Israel’s new government starts work with a heavy agenda

Israeli right-wing activists hold signs showing Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the Yamina party during a demonstration in Tel Aviv (Sebastian Scheiner - AP)

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  June 15, 2021

Israel’s 36th government has been sworn in and ministers have to start work immediately. After four elections in two years, they have some urgent tasks to focus on. Thorny issues include budgets, priorities and new policies.

The Ministry of Defence faces the most burning issues. Although Benny Gantz also led this ministry in the previous government, in order to move forward he needs to make some reassessments, especially in terms of the policy towards Gaza. The security situation needs to be reset, and the territory has to be reconstructed. Moreover, there is the issue of the missing persons and soldiers detained by Hamas.

Further afield, Gantz needs to focus on drafting clear policies towards Iran and its nuclear project and tackling the outlines of the military procurement agreement, most of which are devoted to the air force. The defence minister will have to put even more pressure on the US for a new arms deal.

His Blue and White Party integrated a multi-year plan into the coalition agreement, which the army desperately needs. It requires cooperation between the finance and defence ministries. This could mean a dispute is in the offing because, according to estimates, the finance ministry will demand a significant reduction in the military budget, especially after shortening the duration of compulsory military service. This will help the economy significantly, despite Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s opposition to budget cuts.

The Ministry of Public Security is required to maintain calm in Palestinian towns and cities within Israel. It is to be run by Omer Bar-Lev, who will seek to reduce tension between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities while fighting crime in the Arab community and violence against women. He must also address the growing loss of public trust in the police. A significant increase in the police budget will be sought to provide more officers and have them better equipped.

According to Haaretz, Bar-Lev has given the green light for the controversial Flag March to go ahead today, Tuesday. This was something left pending by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government postponed the right-wing march due to security concerns. With a route planned to go through the occupied Old City of Jerusalem towards Al-Aqsa Mosque, the march could be a flashpoint, and Hamas has already warned of possible repercussions. The Biden administration in Washington is not at all in favour of this march under the present circumstances and has let Israel know this.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will seek an urgent meeting with the US president to discuss extremely sensitive issues, including the nuclear deal with Iran, the Palestinian file and the settlements. Like Netanyahu, he is expected to oppose America’s rejoining of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran.

Bennett will be asked to make a quick decision on the appointment of the next head of the internal security agency, Shin Bet, with Nadav Argaman due to step down in September. The future of National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, whom Netanyahu wanted to appoint as head of Shin Bet, is also under review. Gantz opposed his move to the agency, and it is unlikely that Bennett will let him replace Argaman.

The new Israeli government is taking office at a time when there is the potential for some explosive events in the Palestinian scene which could prompt another round of violence. There is the Flag March, of course, as well as the removal of the West Bank settlement outpost that has already provoked violence between Arabs and Jews. Netanyahu ordered the postponement of the eviction scheduled for this week until next Thursday. It is possible that a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court on the matter will result in delaying but not cancelling this move.

Dozens of settlers have already built permanent residences in the outpost (settlement outposts are illegal, even under Israeli law) and are connected to the electricity and water networks. If the authorities fail to reach an agreement with them, they will be evacuated by force. In light of the fact that major clashes and demonstrations have taken place near the outpost, in which a 15-year-old Palestinian protester was killed, this is a major challenge for the new government and may be a marker for how it will tackle similar issues in the future.

Defence Minister Gantz, meanwhile, has already approved the updating of the target bank in Gaza and agreed on possible responses if tension rises and Israel launches another offensive. The government is also expected to reply to the Egyptian proposal to hold a conference in Cairo attended by officials from Israel, Hamas, Egypt and the United States.

It is important to note in this context that the Palestinians in Gaza have not received any assistance since the end of the recent military assault. The fishing zone off the coast has not been extended and more humanitarian aid is needed; the siege is still intact. This could lead to unrest in the territory and expose the Hamas leadership to more domestic pressure to escalate the situation with Israel militarily.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza