As Netanyahu loses power, what does it mean for India?
“Bibi dethroned”. This is the expression used in the Israeli media to describe the formation of a new Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government. Though Benjamin Netanyahu — known as Bibi — vowed to bring down the fragile government, endorsed by a wafer-thin majority of 60-59 (with one abstention) in the Knesset, the changeover marks the end of an era. Netanyahu was the longest-serving Prime Minister (PM) of Israel.
The ongoing tenure of PM Narendra Modi coincided with Bibi’s. As the 2014 Lok Sabha results were trickling in, Netanyahu was the first international figure to congratulate Modi on his impending sweep. Since then, both have been talking, meeting, hosting, greeting and tweeting at regular intervals.
During PM Modi’s July 2017 visit to Israel, Bibi broke protocol and skipped the Knesset proceedings to be a tour guide for the Indian visitor. Modi reciprocated when Bibi visited India in January 2018. Indeed, Bibi even used Modi’s image during his September 2019 election campaign and lamented his own difficulties in forming a government when Modi swept the 17th Lok Sabha elections.
Some of the key shifts in India’s position vis-à-vis Israel happened during the Bibi-Modi tenure — India’s abstentions in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) vote on Jerusalem and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) votes on the Gaza wars of 2014 and 2021; and the dropping of East Jerusalem as the capital of future Palestinian State. The display of bonhomie was also manifested in bilateral exchanges between presidents, PMs and officials. De-hyphenation was a hallmark of the Modi-Bibi relations when Modi undertook standalone visits to Israel and Palestine. The Covid-19 fight also brought both countries together.
While the basic parameters of the bilateral relations are strong, under the Bennett-Lapid government, there will be a lull, at least in public display. Bibi has dominated the Israeli political landscape since the early 1990s, and has not left office smoothly. In his last speech as PM, he pledged to topple the nascent government and return to office.
Since 2009, Bibi was synonymous with Israel and forged closer ties with leading personalities, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It will take time for Bennett to familiarise himself with world leaders. Moreover, given the coalition’s fragility and the competing interests of the partnering parties, he will have to spend considerable attention addressing social issues such as religious reform, economic upliftment of the Arab population, and enticing other parties to join or abstain during critical votes in the Knesset. Bennett will have less time for foreign relations.
Moreover, though Bennett served under Netanyahu during 2013-2020, he held portfolios such as religious affairs, education and diaspora affairs. His exposure to India will largely be confined to his six-month tenure at the defence ministry. Improving relations with the Joe Biden administration and slowing down, if not scuttling, the nuclear negotiations with Iran are his priorities.
Will Yair Lapid, who also holds the foreign ministry, have the time and inclination to continue the success of Netanyahu in forging closer ties with India and other countries? Interestingly, his father, Tommy Lapid, accompanied Ariel Sharon when the latter visited India in 2003. In the 1990s, the Indian embassy was lukewarm towards the opposition, but things will be better now and presumably, India forged ties with some of them before Monday’s changeover.
For over two decades when Likud was in power, Israel invested in promoting relations with the world, and this approach also benefitted India. The absence of any meaningful negotiation with the Palestinians enabled Israel to devote more attention to other countries. This has not been the case when a non-Likud government was in power. The Gaza crisis is a reminder of the urgency of the Palestinian track, and if the past pattern is an indication, the Bennett government will be preoccupied with negotiations with the Palestinians, which means lesser attention to India.
P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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