Tzipi Hotoveli’s Israel: Left, Right & Center

The day before the Israeli general elections David Remnik, the editor of the New Yorker, published a scathing critique of what he sees as the new emerging right within Israeli politics.  Remnik employs over 9,000 words in his article, “The Party Faithful: The settlers move to annex the West Bank—and Israeli politics,” to portray the new right as having purged moderates, consolidated its most extreme elements and as having been hijacked by the settler movement.  Remnik’s essay begins by recalling a December 23rd speech he attended at the old port of Tel Aviv by Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) party leader Naftali Bennett.  To Remnik and many other observers, Bennett personifies the new right in Israel.  Most troubling of all for Remnik is his perception of Bennett and the Israeli right’s desire to ensure the Palestinians never attain statehood.  Remnik sums up Bennett’s position, “No more negotiations, “no more illusions.” Let them eat crème brûlée.”—a jab at Bennett’s urban persona and pastry chef wife.

While reading Remnik’s characterization of the Israeli right, a different event that took place recently at the old port of Tel Aviv came to mind.  A January 15th debate between journalist, left-wing activist and Labor candidate Merav Michaeli and Orthodox Jewish lawyer, former television personality and current Likud MK Tzipi Hotoveli, which posed a strong refutation to Remnik’s portrayal of the Israel right-wing.  The debate appeared casual, with Michaeli dressed in all black, wearing trousers and knee-high boots and Hotoveli wearing the modest dress of a religiously observant woman.  However, profound policy pronouncements were made throughout by two of the potential future leaders of their respective parties and the State of Israel—despite both casually text messaging throughout the debate.

Hotoveli, the 34-year-old, fifth ranking member on the Likud list is often described as a “hardliner” and the “ideological voice” of her party.   She—like Bennett—sounded off on the necessity for a one-state solution to the conflict.  However, Hotoveli’s solution sounds nothing like the description Remnik offers of Bennett’s position— “virtual annexation followed by a potential exodus of dispirited Palestinians eastward into Jordan.” In fact, Hotoveli begins her discussion of annexation with the premise that the 2 million-plus Palestinians in the West Bank will become fully integrated equal citizens of the State of Israel. “We can handle this,” she says. 

Hotoveli’s one-state solution defies the traditional right-left political divide on the issue as her proposal is not reminiscent of right-wing ideology, but instead that of the far-left.  So much so in fact, Hotoveli’s proposal out flanked even Michaeli on the left, forcing her to result to evoking pro-Zionist sentiments to refute Hotoveli.  “This is not a Jewish state,” Michaeli said.  “I mean, yes, we can do it, it’s a … binational state. Yes, it can be beautiful, I suppose…. But this is the end of Zionism as we know it.”  Hotoveli quickly fought back, “Are you against the Arab population in Israel?” In the world of Israeli politics Remnik illustrated, such an exchange could not be possible—A Labor candidate and a prominent Likud MK quibbling over who is more pro-Arab.

The Christian Science Monitor, which published an article detailing the debate, too noted the dymanic nature of Hotoveli’s positions, “Michaeli and Hotoveli’s competing visions for Israel…their arguments, together with the audience’s response, also illustrate the often surprising mix of principles in Israeli politics.” A far cry from Remnik’s indictment that, “The Likud list was purged of relative moderates, like Dan Meridor, who was considered soft on the Palestinians, and Menachem Begin’s son, Benny, who is considered too respectful of democratic institutions.”

Hotoveli continued to confound conventional political divides when the moderator asked Michaeli to defend her party leader, Shelly Yachimovich, stating publicly that drafting the haradeem into the IDF was not a pressing issue. Hotoveli quickly jumped in, insisting the Tal Law be repealed and the haradeem be pushed towards the IDF and the work force to ensure the economic and political sustainability of the nation.  She argued that with over 50% of first graders currently coming from either Haredi or Arab households action must be taken now to prevent the day in 15 or so years when that 50% graduate high school and begin collecting a government check instead of entering the IDF or the work force, helping to pay taxes.

When asked about sweeping reforms the current government was not able to get passed, Hotoveli answered by advocating for a sweeping reform of the Israeli electoral and governing system.  She insisted that small and sectarian parties are counter productive to governing, advocating instead for an American-style two party system that will not allow the legislative process to be held hostage or for high ransom by coalition partners with limited, specific interests.  Added together, the implications of Hotoveli’s policies run as deep as Abu Mazen and Salam Fayad serving as her colleagues in the Knesset.  Even more, her policies would create a Knesset with 30-40% non-Jewish or Arab members who serve with their Jewish counterparts in one of two parties defined not by identity, but by policy agreements.

Hotoveli did show her true right bona fides when asked about the role of religion in government, as she stated she does not support any formal separation of religion and the State.  Connecting Israel’s Jewish identity with annexation of the West Bank, she projected confidence in the Jewish identity of Israel and the willingness of Israelis to maintain that identity, regardless of demographic changes.  When asked if she believes the State should recognize other strains of Judaism outside of Orthodox Judaism, she quickly said no, but insisted that conversions should be made simpler and more available to everyone.  She argued against an Israel governed by Jewish law, but insisted, that Jewish identity and peoplehood must remain a central component of the State of Israel.

When reading Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party leader Yair Lapid’s most recent appeal to voters in the Times of Israel, it is difficult to find much difference between the domestic agenda of Lapid and Hotoveli.  Lapid insists that education reform, housing subsidies for veterans, promoting small businesses and limiting the size of government are the best policies to improve the daily lives of Israelis.  Hotoveli and Likud party literature handed out at the debate advocated for a greater investment in higher and lower education, doubling the grant for soldiers, improving transportation infrastructure to lower housing prices, job creation and middle class family tax relief.  Hotoveli and Lapid no doubt differ greatly on the role of religion in society and government and most likely on international issues, but the domestic agenda of the Likud, according to Hotoveli, comes much closer to the center of Israeli politics than it does the right.  

Due to Hotoveli’s rank in the Likud and prominence in the party, her debate performance and policy positions cannot be dismissed as an outlier within an extreme, otherwise consolidated right.  Hotoveli and Bennett both claim the same justification for a one-state solution.  They both argue, due to the fact—their perception of the fact—that because no Palestinian leader can ever sign a peace agreement recognizing the State of Israel, giving up their claim to the land of Israel that will be accepted by the Palestinian people, a new alternative for peace must be found.  Hotoveli claims her motivation for annexation of the West Bank is purely a pragmatic one.  Annexation achieves an end to the conflict, while securing the borders of the State and allowing West Bank Palestinians access to all of greater Israel—the land they cannot cease to claim.

In his essay, Remnik infers Bennett’s desire to see West Bank Palestinians subtly forced off their land, based on statements made by religious leaders that Bennett does not condemn.  Remnik does not quote Bennett or reference other political leaders to establish that Bennett’s proposal of annexation would not result in full and equal integration of West Bank Palestinians into Israeli society and government. 

Hotoveli’s proposal leaves many questions unanswered and raises many more logistical and policy issues regarding full integration after annexation.  However, her positions and statements on the issues show a dynamic Israeli right-wing and perhaps offer a glimpse into the future of right-wing politics in Israel, raising more questions about the future nature of the political discourse within Israel.  At what point does right-wing or conservative pragmatism become centrism? And is a day coming in the near future when annexation of the West Bank will be equated more with reconciliation and integration rather than a land grab and forced displacement of Palestinians.  Regardless of the viability of Hotoveli’s proposal, it deserves consideration and should be part of any discussion of Israeli right-wing politics in international press. Just as Hotoveli said herself, when she received little to no applause at the debate after outlining her proposed one-state solution, “Just think about it.”

About the Author
Alexander Griffing was born in Boulder, Colorado and raised in Steamboat Springs, CO. He earned a BA in Government from Claremont McKenna College in CA. A former White House intern and Teach For America 8th grade Science and Social Studies teacher, Alexander has lived in Israel since 2010 and is currently a graduate student at Tel Aviv University.