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Don't believe the hype: The Israeli right is weaker than it seems

The right had a decade to annex the West Bank, quash Palestinian aspirations, and thwart Hamas in Gaza. Yet today, more than ever, its invincibility is anything but certain.

By Meron Rapoport

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, MK David Bitan, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a Knesset plenum session, December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, MK David Bitan, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a Knesset plenum session, December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The past decade belonged to the Israeli right. Since 2009, the right-wing bloc easily defeated its opponents and won elections, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became its undisputed leader and the most important political figure in Israel. In the past six years, the Jewish Home party — the rightmost mainstream political party — has held key posts in the government.

Political commentators are in near-total agreement that a solidly right-wing government will be formed after the upcoming elections, set to take place in early April. Even commentators identified with the liberal left say they have no doubt Netanyahu and the right will win. I doubt they are genuinely convinced of these predictions; rather, there are trying to avoid being seen as esoteric and out of touch with the people, as those who forecast a defeat for the right usually are.

It is true that the current polls show a clear advantage for the right. The ruling Likud party and Jewish Home win 40 Knesset seats, and just over 50 if you add the ultra-Orthodox parties. The left bloc, if we include the Zionist Union, is currently polling at 30 seats. Centrist parties and public figures such as Yesh Atid, Benny Gantz, Orly Levy, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party are making every effort to shake off any attempt to brand them as left or center-left. Those who believe there is no point in talking about a center-left camp are right.

But the question is whether such political coherence exists on the right as well. The local elections, which took place less than two months ago, showed the nationalist camp is weaker than we tend to think. In Jerusalem, a right-wing city, the right almost lost its rule to a liberal camp that ran on a strong socially-driven agenda. In Haifa, a candidate who backs civil liberties won the mayoral race, even deciding to form a coalition with the Arab-Jewish left-wing Hadash party — despite immense pressure from the prime minister himself. In Likud strongholds such as Ashkelon and Yeruham, Netanyahu and Likud lost to Kahlon’s centrist party.

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These cracks can be seen in light of the upcoming Knesset elections as well. United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, may break in two, while Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party led by Aryeh Deri, is barely polling above the electoral threshold. More importantly, Kahlon and Orly Levy have announced that, should Netanyahu be indicted for his various corruption scandals, they won’t offer him their support.

Since Netanyahu and Likud have already clarified that he can continue serving as prime minister regardless of indictments, their decision hints that another Netanyahu government is not a given. Without the 10 seats expected to go to both Kulanu and Levy, a former Yisrael Beiteinu MK who left the party to form a new slate focusing on social issues, it will be difficult for Bibi to form a government.

It isn’t merely a question of numbers. The sense is that Levy and Kahlon have dared to challenge Netanyahu because neither of them is part of the hardline ideological right: they don’t believe in Greater Israel, nor are they opposed to a Palestinian state. Kahlon likes to say he is part of the “nationalist camp” and that he opposed the disengagement from Gaza (as opposed to Netanyahu, for example), but he is also the person who pushed the government to increase budget allocations to Israel’s Palestinian population, has maintained good working relations with the Palestinian Authority, and meets regularly with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Neither Netanyahu nor Bennett would ever dream of doing such things.

Moshe Kahlon holds a Kulanu party meeting in the Knesset, November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Moshe Kahlon holds a Kulanu party meeting in the Knesset, November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Orly Levy tends to the political center when it comes to security issues, and has expressed her support for the idea of two states.

Both Kahlon and Levy are political leaders from Israel’s periphery, and their Mizrahi identity is part and parcel of their political experience — this poses a problem for Netanyahu and the ideological right. The fact that the two of them, who represent a public of voters that political analysts tend to identify with the Likud, dare to challenge a potential Netanyahu victory could mean bad news for Netanyahu and the cohesion of the right-wing camp.

Likud could theoretically decide to replace Netanyahu with a different candidate, should Kahlon, Levy, and others decide they won’t serve under a prime minister facing indictments, thereby ensuring the establishment of a center-right government. But those who believe in this possibility seem not to really understand how Netanyahu works. The prime minister does not view himself as just another politician. He believes he is the historical messenger who has come to save the Jewish people from the danger of a Palestine state. Therefore, he will not give up his seat so easily. Should his own party turn against him, Netanyahu could turn Likud into his hostage. The right will certainly have much to lose from such an internal war.

These political difficulties reflect a deeper problem in the Israeli right. After a decade in power, it is unable to fundamentally change the political equation vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It is true that the right has been able to turn discussions of Palestinian rights, ending the occupation, or a peace plan into illegitimate among large segments of the Israeli public. It is also true that various laws and decisions have normalized the status of settlers in the West Bank, while minimizing the ability to protect the rights of Palestinians under occupation. Meanwhile, the Jewish Nation-State Law threatens the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel and could potentially do the same to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Palestinians dressed up in Santa Claus costumes take part in a protest at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a day before Christmas, December 23, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinians dressed up in Santa Claus costumes take part in a protest at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a day before Christmas, December 23, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

But the right wants much more than that. Netanyahu and Bennett may have different ways of going about it, but their goal is identical: to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state while ensuring exclusively Jewish control between the Jordan River and the sea. Given the political weakness of the Palestinians, the split between Gaza and the West Bank, the civil war in Syria, the close relations between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the rise of the radical right in Europe, the stars aligned in Netanyahu and the right’s favor.

And yet, looking back, it is hard to say that anything has significantly changed. Despite the U.S. embassy moving to Jerusalem, the international community remains committed to the two-state solution. Australia’s decision to recognize only West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is only further proof.

Or take the case of Khan al-Ahmar: a tiny community of a few dozen families, which Israel’s right-wing government was determined to evict from their land in order to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The Palestinian Authority, despite being weak and unpopular, mobilized the international community against the evictions.

Israeli forces raid the village of Khan al Ahmar in the early hours of the morning, and demolish several structures that were built by Palestinian activists, in protest of the imminent risk of demolition over the entire village, Khan al-Ahmar, outside Jerusalem, September 13, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli forces raid the village of Khan al Ahmar in the early hours of the morning, and demolish several structures that were built by Palestinian activists, in protest of the imminent risk of demolition over the entire village, Khan al-Ahmar, outside Jerusalem, September 13, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

And despite all of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s talk of annexing Area C of the West Bank, and the Likud Central Committee’s decision to apply Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank, the Israeli right has not annexed even a centimeter over the past 10 years. Fifteen years after the end of the Second Intifada and the suicide bombings, and more than a decade after the Gaza disengagement, it is hard to say that Israelis feel secure. Stabbings, ‘lone wolf’ killers in the West Bank, three wars in Gaza, Hezbollah tunnels and missiles, Iranian presence in Syria — all of these are still very much a part of daily life for Israelis. Even the most hardline right wingers understand that the Palestinians have not and will not give in, despite their political weakness.

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This dead end has brought about the downfall of the Netanyahu government. After all, Bibi’s “weakness” in the face of Hamas was the reason Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister, a move that signaled the end of the coalition. Meanwhile, Bennett and company made life hell for the prime minister over his “weakness” vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it seems that they, too, understand that there is no solution at present. They prefer to continue to incite, yet they won’t take action; otherwise, they wouldn’t be supporting the man they seem to scorn so much.

This doesn’t mean that the right will not form the next government. It is still the most viable political option. But it does mean that, despite having every opportunity to do so, the Israeli right has not been able to change the political reality vis-à-vis the Palestinians. That is its weakness, not its strength.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call, where a version of this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      Wildcard Benny Ganz: https://forward.com/scribe/415890/could-benny-gantz-become-the-next-prime-minister-of-israel/

      Could Benny Ganz become the next prime minister of Israel?…Netanyahu initially endorsed two states in his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. But since then…he has increasingly avoided the term “two states” and embraced a host of euphemisms for a disastrous single state outcome…it is worth noting that an overwhelming majority of retired Israeli generals believe in the principle of two states.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “a disastrous single state outcome”

        The Forward author’s premise is dated. A one state outcome is not necessarily disastrous and it is the only solution left, so Israelis, who voted over and over for the principal architect of the one state outcome, are now charged with making it un-disastrous, making it work. The “principle” the generals believe in is outmoded, passé, irrelevant, overtaken by events.

        “The awareness that Netanyahu has won is starting to seep in. But few in Israel or the world are willing to admit to his success because it is also their historic failure. They are continuing the same old discourse about negotiations, two states, dismantling settlements and ending the occupation – the way they spoke before Netanyahu – as if nothing has happened. Prisoners of past paradigms, too scared to admit failure and terrified by what remains, they continue to declaim old slogans. But at least some of the declaimers understand that Netanyahu has left only two options – democracy or apartheid; equality or segregation; Jewish or democratic….now the only question is what type of regime will prevail in the one state that has been here for decades and will probably be here between the river and the sea forever. Netanyahu was the one-state visionary. The struggle for its character lies with those who will follow him.”
        https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-we-should-thank-netanyahu-for-destroying-the-two-state-solution-1.6785722

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      The Israeli Left is finished.
      When will 972 mag realize this ?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The Israeli Left has failed but it is not finished. (And as Rapoport argues, the Israeli Right has essentially failed too.) And +972 Magazine understands why and what needs to be done. It’s been on top of the situation. It always has been:

        By Noam Sheizaf |Published February 15, 2016
        The Israeli Left needs to step up its game
        https://972mag.com/labors-disengagement-plan-and-the-failure-of-the-israeli-left/117090/

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: Ok, the left is kaput, the Palestinians will be deported or somehow disappear, and the Jewish birthrate in Israel will ensure demographic supremacy. Great.

        This raises one very obvious question…..

        Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      It is funny how people on one side can both insist that the things that are being done by the other side are both very important and influential and insist that the other side has failed to get anything done.

      So you say that the Right has been in power for 10 years. That’s fine. 10 years without a withdrawal from a single millimeter of land. 10 years of construction and settlement. 10 years of economic growth. 10 years of growing economic and diplomatic relations with every corner of the globe.

      Now be honest my dear leftists, if I had asked you 10 years ago where Israel would be now after 10 years of Right-wing governments, would you have told me that it would be like this?

      The Israeli Right is so strong that it can continue to ignore the Palestinians to focus on its own minor internal political squabbles with no fear of losing power.

      Happy New Year everyone!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Firentrumpis: Honestly I would have expected exactly what we got—ten years of a dogged maintaining of the brutal status quo in the territories; the continued siege of Gaza complete with “occupation, what occupation?”; erosion of law, creeping neo-fascism and persecution of a free press; stalling on corruption investigations; while making all sorts of fake squeals about annexation, and about invading Gaza and showing them turrurists what’s what by golly because we will know what to do.
        I think that’s the author’s point–about the latent weakness of the Right in the face of inherent limits it pretends are not there, beneath the braggadocio and the bluster such as yours. Where’s the beef, if you don’t mind my asking? Where’s the vaunted annexation? What’s keeping you? I mean, you guys are so sure you’re in the right, what’s stopping you? Where’s the removal of tiny, helpless Khan al-Ahmar? Where’s the Palestinians’ surrender you’re always going on about? I guess the right wing Australian government recognizing West Jerusalem was the high point for you? Oh dear.
        I guess now that Caroline Glick has realized her true destiny and abandoned the Bibi-cheerleading team for the Ayalet & Naftali-cheerleading team things are gonna really work out swell though. Full annexation and Palestinian surrender are just right around the corner now!

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @FirenTrumpis: Moreover…

        Your whistling in the dark is your choice and I understand your felt need to do that, but…

        https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-from-one-staters-to-pro-israel-dems-a-new-reality-begins-in-d-c-today-1.6806986

        There is a growing level of support among Americans for a one-state solution [As opposed to the existing one state reality, apartheid. -Ben] to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as such a solution ensures equal rights and full citizenship to Palestinians, a University of Maryland poll* suggested last month…
        Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum told Haaretz that “one-staters on the left and the right have very different visions of what a single state will look like. But their support for one state is creating joint momentum for a disastrous outcome that is going to leave most Israelis and Palestinians unhappy if it comes about.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          * Increasing Number of Americans Prefer One-state Solution to Israel-Palestinian Conflict, U.S. Study Finds
          A new poll surveying over 2,300 Americans shows growing support for giving Palestinians full and equal rights, even if that curtails Israel’s Jewish character
          Amir Tibon
          Washington
          13.12.2018
          https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-more-and-more-americans-prefer-one-state-solution-study-finds-1.6741213

          “…In recent years, the Israeli right has been calling for annexation of the West Bank, without giving full and equal citizenship to the Palestinians living in that area. According to the poll, only 8 percent of Americans support such an idea. Even among Republican respondents to the poll, only 14 percent expressed support for this idea….”

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        There is, furthermore, this reality:

        http://en.cis.org.il/2018/12/11/annexation-legislation-is-imminent-and-dangerous/

        “The CIS researchers concluded that the quantum leap from the long pursued ‘creeping’ annexation to annexation by legislation, whatever its scope, will trigger a chain reaction that will inevitably force Israel to re-capture the entire West Bank and take responsibility for the lives of its close to three million Palestinians. Thereafter, Israel will be a different place….”

        Reply to Comment