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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

An opening in West Asia

New governments in Israel, Iran may provide room for negotiation for Palestinians.


Updated: July 25, 2021 3:06:15 pm
Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (Photo: Reuters/File Photo)

Written by: Chetan Rana

In 1953, Stalin passed away, and, in the US, Dwight D Eisenhower replaced Harry Truman. These simultaneous changes across the two poles of the Cold War created a brief warming of relations. This allowed the settling of the Indo-China conflict. Similarly, over the years, the changes at the helm of competing states have had significant consequences for their region. West Asia, and particularly Palestine, today finds itself at such a point. Naftali Bennett has replaced Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years. While in Iran, Ebrahim Raisi will replace the reformist administration of Rouhani. However, unlike in 1953, the hope for peace is marginal.

Israel has gone through four elections since 2019. Finally, Bennett and Ya’ir Lapid led an eclectic “change coalition” to replace Netanyahu. Lapid is expected to take over from Bennett in the middle of the term.

The change coalition is made up of eight parties that range from Bennett’s far-right Yamina to the Arab Ra’am to the left-wing Meretz. This will be the first time an Arab party will be part of the government. Given the ideological diversity within the coalition and the fact that the will to make the government is the only common agenda, the coalition shall face a constant existential crisis.

The fragility and diversity of the alliance have two major consequences. First, the ability to shape domestic policy would be greater than the ability to change foreign policy as the opinions within the coalition diverge wildly over foreign policy issues. Second, the need to survive shall result in actions that feed populist frenzies. Further, Netanyahu’s long tenure means that many of his policies have been institutionalised within the governance and policymaking framework.

Ebrahim Raisi, the current Chief Justice of Iran, will take over as the president on August 3. Raisi’s victory has drawn varying reactions from across the world. He will be the first Iranian president to take office with sanctions already imposed on him. The election itself has come under question. The Guardian Council (made up of six jurists and six clerics) ruled out most of the reformist candidates. Further, this election marked the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution. Raisi won roughly 62 per cent of the 48.8 per cent votes polled. Blank votes came in second at 14 per cent.

Raisi had contested and lost the presidential elections in 2017. He was then appointed the Chief Justice in 2019. He was a clear favourite even before the votes were polled. Raisi has a long and controversial association with the clergy and the Supreme Leader. He started out as a prosecutor right after the 1979 revolution and was appointed to the infamous “death commission” after the Iran-Iraq war. While the local protests and resistance from citizens may continue, the fundamentalists have for now captured the power and all the institutions.

The Palestinian conflict, out of the international limelight, flared up again after the Israeli police brutality and forced eviction at Sheikh Jarrah and consequent missile exchanges between Hamas and Israeli forces. It was also a reminder that Hamas is the most popular organisation amongst Palestinians. While the Joe Biden administration in the US made a meek attempt to call for peace, a ceasefire was achieved on May 21. The new developments have provided an opportunity for the Palestinians to push louder for their long-standing cause.

Iran has been one of the strongest supporters of Palestinian statehood since the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, Iran broke formal ties with Israel and even symbolically handed over the keys of the Israeli embassy in Tehran to the Palestinian delegates. Ayatollah Khamenei rejects the two-state solution and endorses the creation of a Palestinian state. Over the years, this policy had shifted. Former Iran President Mahmood Ahmadinejad indicated the possible coexistence of Israel and Palestine. However, the strengthening of the clergy in Iran after the election means that Khameini’s position may become strong again. In May, Raisi called out Israel for attempting to implement Donald Trump’s proposed “deal of the century” plan. He has publicly called for the liberation of Quds (Jerusalem) and commended Hamas for its action against Israel after the Sheikh Jarrah incident. The new power consolidation in Iran may lead to extending more military and financial support to Hamas. However, it is the Israeli government’s position that could well shape the Palestinian struggle.

Netanyahu opposed the Oslo process before coming to power and undermined it after becoming the PM in 2009. Israeli settlements gradually expanded during his tenure. During this period, Hamas replaced Fatah, the largest constituent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as the most popular organisation in Palestine.

Bennett advocates an even more belligerent stand vis a vis Palestinian demands. He has been a strong supporter of the settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem and has argued for the full annexation of Palestine. However, he may be constrained to carry out his plans due to the fragility of the coalition. The presence of Arab Ra’am and Meretz opens the ground for negotiations between Palestine and the Israeli government.

The Palestinian struggle will strengthen in the days to come. So will Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority President, has publicly claimed that he is open to working with the new government even though he is sceptical of the new PM. The ball is in Israel’s court.

The writer is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation, and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University 

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