How the religious right came to inhabit the heart of Israeli politics

COLIN SHINDLER: The far-right has moved from being an irrelevance on the periphery to being a constituent of every coalition, and now impose their ideological will and power on Netanyahu

TEHIYA, TSOMET, MOLEDET, KACH, HaTikva, Tkuma, Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, HaBayit Hayehudi, Otzma Yehudit — these are just some of the far-right parties that have come and gone, coalesced and fragmented while dwelling in the heart of the maelstrom that defines the Israeli Right.

Last week President Rivlin called for “unconventional connections” in forming a new government. He, of course, meant Ra’am, the Islamist party of Mansour Abbas. It did not mean the plethora of far-right parties, now accepted and acceptable as an integral part of Israeli political life.

The far-right has moved from being an irrelevance on the periphery to being a constituent of each and every coalition. Today even Netanyahu is derided by their spokesmen— not for his conduct in public office, but for his ideological betrayal.

Bezalel Smotrich, the charismatic leader of the ‘Religious Zionism’ alliance of small parties which gained six seats in the recent election, depicted Netanyahu several years ago as little more than a wishy washy liberal in Rightist clothing. Smotrich rebuked him for using “the language of the Left” — speaking about the West Bank and not “Judaea and Samaria”.

The origins of the far-right lie in the dissent from the Camp David Accord of 1979. It not only meant peace with Egypt, but an agreement that ongoing negotiations should recognise “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”.

The origins of the far-right lie in the dissent from the Camp David Accord of 1979, signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. It not only meant peace with Egypt, but an agreement that ongoing negotiations should recognise “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”.

Only 57% of Begin’s own Herut Movement and 75% of the Likud voted in favour of the Camp David Accord. Many moved out from under Begin’s umbrella of the Right to form several far-right breakaway parties in the 1980s. These parties became the epicentre of opposition to the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 in accordance with the Camp David Accord.

The Tehiya party drew its support from the West Bank settlers. Tsomet and Moledet, however, emerged from the Left. The Marxist Ahdut Ha’Avoda party, led by the Zionist pioneer, Yitzhak Tabenkin (1888-1971), believed that medieval Arab clericalism should be brushed aside and socialism constructed on the West Bank — its building blocks would be a matrix of kibbutzim. Moledet espoused a policy of voluntary transfer of Arabs from the West Bank and even entered government in 1990.

The signing of the Declaration of Principles with the PLO and the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993 was another watershed for the far-right. Its supporters incited against the Oslo agreement in Netanyahu-sponsored demonstrations and uttered rabid threats against Rabin personally. They shed few tears privately when Yigal Amir fired his bullets into Yitzhak Rabin’s back.

The 1993 Oslo Agreement was another watershed for the far-right. Its supporters incited against the agreement in Netanyahu-sponsored demonstrations, and shed few tears privately when Yigal Amir shot Yitzhak Rabin.

In 1997 Prime Minister Netanyahu effectively partitioned Hebron and in 1998 agreed to return 13% of the West Bank to the Palestinians during the Wye Plantation negotiations. Outraged opponents protested. Yitzhak Shamir resigned from the Likud, Benny Begin formed the new Herut and Avigdor Lieberman established Yisrael Beiteinu. Several far-right parties came together as the National Union.

Netanyahu learned the lesson from this episode not to antagonise the ever-hungry tiger to his right. This meant an ideological pas de deux, two steps forward, two steps back. This was also applied to the inhabitant of the White House. In effect, it delivered a stasis such that no Israeli peace plan was ever placed on the table by Netanyahu.

The destructive campaign of Palestinian Islamist suicide bombers undermined the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine — and further fortified the far-right. The next watershed was Ariel Sharon’s use of the word “occupation” to refer to the Israeli presence on the West Bank and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

This event once again begat new parties. Some were secular, others religious, but all displayed different shades of zealotry. Above all, it sounded the death knell of the National Religious Party (NRP) which was unable to bridge the gap between fighting for religious rights, formulated during the Ben-Gurion era, and expanding settlements, which was the defining approach during the Netanyahu governments. The old NRP simply disintegrated.

Other religious parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism read the writing on the wall and opportunistically moved to the Right, turning a blind eye to Netanyahu’s misdemeanours.

‘Religious Zionism’ has achieved notoriety because it is composed of Bezalel Smotrich’s puritan National Union, the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and its junior partner, Noam, which sees itself as the true heir to the teachings of Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual mentor of Gush Emunim, the settlers’ movement of the 1970s.

Its demonisation of “the other” — gays, women, secularists, Reform Jews — was justified as opposing the fruits of “foreign influence”. It was not simply a difference of opinion. Smotrich himself organised a “Beast Parade” in 2006 to counteract the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem.

There has also been a determined campaign to undermine the independence of the judiciary and there have been repeated assaults on the integrity of Avichai Mendelblit, the Attorney- General, himself an Orthodox Jew.

In the United States, the birthplace of Kahanism, the protests of Jewish groups against this mentality have been the loudest. The Chabad movement (Lubavitcher Chasidim) has not been amongst them. Indeed, many Chabadniks in Israel have continued to favour Otzma Yehudit in successive elections during the past two years. In Kfar Chabad, the Kahanists received more than twice as many votes as Shas and United Torah Judaism combined.

This is part of a wider phenomenon affecting young haredim who have become increasingly influenced by the nationalism of the Israeli far-right. There has been an ideological blurring between ‘the anti-Zionism of many haredi groups and the Zionism of ultra-nationalists on the far right.

Like their peers the world over, some young haredim have used the ballot box to register a private protest on several levels, such as the lack of leadership during the pandemic. There were mixed messages on masks, gatherings and vaccines. It pointed to a tired, out-of-touch and uneducated leadership — despite the great learning of the “gedolim” (wise elders).

Many adherents of United Torah Judaism crossed the red line to Otzma Yehudit — and others would have followed but for the presence of two women on the candidates’ list. They also saw in Smotrich a strong opponent of Yisrael Beiteinu, which has emerged as the vociferous, secular, far-right opponent of religious coercion.

Smotrich was astute in cultivating the haredim — so his party made no mention of Zionism in its campaign, directed at this constituency. The settlements on the West Bank and their annexation were airbrushed out of existence — even though Smotrich himself lives in Kedumim near Nablus.

Smotrich was astute in cultivating the haredim — so his party made no mention of Zionism in its campaign. The settlements on the West Bank and their annexation were airbrushed out of existence.

On the other hand, Smotrich wanted to attract the many yeshiva students who strongly espoused Zionism and served in the army. He therefore visited hesder yeshivot – seminaries which combined Jewish learning and army service – in Itamar and Elon Moreh on the West Bank. Such campaigning visits were carried out in violation of army regulations.

It also produced a backlash of Bnei Akiva-type religious Zionists who supported settlement on the West Bank but could not stomach the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit.

At the end of the 1960s, many angry young American Jews followed Meir Kahane, disillusioned with the response of the more establishment Jewish organisations to the problems of the time. Several books have since revealed the ugly underbelly of Kahane’s Jewish Defence League and the moral shallowness of his private life.

In 1986 even the Likud agreed to ban Kahane’s party, Kach, from standing in subsequent elections. During the last two years, the disciples of Meir Kahane have made sure and steady progress, increasing their vote with each election. In last month’s election, ‘Religious Zionism’ received a remarkable 194,000 votes and the Kahanists are on the verge of entering government if Netanyahu cobbles together a coalition.

The narrow bridge on which too many Diaspora leaders stand – between support for the state of Israel and acquiescence to the policies of its government – is collapsing beneath their feet. In these difficult times, silence is no longer an option.

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Photo: An election billboard with Otzma Yehudit’s Ben Gvir (left), Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bezalel Smotrich, from Religious Zionism (Al-Monitor)