By Kabir Taneja
In what has become a frustrating cycle and often a topic of mockery amongst Israeli citizens, the country conducted its fifth general election in four years to, once again, try and choose a stable political leadership that can survive for the foreseeable future. Staying true to the twists and turns of Israeli politics, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved towards victory with his coalition of far-right politicians and parties even as accusations of corruption remain attached with his previous tenure in power as the country’s longest serving leader. Over the next few weeks, Netanyahu will have the hard task of stitching together a government that will have a good chance of surviving headwinds in the coming months.
Netanyahu is a quintessential political eternal, waiting in the shadows over the past few years as politician after politician came and failed, testing the patience of voters who dealt with patchwork governments led by Naftali Bennet and later Yair Lapid. The return of Netanyahu, much like most of his other tenures, will come with a significant set of challenges and a very heavy weight around his neck, that of pacifying his far-right sponsors and those who voted for them. The kingmaker amongst those has been Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which managed to put up a good show in the polls. Ben-Gvir, in a Netanyahu-led coalition, is being expected to ask for Israel’s interior ministry, controlling the police and internal security matters.
The pendulum of Israeli politics in the recent past has been frantic. In 2021, Israeli Arab parties were seen as kingmakers of the eight-party wide coalition, which gave shared leadership responsibility to Bennet and Lapid. It only took one year for the pendulum to sway completely the other way, bringing in the far-right, which remains against larger roles played by Israeli Arabs, to become the kingmakers instead. Reports of the US, Israel’s main security partner, not being keen to work with figures such as Ben-Gvirstarted making the rounds even before Lapid conceded defeat.
Netanyahu returns at a contested time not just regionally in West Asia, but internationally, as Russia’s war on Ukraine punctures multiple holes in the global order, European foreign policy, the debate around a recession of American power, whilst elevating a new era of Great Power competition, this time between the US and China. From a regional perspective, Netanyahu had delivered the Abraham Accords prior to his leaving office, a historic deal that formalised ties between Israel and a significant section of the Arab world, on the back of a shared threat from Iran.
Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia—the latter choosing to remain outside the Accords for now as they are enemies on paper but pragmatists in practice—worked under the presidency of Donald Trump to consolidate both their own domestic power and further solidify an American security architecture around it. To this end, the coming of President Joe Biden’s administration in 2021 was interpreted as a setback by both states as Biden had criticised Mohammed Bin Salman and was intent to re-negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump had unceremoniously exited from in 2018, three years after it was signed in Vienna, Austria. All these moves by Trump in the region were enthusiastically supported by both the Saudis and the Israelis, and both, once again, hope to see a Republican White House in 2024.
However, in the beginning, Netanyahu’s challenge will be to balance his center-right credentials with those of his new accomplices in the far and ultra-right categories to maintain an ‘acceptable’ relationship with the West. On contentious issues such as Iran, however, Netanyahu may find it easier in the coming months to navigate Biden’s policies as the US comes close to accepting the fact that a return to the nuclear deal may not be achievable anytime in the near future, considering acts against Iranian power centers on the back of a largely women-led protest movement—that has continued to simmer for over 50 days now, much longer than many had anticipated—continue to increase. This has solidified a mood against any compromises being offered to Tehran to achieve a deal. Furthermore, the issue of Palestine may get flared up again after an intense escalation took place in May 2021, specifically if significant capacities of internal security in the new government is handed over to representatives from the far-right and the ultra-Orthodox.
Finally, the return of Netanyahu is, perhaps, good news for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shared a special friendship with the Israeli politician. While India–Israel ties continued at a brisk pace under both Bennet and Lapid alike, the infamous Modi–Netanyahu bonhomie may add a spring to the heels of a bilateral built on convergence of national interests between both states, and ideological commonalities both from political and theological perspectives between Religious Zionism, ultra-Orthodoxy and Hindu nationalist ecosystems that have often overlapping broad ideas on state building and nationalism.
However, for India, while the political canvas with Netanyahu makes for a good picture of its ties with Israel, it is economic cooperation that has taken poll position in its global engagement aims. While economic and trade cooperation have lacked panache over the years despite the cinematic PR around the leaderships, New Delhi has significantly altered its economic course since the Galwan crisis with China which began in 2020. This is a reality that Netanyahu may have to adjust to quickly, and the era of mere political platitudes may be, or hopefully has been, left behind.