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Elections reveal a seismic split within Israel's right

Once the ascendant elite, the settler movement’s political power is on the decline.

By Meron Rapoport

Israeli security forces guard as Jews tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli security forces guard as Jews tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

While political analysts wonder if we have come to the end of the Netanyahu era, little attention is being paid to another major outcome of this election — that is, the decline of the national religious movement’s political power. Once, these self-described lords of the land believed they were well on their way to becoming Israel’s new political and cultural elite. But the numbers show that their political influence is waning.

The Likud has always been at the center of the right wing bloc. In recent decades, it absorbed the parties that represent three major demographic groups: the ultra-Orthodox, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and the national religious or settler movement. Netanyahu created a coherent political bloc, which promised a near-axiomatic right wing majority in each election.

Netanyahu made the consolidation of the right wing bloc his political life’s work, based on the belief that this was the best way to prevent a Palestinian state. So, he strengthened Likud’s connection with the national religious camp, because their loyalty to the Land of Israel was beyond question — in contrast to the Likud’s old base, which is more interested in libertarianism than in territorial expansionism. This is one of the reasons that Netanyahu surrounded himself with people who wear the crocheted-style yarmulke favored by national religious settlers.

The April election caused a rift in the right wing bloc, with the parties representing the ultra-Orthodox and voters from the former Soviet Union pulling back from the national religious ideologues, whose worldview they do not share. They were never particularly interested in either the idea of controlling the Biblical Greater Land of Israel, nor in the settlement project.

Liberman didn’t have to work very hard to convince his base of secular hawks from the former Soviet Union that the ultra-Orthodox were their greatest enemy. The ultra-Orthodox are the ones who question their Jewish identity and try to impose their religious lifestyle on them, with their refusal to allow public transportation on the Sabbath and their attempts to control the sale of non-kosher foods. The ultra-Orthodox fought back.




In the Sept. 17 elections, both groups came ahead, with Liberman raising his party’s five mandates to eight and the ultra-Orthodox increasing theirs from 16 to 17. But there is little chance of the right wing parties coming together again to reconstruct their once-powerful alliance.

What’s more interesting is the fate of the national religious parties, which harnessed their destiny to the Likud. In April, they won 44 mandates (35 for the Likud, four to Kahlon, and five to the union of right-wing parties), plus four from Bennett and Shaked’s New Right party, and another three from Moshe Feiglin’s Jewish Leadership. Altogether, 51 mandates went to the right wing bloc.

This election saw the hollowing out of the national religious movement’s political power. The Likud won only 31 mandates, down from 35 in April. Even with the seats that were won with votes from supporters of Kahlon, Feiglin, Smotrich, Rafi Peretz, and Shaked and Bennett, Netanyahu ended up with only 38 mandates in his bloc. The Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) did not pass the threshold; but even if it had, it would have brought only four additional seats, bringing the total to 41 of the 61-seat minimum required for a coalition government.

The balance of power in the political right is now shaken up, with critical implications. If the ultra-Orthodox parties see that partnering with the right wing bloc doesn’t guarantee them a seat in the government, they will rethink their alliance. If voters from the former Soviet Union see that going to battle against the ultra-Orthodox makes them kingmakers in the Israeli political arena, they won’t be rushing back to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc.

The national religious movement will pay the highest political price for this redistribution of the balance of power. They have consistently failed to break into politics as an independent party, despite their self-perception as lords of the land. Instead of rising to become the “new elite,” the settler movement might be on its way to becoming a political burden — much like the now all-but forgotten Kibbutz Movement, which became nearly irrelevant in 1977 after Menachem Begin led the Likud to victory. We are not there yet, but we are closer than anyone would have thought six months ago.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Keiner Nit

      Would rather have our Temple back than all the Jordan Valley. It was a terrible and cynical injustice to build the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque on our absolute holiest site.

      Reply to Comment
      • Nathanael

        Religious Jews should remember that the Temple was explicitly prohibited by G-d. Read the Torah. I know that the later rabbinical claim is that G-d allowed King Solomon to change the rules, but that’s nonsense. The law prohibiting Jews from worshipping in fixed buildings and temples remains intact in the Torah. The construction of the Temple was a sin — a violation of Torah law — to start with and, arguably, was punished by its destruction. Twice.

        For truly religious Jews who respect Torah law, the destruction of the temple was a favor, putting you back in compliance with Torah law.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Keiner Nit: I’m trying to understand what you could possibly mean. This feels like the strangest transfer of 21st century hasbara to something that happened 13 centuries ago.

        Jerusalem was ruled by the Christian Byzantine Empire from the 4th to 6th centuries. Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 320s. The Temple Mount was left undeveloped after a failed project of restoration of the Jewish Temple under Julian the Apostate. His attempt to build a Third Temple was probably intended to harm Christianity rather than please Jews. When Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik started to build the Dome of the Rock in 685 you think his motive was to commit a “terrible and cynical injustice” against Jews? Scholars at Hebrew University have argued that the Dome of the Rock was intended to compete with other religions, especially Christianity—that the octagonal structure was actually foreign to Islam and :intended to rival the many Christian domes and that those who built the shrine used the measurements of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
        Medieval sources about Abd al-Malik’s motivations suggest that, because the caliph was engaged in war with Christian Byzantium and its Syrian Christian allies on the one hand and with the rival caliph Ibn al-Zubayr, who controlled Mecca, on the other hand, Abd al-Malik intended for the Dome of the Rock to be a religious monument of victory over the Christians that would distinguish Islam’s uniqueness within the common Abrahamic religious setting of Jerusalem, home of the two older Abrahamic faiths. One theory is that Abd al-Malik, in the heat of the war with Ibn al-Zubayr, sought to build the structure to divert the focus of the Muslims in his realm from the Ka’aba in Mecca, where Ibn al-Zubayr would publicly condemn the Umayyads during the annual pilgrimage to the sanctuary. This all happened in the 7th century.

        You think “cynical injustice” against Jews fairly describes these players? I think not. I think to say that is hasbara that might make even Bibi blush. Well, ok, no, Bibi would not blush. He’s way beyond that.

        Reply to Comment
        • john

          how cynical of the umayyad caliphate to build a house of worship on a holy site

          Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      More meronic analysis from Moron.

      PS: Have I written that sentence right ?

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      The problem of these parties is that their ideas are now defended by several other parties (Likud, Liberman, etc.). At the time of risky elections, the people invariably choose the major parties. It should be noted that in these last elections, the right bloc has 55 seats and the center left 44. If they join forces with Liberman, they will have 52 seats in the Knesset and if they join the parties Arabs, they will gather 57 seats, but the people will not accept the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic component of some Arab leaders.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You’re mutterings about seats really don’t add up. One thing’s for sure, “the people” did not accept the Kahanist, anti-Arab core component of your darlings the Otzma Yehudit crowd. You actually should be happy that the Fig Leaf won and the Americans can be duped for a while longer still. (You might have a look at the news that Bibi was caught red handed using misinformation to “play” Trump. A little bit like that Mossad agent caught wriggling out of the Vice President’s bathroom air duct a while ago, but I digress.) That through clenched teeth you cannot accept Ayman Odeh says so much about you.

        “Let’s welcome opposition chairman Ayman Odeh. He will speak immediately after the prime minister at every important debate in the Knesset. He will have a security detail, he’ll be driven in an official state car — and let Israeli Jews explode with anger.”

        Reply to Comment
    4. Amir

      When the Romans exiled the jews from the city, the inhabitants used the area of Masjid Al-Aqsa as a garbage dump. When Umar opened city to Islam, he cleared the rubbish with his bare hands. He also ended the centuries-old exile of the Jews, giving refugee families the right to reside in Jerusalem once again.

      Thank Muslim for letting jews come back to Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment