On 13 June, a momentous vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, saw the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year grip of the premiership and the ascension of his former protégé, Naftali Bennett. Bennett, the leader of the right-wing party Yamina, will serve as Israel’s prime minister until 2023 under a rotation agreement forged as part of a coalition ranging across the political spectrum. The coalition includes the left-wing party Meretz, centrists Yesh Atid and Arab party Ra’am. The latter’s presence will be the first time in Israeli history that an Arab party has been part of a coalition government.
In terms of their political goals, the new coalition has little in common despite a shared desire to keep Netanyahu out of power. The controversial now-former prime minister is facing trial for corruption charges and has been at the head of several unstable governments, as the country has been jarred by political paralysis induced by four inconclusive elections in the space of two years. Netanyahu, who will now return to the backbenches, has warned that the broad nature of the coalition and its slender majority of 61 out of 120 seats will only continue the country’s political deadlock.
However, his successor is not without his own controversies. Bennett served in the Sayeret Matkal, the elite commando unit of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and during a conflict with Hezbollah in 1996, he ordered an artillery barrage that struck a United Nations refugee compound, killing 106 Lebanese civilians and injuring a further 116 along with 4 Fijian UN peacekeepers. After leaving the military, Bennett became a multi-millionaire by selling his lucrative tech businesses, before becoming Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and then later serving in his cabinet.
As Israel has not had one since the two year-deadlock began, passing a budget along with a stimulus package will be one of the key aims of the new government. Bennett has also previously indicated that he is strongly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and supports the annexation of parts of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements, a highly contentious issue that sparked a major bout of violence in May.
The violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated last month following a dispute over land in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Jerusalem District Court ruled that several Palestinian families, who had already been made refugees during the 1948 conflict, must vacate their homes to make way for a Jewish settlement. The eviction notices caused an eruption of Palestinian protests, and Israeli settlers and police forces responded by attacking the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. The violence escalated a step further when Hamas, the Islamist militant group and de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip, began launching rockets into Israel. Although the majority of which were intercepted by the Israeli military’s air defence system, the Iron Dome, 13 Israelis were killed. Israel reacted by launching a heavy bombardment of Gaza, with a series of airstrikes. According to UN estimates, over 250 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have died since violence erupted.
Despite the eventual agreement of a ceasefire, just three days after the new government was sworn, the IDF launched a fresh round of airstrikes into the Palestinian territories after Hamas launched incendiary balloons across the border. This came after the new government approved a provocative march by Israeli nationalists which culminated in clashes with Palestinian protestors.
Despite this, Bennett will want to avoid a repeat of the extent of the violence witnessed in May, which has shone a glaring spotlight on the asymmetrical nature of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the injustices of the occupation. It has also sparked a renewed interest by the international community in resolving the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. In a marked shift from past outbreaks of violence many lawmakers in the US, UK and EU – key allies of Israel in the conflict – have questioned the extent of the force used by the Israeli military in response to rockets fired by Hamas.
By Jack Seal