Save for the brief episodes of the Rabin and Barak governments, the Israeli Right has been in power since 1977, on its own or in partnership with Labor. In the 70s and 80s the right- and left-wing blocs were relatively balanced, but over the past 15 years the Likud, along with all its various off-shoot parties, has been the unchallenged, dominant force in the Israeli political system. In this process, 2015 will probably be remembered as a key year. The Right is in the driver’s seat, alone.
Twelve months ago some people believed the tide had turned. The Gaza war ended, and despite all the destruction Israel left in the Strip, things looked pretty similar to where they stood before Operation Protective Edge. A wave of protest was being waged in East Jerusalem once again. Most importantly, there seemed to be a genuine sense of fatigue from Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership and the imperial style it has taken in recent years. An uncharismatic Labor leader, Isaac Herzog, was rising in the polls. Netanyahu’s greatest asset has been the status quo – the sense of tranquility and prosperity Israelis enjoyed despite the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue – but things seemed different in the winter of 2014. International pressure was mounting and violence began claiming the lives of Israelis once again.
Faced with those challenges, some thought Netanyahu would change course. Instead, he chose to double down. On the eve of the elections, the Israeli prime minister took his battle against the Obama administration to Washington. Back home, he fanned the flames of Israel’s culture war and mobilized his base with talks of a “leftist takeover.” On Election Day, he posted a video in which he warned Jewish Israelis that Arabs were “voting in droves.”
Netanyahu later suffered some criticism for his words, but his fear and hate tactics worked. The Right won in a landslide victory, with 67 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats going to right-wing or Orthodox parties. The Likud received close to a million votes — and 30 seats. If it hadn’t been for a radical right-wing party that didn’t make the election threshold of 4 percent, the results would have been more one-sided.
Yet the Likud’s victory wasn’t as important as the way it won the elections. This was a violent campaign — including unseen-before incitement against left-wing Jews and Arabs. It wasn’t only that the Right didn’t pay a price for it — those tactics actually paid off. The most vocal populists became instant celebrities. Controversial Likud Minister Miri Regev won the culture portfolio, and began threatening to cut funding to institutions that produce or present left-wing content. Under the new education minister, Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, school books are being re-written in a way that emphasizes the “Jewishness” of the state and makes democracy and respect for minorities mere policy options. Radical Likud MK Danny Danon, who campaigned on a promise to deal with Israel’s Arab MKs, became the country’s new ambassador at the UN. Suddenly everything was permissible, because that was will of the people, it seemed. Even if the government were to collapse somehow, the Likud will only grow stronger in the next elections.
Earlier this year, the government outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement – one of the larger Palestinian political movements in Israel. Right-wing lawmakers are now trying to ban the secular Balad party as well, or at least some of its elected members of Knesset.
Outside parliament, the political atmosphere became even more toxic. Right-wing group Im Tirzu – known for its strong ties to several politicians in the government – launched a public campaign featuring the names and faces of several prominent human rights advocates (including an attorney who defends Palestinians in Israeli courts) whom it called “foreign agents.” A watchdog organization founded by IDF veterans, called Breaking the Silence, became the target of a national smear campaign; Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon were among those who spoke out publicly against the organization. The political space in which the Left is allowed to exist is narrowing rapidly. Schools and army units were ordered not to have any contact with Breaking the Silence and other human rights organizations; other organizations had tax exemptions revoked and national service programs targeted. In Be’er Sheva, Israeli police preemptively ordered that a Breaking the Silence event not take place, citing “public safety.” Several human rights organizations have hired guards to protect their offices.
As 2015 ends, the Left is isolated, and the radical Right is roaming up and down the corridors of power. In December, The Forward reported that the mother and lawyer of a Jewish terrorism suspect were able to secure a meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. A few days later, Shaked scored a major victory when a bill she sponsored targeting human rights NGOs was voted through a key legislative committee. According to Shaked’s new draft law, organizations that receive the majority of their funding from foreign governments will need to wear special badges while speaking or holding meetings in the Knesset, and their sources of funding will need to appear prominently in every paper and report they publish.
Those are not necessarily coordinated moves, seeing as the Right is more than a political force in Israeli at the moment. The Right is the zeitgeist. Progressives and Palestinian citizens of Israel are finding themselves more and more isolated as the political center adopts the Right’s worldview and political platform. There is not better example of the transformation than Yair Lapid. Lapid, who entered the previous Knesset on a platform that promised to reduce the cost of living and empower the country’s middle class, recently anointed himself the Netanyahu government’s unofficial foreign minister. His Facebook page’s header urges supporters “to join us in the battle against the BDS’s movement’s lies,” and he has conducted a media blitz in Europe to the same effect. Lapid also attacked the Iran deal, as did Labor’s Herzog. Herzog also supported outlawing the Islamic Movement and has even criticized Netanyahu for not taking harsher measures against the Palestinians in the wake of the stabbing attacks, going so far as suggesting Netanyahu place the entire West Bank under military closure.
These men, let’s remember, are the leaders of the opposition. While continuing to compete with the Right over power, budgets and other political positions, they have adopted the Likud’s worldview: namely, that Israel is not to blame for perpetuating the occupation, that the world should recognize and accept Israel’s claims in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (the so-called settlement blocs) even without a peace agreement; that there is “no partner for peace”; that criticism of Israel is a new form of anti-Semitism; that the Iran deal betrayed Israel; that Palestinian narratives and Palestinian political movements can be banned from the Israeli public sphere, and that certain kinds of politics, and certain ideas, should not be tolerated because they put the Jewish State at risk.
Just like the old Labor movement used to compete with the satellite parties that split off from and rejoined it in the 1950s and 60s, the real political competition facing the Likud leaders comes from politicians and parties that were born from within its own ranks: Moshe Kahlon, Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennet (Netanyahu’s old chief of staff) – and before them, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. Each and every one of them comes from the same ideological and political breeding ground; they might be in a horse race for power but they tend to hold a very similar world view.
Three years ago, +972 Magazine chose “The Settler” as the person of the year. We argued that 2012 was the year the settlers “arrived” by claiming their place in all of Israel’s leading institutions, from the Supreme Court to the media. And if the Right has taken over Israel, the settlers — as an ideological and political pressure group distinct from the revisionist Jabotinsky followers who formed the Likud — have the reins over the right-wing camp. Ironically, Netanyahu is one of the few remaining leaders of the old revisionist elite who remain in power.
The narrowing of the political space allocated to the Left in Israel goes hand in hand with the expansion of the occupation. What used to be the settlers’ vision is now the everyday reality. We have entered the era of the one-state solution, only it is not a democratic political vision. Israel now stretches from the river to the sea. In that plot of land, Jews have all the rights and Palestinians are divided into sub categories, governed in different ways but under one unifying principle. They are never equal. Their presence is tolerated, but not much more.
Yet this very vision is also the heart of the Right’s failure. The Palestinians are real. The Left is not the source of unrest or pressure on Israel — that comes from the immoral, unsustainable reality on the ground. The government has no answer for international pressure and isolation, which is slowly, but surely, growing. Nor does it have any idea how to deal with the growing unrest in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Right has no idea how to answer those challenges, which also happen to be the source of its strength. That is the tragedy of the current moment. The Right is not prolonging the occupation, it’s the other way around. The failure to end the occupation is the Right’s source of power, and both will continue to strengthen each other in an ever-escalating downward spiral. What is happening in Israel in 2015 is no ordinary political tug of war. The system, it seems, is completely off balance. It has lost its ability to self-correct.