BY ZAHOOR AHMAD MIR
Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel's prime minister for the sixth time, marking his return to the position at the head of a hard-right cabinet that pledges to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and pursue other policies criticised at home and abroad.
Since his coalition of nationalist and religious parties won a majority in parliament in elections held in November 2022, the 73-year-old political veteran, who is currently on trial for bribery, fraud, graft and breach of trust accusations, has sought to allay fears for the future of civil rights and diplomacy.
The Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties, both of whose heads are West Bank settlers, are among his allies. They both have shared opposition to Palestinian independence and have advocated for the suppression of Israel's Arab minority and LGBT rights in the past.
Given the escalating violence and the planned growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, one of the places where the Palestinians aspire to establish a future state, Netanyahu's slate has only worsened the already gloomy prognosis for them.
Bezalel Smotrich (in the past, has protested against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and criticised LGBTQ activists and the court system for being too liberal) will now be in charge of Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. At the same time, Itamar Ben-Gvir (guilty of inciting hatred and violence against Arabs in 2007) will be in command of the police, which is also present in the area that Israel has been occupying since 1967, as minister of national security. They are regarded as having a desire for power, and their top priority is the growth of settlements in the West Bank.
In its policies for the government, Netanyahu's hard-line Likud party stated that it would "encourage and develop settlement" in areas where “the Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable claim.” This indicates that the process of annexation and expansion will continue to take place. The United States, which was supposed to be harsh on this government, has desired to work with this new government for two reasons; Iran and regional peace.
Restoring this far-right government signals a radical change in domestic policy and the stance taken toward the Palestinians. According to the coalition agreement, this administration will pursue extreme right-wing policies, such as expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, remaking the judicial system by giving more power to parliament over courts, and amending the fundamental law to make it easier for extremists to run for office.
Many leaders and academics worry that the country is backsliding towards a Jewish theocracy. Israel's new coalition might gain support from other authoritarian or far-right governments, but this would weaken ties with the free world as a whole. Paralysis and instability at home, as well as external threats to essential institutions like the court, strain its democracy.
With a new far-right coalition, it has joined a growing club of democracies being cannibalised by extremist groups, placing the country in even greater danger. Benny Gantz, the departing defence minister, expressed concern over the "extreme tendency" of the next administration, saying, "I worry that if the government acts in an imprudent way, it might generate a security escalation."
Even while building diplomatic ties with Gulf nations in the last few years, the current government's policies may have ramifications for them. Much will depend on how aggressive and provocative this new government is.
Even in Gulf governments that have moved closer to Israel, Al Aqsa remains a flashpoint issue in the Middle East. King Abdullah II of Jordan recently stated in an interview with CNN that he is "prepared to enter into a fight" if Israel attempts, as some coalition members expect, to change the status of a Jerusalem holy site (Al Aqsa).
Even before forming the government, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister Bin Zayed reportedly had cautioned that the participation of radical lawmakers in Netanyahu's government ran the risk of jeopardising relations with the UAE as well as the Abraham Accords in general. Due to the identity of this government, Turkey may opt to provoke a new conflict with Israel.
Netanyahu, however, has stated that he hopes to achieve a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has not indicated a change in its stance that any progress with Israel depended on establishing a Palestinian state. In 2020, Netanyahu established diplomatic ties with other Gulf nations that share Israel's concerns about Iran. Netanyahu has also expressed the desire to "extend the circle of peace with Arab countries" in the wake of normalisation pacts with Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. mediated.
Regional politics in the Middle East, driven by the Gulf states, were gradually evolving toward a condition in which Iran was marginalised, and Israel was acknowledged. In this context, Israel will endanger the situation and force other states to reassess their position. This arrival will have a profound effect on Middle East politics.
When this government is in power, it will be difficult for Muslim countries to conduct business as usual with Israel. In the wake of the West Bank annexation, which forms part of the new government formation settlement, outcomes of the Abraham agreements, the West Asian Quad, and other normative processes would be interesting to watch out for.
It will be interesting to see how the major powers of west Asia, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, take up the hegemonic geopolitical game in the Middle East in light of Israel's new far-right administration and continued regional rivalry.
As a result of the new Israeli government's changes, the Biden administration can expect to be pushed significantly more frequently out of its comfort zone on this topic. The recent episode bears witness to this fact.
Less than a week into its tenure, Israel's new far-right government has already gotten itself into its first major international issue.
The new Israeli national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, spent 15 minutes at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on Tuesday, 03 January 2023, which houses both the Temple Mount (the holiest site in Judaism) and Al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest site in Islam), also known as Haram al-Sharif.
Israel got its most far-right, religiously conservative government in history recently. Drawing condemnation from nearly all neighbouring nations, including the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The politics of West Asia have entered a new phase that may be crucial for straightening past lineages and inclinations. Time alone will reveal what transpires.
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The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.