Israel’s right-wing camp is larger than ever, but also more divided than ever.
In several of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent stops on his current media blitz ahead of the upcoming elections, the Israeli Prime Minister has reiterated a message: “We can form a real right-wing government”, citing this figure as proof: polling indicates that 80 of the 120 seats in parliament are right-wing. If you subtract the 10 seats of the Joint Arab List, that’s almost three-quarters of the vote, which is quite impressive. But this statement is only partially true, and the parts that aren’t will cause problems for Bibi’s re-election bid.
Let’s start with the part that’s true. Most Israelis are certainly right-wing, although the right word is actually ‘hawkish’, when it comes to security issues, and especially dealing with the Palestinians. The idea that Palestinian goodwill can be bought through concessions and negotiation attempts, or that ceding territory creates more compromise on the other side, is a dying concept. Netanyahu has always advocated against it, his position relatively unchanged since writing his book ‘ A Durable Peace’ as part of his first election campaign in the mid-’90s. But it’s what Israelis have seen with their eyes and ears that have played a far greater role in entrenching that concept. The two largest waves of terror attacks in Israel came in 1994 and 2001, just when peace talks were at their peak. Israeli soldiers were hounded and attacked relentlessly by Hezbollah while retreating from Lebanon, while Hamas escalated its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians after the 2005 pullout from the Gaza strip. Because while some expect retreat or compromise to create sympathy and acknowledgment, it can also be seen as a sign of weakness, an opportunity to press forward with more pressure, and violence. The brutal terror campaign of the second intifada, in the midst of negotiations with Israel’s most left-wing government ever, illustrates this best. While Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his colleagues were openly talking about ceding the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, buses and restaurants were being blown up with ever-increasing fervor. Many Palestinian sympathizers I know personally, and ones I do not, such as revisionist historian Benny Morris, shifted irreversibly after this episode. Israelis will not put their security in the hands of the Palestinians, who may be unable to provide it even if the leadership is willing, as instability reigns supreme.
On this issue, Netanyahu’s doctrine, mainly that doing nothing with the Palestinians is preferable to doing something stupid, is supported by most Israelis.
Netanyahu’s economic outlook has also slowly but surely become the unspoken lay of the land. A man who clearly believes in free markets, Netanyahu’s economic reforms in the early 2000s to liberalize and privatize the Israeli economy drilled serious holes in Israel’s historically socialist governance, holes he proceeded to widen since becoming Prime Minister. While Netanyahu’s rivals constantly criticize him for wealth gaps and costs of living, nobody dares say they want to return to a socialist economy or a welfare state. As the number two on the rival New Hope list, Yifat Shasha Biton aptly put it, when asked about economic policies: ‘We believe in a free market, but we will also help the poor’. Which is kind of like having your cake and eating it too. But it shows that the words ‘free markets’ have become indispensable at this point.
So in these spheres, Israel is certainly right-wing, and that’s not changing any time soon. But what about the civil sphere? Here serious cracks emerged already after the first election, when Avigdor Liberman, with his secular right Yisrael Beiteinu party, refused to join yet another Netanyahu government under the sway of the Ultra-Orthodox. Must sound security policies come with a rabbinical monopoly over conversion and marriage? Do good economic policies need shuttered shops and transportation on the Sabbath? And why are some people not working or serving in the military and constantly getting away with it? This uneasiness, expertly brushed under the rug for years by Netanyahu, finally caught up with him when Liberman walked out and forced a second election. Next came the indictments, three of them no less. Most Netanyahu supporters remained steadfastly loyal, others uneasy but insisting he can still serve as PM while the trial unfolds. Some have joined forces with the center-left demanding his ouster, while many pragmatists simply believe that Netanyahu can no longer form a coalition and that sticking with him leads to a dead end.
Seeking to re-establish his legitimacy, Netanyahu accepted Gideon Sa’ar’s proposal for Likud party primaries and won. But while 73% of the vote sounds impressive, it’s actually the lowest Netanyahu scored since regaining the party chairmanship back in 2005. Careful not to attack the Prime Minister too directly, Sa’ar warned of Netanyahu’s inability to form a government and the endless election cycles that will follow, and that has indeed come to pass. And Sa’ar has emerged as the danger again for Netanyahu, this time heading his own party, New Hope while declaring he is here to replace Netanyahu, not sit with him.
Meanwhile, another right-winger has come out calling for the Prime Minister’s replacement. Naftali Bennet of the Yemina party, a longtime coalition partner, has chosen a different line of attack. Criticizing the government’s handling of coronavirus, but also exposing another problematic Netanyahu tendency: his need to go at everything solo. Take the credit, offload the blame. Make decisions without consulting with, or even telling, coalition partners. Call shots time and again based on political interests, or rather personal interests. Leave Israel without a budget during dire financial circumstances to scuttle the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz.
So here we are. No less than three parties, currently making up over 30 seats in the polls: Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, Naftali Bennet’s Yemina, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu: all self-described as right-wing, all openly against Netanyahu. I would call this body the Alt-Right, but they are nothing like the American Alt-Right. These aren’t conspiracy theorists or extreme nationalists. Those people are actually camped in the old right, with Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich’s religious Zionist party, the last right-wing outfit to stick with Netanyahu.
This is different. On the one hand, the leaders of the Israeli alt-right are probably more right-wing than Netanyahu when it comes to security, and Sa’ar and Bennet are certainly more pro settlements than the PM. But the supporters of these parties don’t blindly dismiss indictments of fraud and breach of trust, do abhor constant attacks against the judiciary, don’t care for Ultra-Orthodox strangleholds on governments, want more presidential rather than divisive rhetoric from their head statesman, dislike the crass style and blind loyalty of the Likud lawmakers that Netanyahu promotes, and perhaps on the most practical note: want a damn government already.
For this reason, Israeli news channels have stopped displaying polls with left-wing block vs right-wing block pie graphics, but rather as the pro-Netanyahu camp vs the anti-Netanyahu camp. And the anti-Netanyahu camp now has nearly as many right-wingers as left-wingers. Israel’s alt-right has emerged and isn’t going away at the moment, much to Netanyahu’s chagrin.