permitting Israeli overflights in 2018. He underlined that the Saudi's overriding interest is defence against Iran.

Asked whether ultra-right anti-Arab parties in his coalition would be a liability, he said, "I decide the policy."

Arab leaders at a summit in Algiers glossed over their own divisions over relations with Israel and reiterated their support for a Palestinian state—something Netanyahu has steadfastly opposed—but made no reference to the election.

Given his long obsession with Iran, Netanyahu's return to power is more bad news for the Islamic republic and its nuclear deal negotiations, which is already hanging alongside the domestic turmoil engulfing the country.

The Israeli leader can increase pressure on the Joe Biden administration to intensify sanctions on Iran and scuttle the nuclear deal. He will also try to derail any US hopes for a more enlightened Israeli policy towards Palestine while pressuring Washington to help expand the Abraham accord.

For the US administration, the rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich raises dilemmas. While reserving final words until the actual formation of the government, the State Department spokesman Ned Price referred to both "shared interests" and "shared values" on which Israel-US relationship is based.

He hoped that "all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups."

As far as India is concerned, irrespective of who comes to power in Israel, the bilateral ties would continue to remain strong. India and Israel have strong trade and diplomatic ties. They are also partners in two trade groupings—a trilateral with UAE in the I2U2.

India-Israel bilateral merchandise trade grew from USD 200 million in 1992 to USD 7.86 billion during the financial year 20-21, with balance of trade being in India's favour.

Apart from defence trade, the two countries have also been engaged in defence technology cooperation. The symbol of their success is the Barak-8 missile defence system. Co-developed by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and India's Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), Barak-8 is available in land and maritime versions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shares close ties with Netanyahu, in his congratulatory message said he looked forward to continuing their joint efforts to deepen India-Israel strategic partnership.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal

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