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Israel’s Tea Party and how it helped Yair Lapid

The electorate recognized there was no alternative to Netanyahu, but that didn't stop it from dragging him away from the intolerant nationalism of his party

With the rise of the Tea Party in the US, and Mitt Romney’s frantic dash to the far-right in order to secure the Republican nomination, Americans are no strangers to the phenomenon of extremist elements hijacking a mainstream party and ultimately damaging its prospects of appealing to the wider population.

It has long been known that there is a faction within the Likud, affiliated with the far-right religious activist Moshe Feiglin, that intends to move the Likud further to the right, away from its national liberal moorings. This time, it succeeded.

Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Flash90)
Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Flash90)

Not only was Feiglin selected to a realistic spot on the party list for the first time, he will be joined in the 19th Knesset by the most right-wing Likud slate in history. The likes of Danny Danon, Miri Regev and Ze’ev Elkin epitomize a Likud that has largely abandoned the teachings  of Vladimir Jabotinsky, a classical, early 20th century liberal, and Menachem Begin, who was arguably Israel’s most consistent advocate of democratic values and civil rights during his nearly 40 years in the Knesset.

Here’s Begin, in 1962, arguing in the Knesset against the idea that Israeli Arabs should be denied certain rights because they don’t serve in the army:

We are the ones who decided not to obligate Arab residents, as opposed to the Druze, to serve in the army… We believe that in the Jewish state, there must be, and must always be, equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, nationality or ethnic origin.

It would be difficult to imagine anyone sent to the Knesset for Likud-Beytenu in last week’s election making that statement.

The new Likudniks understand that democratic rule means the rule of the majority, but they forget – or ignore – that the liberal democratic tradition that Israel lays claim to also demands checks and balances to protect minority rights and prevent the abuse of power by the majority. And minority rights includes both those of ethnic minorities like Israel’s Arab citizens, and the rights of those whose political views run counter to the government’s.

In the last Knesset, three Likud elder statesmen — Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan — were the voices of protest at the direction the party was taking. All three were purged from the party list this time around.

In a January 2012 letter to his fellow party MKs following a rash of distinctly illiberal legislation proposed by the Likud young guard, Meridor wrote:

There are those who want to turn the Likud into something else, into a national movement without liberalism, a movement that glorifies the needs of the state and society, while diminishing human rights – both for Jews and Arabs – such as their right to full equality, or as stated in the Declaration of Independence, the ‘complete equality of social and political rights.’

Dan Meridor (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Dan Meridor (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

What this transformation of Israel’s mainstream right-wing party has done is to create a huge void in the country’s political spectrum. The Likud now sits alongside the Jewish Home well right of center. And of course the latter party is no option for those looking for a right-wing party infused with democratic values. Naftali Bennett’s list includes several followers of Rabbi Dov Lior of Hebron, an inciter of racist violence who has proclaimed Baruch Goldstein to be “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.”

There is presently no center-right party in Israel. Those who naturally identified with the Likud as a liberal nationalist party were left, during this election, without a political home. So where did many of them go on Election Day? Of all the alternatives on offer, which party looked like the most comfortable choice?

Only one party running spoke proudly of Zionism and liberal democratic values but wasn’t also associated with firmly left-wing positions on either economics or the Palestinian issue, and that was Yair Lapid’s impressive list of secular and religious social activists.

This is the writer Yossi Klein Halevi, who voted Likud in 2009, on why he voted for Lapid:

…he is frankly, unapologetically, in love with the state of Israel. There is nothing complicated about Yair’s Israeliness. He is not a hyphenated Israeli, whose loyalty to the state depends on its fulfillment of an ideological agenda…  Netanyahu, who accepted a two-state solution in principle and then imposed a 10-month settlement freeze, tried to turn the Likud into a center-right party, more pragmatic than ideological and able to attract voters like me. But the ideological right within the Likud revolted.

The predictions of so many outside Israel that this election would reveal a population drifting ever further rightward were proven false. What the results actually indicated was an electorate that seemed to recognize that there was no outstanding prime-ministerial alternative to Netanyahu, but that wanted to drag him away from the crude and intolerant nationalism of his party toward the liberal democratic center. Lapid provided the perfect vehicle for such a move, and the extent to which the prime minister will travel to Lapid’s center-ground – and remain there – could determine how long the next government lasts.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.