New Delhi-Tel Aviv ties on upswing, but shaky nature of new govt a concern
The start of Bennet’s tenure marks a new phase in India-Israel relations, which have been on the upswing in recent years
Naftali Bennett was sworn in on Sunday as Israel’s new prime minister, bringing to an end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign at the country’s helm.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Bennett on his ascension to power, saying that he looked forward to meeting him and deepening their countries’ strategic partnership.
Modi also conveyed his ‘profound gratitude’ to Benjamin Netanyahu, thanking him for his ‘personal attention’ to bilateral ties.
The start of Bennet’s tenure marks a new phase in India-Israel relations, which have been on the upswing in recent years. However, the change of guard is unlikely to radically change bilateral ties, with the shaky nature of the ruling coalition in Israel likely to be among the aspects New Delhi will need to keep an eye on.
Who is Naftali Bennett?
Bennett, a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur, made his political name with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric. However, he heads an improbable coalition put together by centrist Yair Lapid, with a razor-thin majority.
The coalition deal sees Bennett, an estranged former protege of Netanyahu, serve first as prime minister in a rotation deal, before Lapid takes over after two years, as reported by AFP.
Bennett is opposed to Palestinian independence and strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians and much of the international community see as a major obstacle to peace.
The 49-year old is a former defence minister and one-time special forces commando. He briefly served as head of the West Bank settler’s council, Yesha, before entering the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in 2013. Bennett later served as cabinet minister of diaspora affairs, education and defense in various Netanyahu-led governments.
Bennett shares Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to the West Asia conflict, but the two have had tense relations over the years, as noted by the Associated Press.
Possible impact on India
Ties between India and Israel have improved greatly in the past few decades. New Delhi established full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 1992, during the tenure of PV Narasimha Rao.
Later, between 2012 and 2016, Israeli exports to India saw a period of sustained growth. In this period, India was the client for 41 percent of these exports, as per an article in Hindustan Times.
On 4 July, 2017, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, marking 25 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
It is important to note that Bennett held important positions in the Israeli government throughout this period. From 2013 to 2015, he was the country’s Minister for Economy and from 2013 and 2019, he also held the portfolio of Minister for Diaspora Affairs. More recently, from 2019 to 2020, he was Israel’s defence minister. Thus, this gives reason for hope that the positive trend for the ties between the two countries will continue.
Further, in the past few years, India has more unequivocally pushed for closer relations with Israel. A 2017 article in Firstpost by Prakash Nanda noted that while the BJP-led government openly justifies its deepening of ties with Israel, the Congress “did so ‘privately’ and took every care not to be seen publicly with Israeli leaders and officials.’
Further, under the Modi government, the Centre has sought to de-hyphen India’s ties with Israel with ties with the Arab countries and Iran.
The one concern that India may have for the near future is the shaky nature of the new government.
The diverse anti-Netanyahu bloc was cobbled together by the secular centrist Yair Lapid, a former TV presenter.
It spans the political spectrum, with three right-wing, two centrist and two left-wing parties, and even an Arab Islamic conservative party.
The improbable alliance emerged weeks after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and following inter-communal violence in Israeli cities with significant Arab populations.
However, the new government has provided some closure to a long political impasse in Israel, which saw four elections in two years. India would be watching the developments in the country and the region with keen interest.
With inputs from agencies