Don’t Believe the Hype: The Israeli Right Is Weaker than It Seems

Naftali Bennett

by Meron Rapoport

The past decade belonged to the Israeli right. Since 2009, the right-wing bloc easily defeated its opponents and won elections, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became its undisputed leader and the most important political figure in Israel. In the past six years, the Jewish Home party — the rightmost mainstream political party — has held key posts in the government.

Political commentators are in near-total agreement that a solidly right-wing government will be formed after the upcoming elections, set to take place in early April. Even commentators identified with the liberal left say they have no doubt Netanyahu and the right will win. I doubt they are genuinely convinced of these predictions; rather, there are trying to avoid being seen as esoteric and out of touch with the people, as those who forecast a defeat for the right usually are.

It is true that the current polls show a clear advantage for the right. The ruling Likud party and Jewish Home win 40 Knesset seats, and just over 50 if you add the ultra-Orthodox parties. The left bloc, if we include the Zionist Union, is currently polling at 30 seats. Centrist parties and public figures such as Yesh Atid, Benny Gantz, Orly Levy, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party are making every effort to shake off any attempt to brand them as left or center-left. Those who believe there is no point in talking about a center-left camp are right.

But the question is whether such political coherence exists on the right as well. The local elections, which took place less than two months ago, showed the nationalist camp is weaker than we tend to think. In Jerusalem, a right-wing city, the right almost lost its rule to a liberal camp that ran on a strong socially-driven agenda. In Haifa, a candidate who backs civil liberties won the mayoral race, even deciding to form a coalition with the Arab-Jewish left-wing Hadash party — despite immense pressure from the prime minister himself. In Likud strongholds such as Ashkelon and Yeruham, Netanyahu and Likud lost to Kahlon’s centrist party.

These cracks can be seen in light of the upcoming Knesset elections as well. United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, may break in two, while Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party led by Aryeh Deri, is barely polling above the electoral threshold. More importantly, Kahlon and Orly Levy have announced that, should Netanyahu be indicted for his various corruption scandals, they won’t offer him their support.

Since Netanyahu and Likud have already clarified that he can continue serving as prime minister regardless of indictments, their decision hints that another Netanyahu government is not a given. Without the 10 seats expected to go to both Kulanu and Levy, a former Yisrael Beiteinu MK who left the party to form a new slate focusing on social issues, it will be difficult for Bibi to form a government.

It isn’t merely a question of numbers. The sense is that Levy and Kahlon have dared to challenge Netanyahu because neither of them is part of the hardline ideological right: they don’t believe in Greater Israel, nor are they opposed to a Palestinian state. Kahlon likes to say he is part of the “nationalist camp” and that he opposed the disengagement from Gaza (as opposed to Netanyahu, for example), but he is also the person who pushed the government to increase budget allocations to Israel’s Palestinian population, has maintained good working relations with the Palestinian Authority, and meets regularly with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Neither Netanyahu nor Bennett would ever dream of doing such things.

Meanwhile, Orly Levy tends to the political center when it comes to security issues, and has expressed her support for the idea of two states.

Both Kahlon and Levy are political leaders from Israel’s periphery, and their Mizrahi identity is part and parcel of their political experience — this poses a problem for Netanyahu and the ideological right. The fact that the two of them, who represent a public of voters that political analysts tend to identify with the Likud, dare to challenge a potential Netanyahu victory could mean bad news for Netanyahu and the cohesion of the right-wing camp.

Likud could theoretically decide to replace Netanyahu with a different candidate, should Kahlon, Levy, and others decide they won’t serve under a prime minister facing indictments, thereby ensuring the establishment of a center-right government. But those who believe in this possibility seem not to really understand how Netanyahu works. The prime minister does not view himself as just another politician. He believes he is the historical messenger who has come to save the Jewish people from the danger of a Palestine state. Therefore, he will not give up his seat so easily. Should his own party turn against him, Netanyahu could turn Likud into his hostage. The right will certainly have much to lose from such an internal war.

These political difficulties reflect a deeper problem in the Israeli right. After a decade in power, it is unable to fundamentally change the political equation vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It is true that the right has been able to turn discussions of Palestinian rights, ending the occupation, or a peace plan into illegitimate among large segments of the Israeli public. It is also true that various laws and decisions have normalized the status of settlers in the West Bank, while minimizing the ability to protect the rights of Palestinians under occupation. Meanwhile, the Jewish Nation-State Law threatens the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel and could potentially do the same to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But the right wants much more than that. Netanyahu and Bennett may have different ways of going about it, but their goal is identical: to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state while ensuring exclusively Jewish control between the Jordan River and the sea. Given the political weakness of the Palestinians, the split between Gaza and the West Bank, the civil war in Syria, the close relations between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the rise of the radical right in Europe, the stars aligned in Netanyahu and the right’s favor.

And yet, looking back, it is hard to say that anything has significantly changed. Despite the U.S. embassy moving to Jerusalem, the international community remains committed to the two-state solution. Australia’s decision to recognize only West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is only further proof.

Or take the case of Khan al-Ahmar: a tiny community of a few dozen families, which Israel’s right-wing government was determined to evict from their land in order to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The Palestinian Authority, despite being weak and unpopular, mobilized the international community against the evictions.

And despite all of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s talk of annexing Area C of the West Bank, and the Likud Central Committee’s decision to apply Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank, the Israeli right has not annexed even a centimeter over the past 10 years. Fifteen years after the end of the Second Intifada and the suicide bombings, and more than a decade after the Gaza disengagement, it is hard to say that Israelis feel secure. Stabbings, ‘lone wolf’ killers in the West Bank, three wars in Gaza, Hezbollah tunnels and missiles, Iranian presence in Syria — all of these are still very much a part of daily life for Israelis. Even the most hardline right wingers understand that the Palestinians have not and will not give in, despite their political weakness.

This dead end has brought about the downfall of the Netanyahu government. After all, Bibi’s “weakness” in the face of Hamas was the reason Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister, a move that signaled the end of the coalition. Meanwhile, Bennett and company made life hell for the prime minister over his “weakness” vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it seems that they, too, understand that there is no solution at present. They prefer to continue to incite, yet they won’t take action; otherwise, they wouldn’t be supporting the man they seem to scorn so much.

This doesn’t mean that the right will not form the next government. It is still the most viable political option. But it does mean that, despite having every opportunity to do so, the Israeli right has not been able to change the political reality vis-à-vis the Palestinians. That is its weakness, not its strength.

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and an editor for Local Call, where a version of this article appeared in Hebrew. Read it here. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 magazine.

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