On June 13, just as the government of Naftali Bennett commemorated its one year in office, it was on the verge of collapse. A week earlier, a Bill to extend Israel’s criminal law to West Bank settlers, which had been routinely passed earlier, failed to get approval, signifying the deep divide among the coalition partners that make up the government.
This coalition has brought together parties from the hard right, the centre, some left-wing groups, and, uniquely, an Arab party, Ra’am, that has an Islamist background. Prime Minister Bennett is from the right wing and was, till recently, the darling of extremist religious groups.
But Mr. Bennett’s anxiety to upstage former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led him to join this eight-member coalition that had a majority of one in the 120-member Knesset. Mr. Bennett will head the government for half its term, before making way for his partner, Foreign Minister Yasir Lapid, for the balance of the term.
Holding the coalition together is a daily challenge: on April 6, it lost its majority when Idit Silman, long affiliated with the religious right, defected to the opposition on the ground that the Jewish identity of the country was being jeopardised. The government then acquired minority status when an Arab member quit the coalition, but promised to support it in the House to prevent a hard right government replacing it. She later withdrew her resignation, but insisted that the Bennett government “be genuine and attentive to the Arab community”.
The Palestinian-Jewish divide has created turmoil in the country since April when, during the holy month of Ramadan, the two communities made the Al-Aqsa Mosque the locale for violent confrontations. There were further assaults exchanged between the two sides through to early May. Hardly had these died down when anger flared up again with what the Palestinians believe was the targeted killing of the Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, on May 11.
A Palestinian, Shireen had been reporting about events in her home region for nearly 30 years and had acquired an iconic status among Arabs across West Asia. The view across the region is that her killing has restored the Palestine issue to the global agenda.
Within two weeks, Israel was saddled with its next crisis — the annual flag march on May 29 to mark the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Last year, the march, that is largely made up of Jewish youth from the extreme right who provocatively pass through the Muslim quarter of the city, had led to an 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza and communal violence in Israel itself. This year, Mr. Bennett, taunted by his traditional right-wing cohorts as being soft on Arabs and weak before threats, felt politically compelled to approve the march.
Nearly 70,000 youth, led by Mr. Netanyahu, descended on Jerusalem, waving Israeli flags. Their popular slogans were “Death to Arabs”, “Let us burn down your villages” and “The Jewish nation lives”. Despite stringent security arrangements, several hundred of them broke into the Al-Aqsa Mosque — they planted Israeli flags, indulged in provocative dancing, and chanted Talmudic prayers.
Still, on June 12, following the defeat of the settlers’ bill, the leaders of the coalition parties described their government as “one of the best governments” and pledged that “we will not despair and we will not break”. But two days later, Mr. Bennett warned that the government had just “a week or two” to avoid collapse, after a member from his own party refused to back the coalition in the Knesset.
War and peace in West Asia
Iran remains in the sights of all Israeli governments, regardless of their political complexion. On May 22, Israel carried out the killing of an Iranian colonel from the Al Quds Force in Tehran. He was accused in the Israeli media of planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets, a charge that was deemed sufficient for Israel to be prosecutor, judge and executioner in a long line of assassinations of Iranian scientists and military personnel.
Israel’s Ministers are reported to be lobbying robustly in Washington against the revival of the nuclear agreement. Defence Minister Benny Gantz has even announced that Israel was planning to attack Iran’s nuclear sites in a couple of years. A major exercise, involving hundreds of aircraft, took place on June 2, to signal preparations for the proposed assault.
Expanding diplomatic and economic ties with neighbouring Arab states, without conceding anything to Palestinian aspirations, is another area of political consensus in Israel. In early April, Israel hosted a meeting of Arab foreign Ministers of countries that have normalised ties with it, which was attended by the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.
Since then, there are regular reports that ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are flourishing — a major trade agreement was signed on May 31 which will cover 96% of bilateral trade, amounting to about $1 billion, and could take trade to more than $10 billion within five years. However, the signing ceremony was abruptly closed to mediapersons as the UAE Foreign Ministry condemned Israeli violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque by “extremist settlers under the protection of Israeli forces”.
As the country lurches from crisis to crisis, the government is seen to be paralysed, with the Prime Minister floundering to keep control. He is constantly haunted by the spectre of Mr. Netanyahu calling on the coalition’s right-wing members to abandon “the weak and flaccid government” that is harming the country’s Jewish identity, and “return home”.
But the coalition is holding together because no member is keen on another election; they fear defeats if they do not deliver on issues that immediately matter to the populace battered by the novel coronavirus pandemic — welfare measures for poor families, support for small business, upgradation of national infrastructure. Even the Arab party is anxious to keep the coalition going to prevent the return of Mr. Netanyahu and, over time, increasingly integrate Arabs with the Israeli mainstream.
Israel’s principal focus is to normalise ties with Saudi Arabia amidst reports of clandestine interactions between political and security officials and the visit by a major Israeli business delegation to the kingdom. As the Americans attempt to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia in the context of the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, it is likely that the kingdom might see value in its ties with Israel to consolidate its position in Washington regardless of who resides in the White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom and Israel next month will focus on promoting formal ties between the two countries as part of mobilising a tough regional coalition against Iran, even as Israel continues its violence and aggression in the region with impunity. This seems to be the only route its leaders have found to keep themselves in power.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat