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Israel’s new coalition takes first steps, including mending fences with US

In this May 10, 2021, file photo, Israelis waved national flags during a Jerusalem Day parade, in Jerusalem. Israel’s new government on Monday approved a contentious parade by Israeli nationalists through Palestinian areas around Jerusalem's Old City, setting the stage for possible renewed confrontations just weeks after an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
In this May 10, 2021, file photo, Israelis waved national flags during a Jerusalem Day parade, in Jerusalem. Israel’s new government on Monday approved a contentious parade by Israeli nationalists through Palestinian areas around Jerusalem's Old City, setting the stage for possible renewed confrontations just weeks after an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israel’s fragile new coalition government gave a first glimpse of its priorities Monday, as ministers announced intentions to repair Israeli ties with the US Democratic Party and the Jewish diaspora, investigate a disaster at a religious site last month that killed 45, and permit a far-right march through Jerusalem on Tuesday that some fear will lead to violence.

The raft of initiatives highlighted the complexities and contradictions of the new coalition, which replaced Benjamin Netanyahu’s government Sunday night in a confidence vote in Parliament that passed by just a single vote: 60 votes to 59, with one abstention. The coalition is an unlikely alliance of the hard right, the left, and the center, as well as — for the first time in Israeli history — an independent Arab party.

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The coalition’s announcements Monday also underscored how its policies diverge from Netanyahu’s on some issues but continue his approach to others.

In his first major speech in office, the new foreign minister, Yair Lapid, promised Monday to revive Israel’s relationship with American Democrats. That bond frayed under Netanyahu, who antagonized former president Barack Obama; befriended his Republican successor, Donald Trump; and then used his last speech in office Sunday to blast President Biden as being dangerous for Israel.

“The outgoing government took a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous, to focus exclusively on the Republican Party and abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing,” Lapid said in a speech to foreign ministry officials.

Lapid added: “We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate, and House, and they are angry. We need to change the way we work with them.”

He also promised to strengthen ties with Jews overseas, instead of relying primarily on the support of evangelical Christians, who formed a key focus of Netanyahu’s international outreach.

“The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heartwarming, but the Jewish people are more than allies, they are family,” Lapid said. “Jews from all streams — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — are our family.”

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The new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, expressed opposition Sunday toward US-led efforts to restore a lapsed Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran. But he also thanked Biden for his support for Israel, and spoke with him soon after taking office.

Separately, Benny Gantz, the defense minister, issued a formal call for a commission of inquiry into a stampede at a holy Jewish site on Mt. Meron, northern Israel, in early May, which killed 45 worshippers. The move marked a clear divergence from Netanyahu, whose government depended on the support of ultra-Orthodox politicians and did not call for an investigation for fear of angering them.

But the new government also seemed set to stick to a commitment made in the final days of Netanyahu’s administration: the decision to permit a far-right Jewish march through Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which critics fear could lead to a violent escalation with Hamas.

The march is a rescheduled version of a procession originally planned for last month that was among the reasons that Hamas cited for firing rockets toward Jerusalem on May 10, setting off an 11-day air war between the group and Israel.

On Monday, Hamas vowed to respond if the march was allowed to go ahead, raising the specter of either renewed rocket fire or confrontations between Palestinian residents and Jewish marchers.

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Despite the warning, the new public security minister, Omer Bar-Lev, who now oversees the Israeli police, promised Monday to push ahead with the event, also known as a “flags march.”

“At this moment, the plan is the flags march will be taking place,” Bar-Lev said. “Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital. In a democracy, it is permitted and it is important to hold demonstrations and marches like these, as long as they are in accordance with the law.”

His words were provocative to many Palestinians, who — along with much of the international community — view East Jerusalem as occupied territory and do not consider it Israeli.

But Bar-Lev’s office left open the possibility that the marchers might be asked to process along a less provocative route. It said the minister would decide later Monday about whether to refer the decision about the procession to a group of senior Cabinet ministers. Those ministers would then be briefed by intelligence officials before making a final call.

Hamas threatened violence if the march went ahead.

“The so-called flags march that is slated to be carried out tomorrow by groups of settlers will be tantamount to setting off an explosion in a new battle to defend Jerusalem,” a Hamas spokesman, Abdel Latif al-Qanou, told reporters in Gaza.

The planned march posed an unwelcome dilemma for the coalition barely 12 hours after it succeeded Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader.

If the government reroutes the march, it risks the wrath of its right-wing members, who would consider that a capitulation to terrorists and could even resign, directly threatening the coalition. If the government sticks to the plan, it will anger its leftist and Islamist factions, some of whom have already expressed their opposition to it.

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The choices underscored the frailties of the new coalition, which few commentators believe will last a full term.

To avoid unnecessary rifts, the coalition leaders — Bennett and Lapid — have pledged to focus on rebuilding the economy and improving infrastructure, and to steer clear of divisive questions like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett is a former settler leader who opposes Palestinian sovereignty and supports settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. Some of the members of his unlikely new government, however, seek an end to the Israeli occupation and support a Palestinian state.

The dilemma faced by the Bennett government Monday showed how difficult these irreconcilable differences will be to ignore, even with the best of intentions. Later this month, further tensions are expected over pending decisions about whether to close a new unauthorized settlement in the West Bank, or to restore the delivery of Qatari financial aid to Gaza, a process suspended during the recent conflict.

Publicly, the new government projected an image of unity Monday morning, as its ministers gathered at the residence of the largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, for a formal photograph with the head of state. Bennett also met briefly later in the day with Netanyahu for a formal handover in private, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

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