A glimpse into the political parties that are undermining Israeli democracy and aim at establishing a de-facto annexation of the West Bank
Last update: 2023-08-02 11:37:57
On April 25, 1925, in a café in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Union of Revisionist Zionists held it founding conference. The Zionist, and what would become later the Israeli right-wing, was born. The leader of the Revisionists, and founder of the movement, was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an activist, orator, writer and poet, born in Odesa, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1880 and educated at Sapienza University in Rome.
He had split with the mainstream Zionist movement, which he had joined in 1903, following the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, due to what he saw as the weak attitude of its leadership towards the British government which had captured Palestine in 1917 but forsaken its promise to establish a Jewish National Home there.
Jabotinsky was a staunch Jewish nationalist who believed that only an “Iron Wall of Jewish bayonets” would secure the Jewish state, and at the same time a self-professed liberal democrat who wrote that “from the wealth of our land, there shall prosper the Arab, the Christian, and the Jew.” In his writings, Jabotinsky rejected fascism and leader-worship, but in its early years, members of his movement openly identified as fascists and Jabotinsky’s own leadership of the Revisionists was unquestioned, until his death in 1940.
For the 98 years of the movement’s existence, first as the Revisionist Zionists, then after establishment of Israel in 1948 as the Herut Party, which after a merger with other parties in 1973, became the Likud, it has contained multiple strands of nationalism, liberalism, secularism, religious-conservatism, ethno-nationalism and proto-fascism. At times these strands have co-existed. In other periods groups have broken-off from Likud, to the far-right and center of Israeli politics.
On December 29, 2022, a new Likud government was formed under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was like no previous Likud governments. It had no centrist parties in its coalition, just far-right and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, and this version of Likud, was right at home with these extreme allies.
Begin’s Option for Mainstream Politics
In the first Knesset, Israel’s parliament, elected in 1949, there were no far-right parties. Menachem Begin, the man who had eventually succeeded Jabotinsky as leader of the Revisionists, had chosen to be part of mainstream politics. Just as in the past, there were more extreme elements within the movement who favored staging a military coup in the new state, using the fighters of the Revisionist pre-state underground militia – The Irgun, which Begin had commanded.
But Begin decided otherwise. He agreed to hand over the Irgun’s weapons and integrate its fighters in the newly created Israeli army, which was dominated by his political rival, David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai (Labor) party. Irgun was disbanded and the Revisionists were to become part of the new democratic structure in the form of Herut, which spent most of the next three decades in opposition.
In all that time, Likud was Israel’s only right-wing party and it was right-wing mainly in the sense that it held on to the dream of establishing a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan and opposed the control Mapai had over Israel’s economy, through its Histadrut trade union federation. On other matters, such as separation of state and religion and abolishing the State of Emergency laws Israel retained from the British Mandate, it was actually more liberal than the ruling Mapai.
In Israel’s early years, the far-right consisted of a few tiny underground groups. Some were Revisionists who had refused to accept the dismantlement of their militias and continued for a short while to fantasize about a coup. There was also an underground ultra-religious group that were planning to supplant the secular state with one which would adhere to the laws of the Torah. None of these groups had much support or representation in the Knesset and were soon arrested once their members tried to carry out armed attacks.
As long as Likud was the main opposition party to Mapai on the right, the far-right had very little space to grow. It was only in 1981, four years after Likud was finally in power, that a far-right party even made it into the Knesset.
Three key developments
Three key developments led to the growth of the far-right in Israel.
The first was Israel’s breathtaking victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the resulting occupation of territories captured from Jordan, Egypt and Syria. For the previous eighteen years, the arguments over Israel’s actual borders had been theoretical as Israel existed within the narrow ceasefire lines reached in 1949. From 1967 onwards, Israel controlled wide swathes of land, some of which had large numbers of Palestinians living on them, and the argument over what to do with those lands, and the people living there, would open up an ever-growing space on the far right of the political discourse.
The second development took place a decade later when in the 1977 election, Israel’s ninth, Menachem Begin’s Likud finally succeeded in forming a coalition which swept him to power. Fifty-two years after Jabotinsky founded the movement, the long years of being the outsiders of the Zionist movement, the wandering in Israel’s political desert of opposition, were at last over. But with power came also responsibility and the need to show pragmatism. And with that came disappointment for the “true believers” on the right for whom Likud could never do enough. Only when the right-wing finally came to office, was there space for a true far-right.
The third development was a gradual one. It has been taking place for nearly six decades. Israel’s Orthodox communities, first the Modern Orthodox, or as they are more usually called in Israel, the national-religious, and then the ultra-Orthodox, who in the earlier years of the state were aligned neither with the right or the left, began shifting inexorably, first to the right and then the far-right. They would supply many, if not most of the supporters for the new Israeli far-right.
The Far-Right enters the Parliament
The first far-right party in the Knesset was elected in 1981 and its electoral success was due to all three developments. Tehiya’s founders were the first Likud members to break away from the party after it came to power. The reason for the split was the peace agreement Menachem Begin had just signed with Egyptian President Anwar Assad, under which Israel would return the Sinai Peninsula it had captured in 1967 in return for full diplomatic relations with its largest neighbor with whom it had fought five wars.
The Likudniks who founded Tehiya were horrified that the first prime minister to relinquish territories they regarded as part of the Greater Land of Israel was of the right. It was a betrayal of all they held dear, especially as Begin had promised shortly before becoming prime minister that he would himself move after retirement to a settlement in Sinai. Their problem was that even with the right-wing, they were in a minority. Euphoria over the prospect of peace with Egypt swept up most Israelis. Only a handful of Likud members joined them in leaving the party. To make up the numbers, they invited also nationalist rabbis and settler leaders, who weren’t formerly Likud members, who found a party opposed to peace with Egypt a natural home for them. The concept of a far-right party, or at least a party to the right of Likud seemed to appeal to Israeli voters and in the next election, in 1984, there were already three of them in the Knesset. In fact, the concept was so successful that by the election in 1992, there were too many parties vying for the far-right voters and Tehiya, the pioneer, failed to cross the electoral threshold. Its demise and the loss of its votes, helped Labor Leader, Yitzhak Rabin, win the election.
The Ruling Coalition
So what defines “far-right” in today’s Israeli politics? There is no clear definition. It’s a combination of radical positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the future of the occupied territories, on issues of state and religion, the powers of the Supreme Court and LGBT rights.
Seven of the parties that were elected to the Knesset in the last election in November 2022 make up Binyamin Netanyahu’s current coalition. All of them can be now considered far-right, at least on some of the main issues. Three of the parties ran together on the “Religious Zionism” joint list of candidates which won fourteen seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Jewish Power, is the most radical element of the list. Its roots are in the Kach Party, founded by American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, which entered the Knesset in 1984. Kach advocated denying citizenship from Arab-Israelis and was prevented from running in subsequent elections on the grounds that he incited racism. In 2004, it was proscribed as a terror organization by the Israeli government and forced to disband. Jewish Power was founded by former Kach members, and its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in the past has been investigated and indicted for multiple violence and terror-related charges, has worked hard to make it a viable political party. The changes to Jewish Power’s platform and tone (its members no longer cry “Death to Arabs!” but instead “Death to terrorists!”) have allowed it to run in elections but it still never succeeded in crossing the electoral threshold (which is currently 3.25 percent of the total vote) on its own. That finally changed in the 2021 election, when Netanyahu succeeded in convincing Jewish Power to merge its candidates list with those of other far-right lists. Ben-Gvir finally managed to get elected to the Knesset in that election and in the November 2022 election, he was re-elected, once again as part of the “Religious Zionism” list with five more Jewish Power members. In Netanyahu’s government he is now National Security Minister. He has called upon the government to embark on a series of wide-scale military operations in the West Bank (so far there has been one such operation in Jenin in early July), to pass a death-sentence law for Palestinian terrorists and to form a “national guard” which will be under his control.
Back in the days of Rabbi Kahane, Likud and most of the Israeli right shunned him. In his single term as a Knesset member (1984-88) whenever he got up to speak in the plenum, all the other members would file-out in protest over his racist views. Today’s Likud, under Netanyahu, has made Kahane’s successors partners in power.
The largest element of “Religious Zionism”, currently with seven Knesset members, is Nationl Union – Tkuma, which now calls itself the Religious Zionism Party and is led by Bezalel Smotrich, now the Finance Minister. It is now currently the main party representing both the Zionist Orthodox community and the settlers in the West Bank. As such, it is an evolution of the old National Religious Party (NRP), once a centrist party that was a partner in nearly all of the Israeli governments, since Israel’s independence and in its early decades, and was actually known for its moderation. In 1967, when the Labor government decided to pre-emptively attack Egypt in what became the Six-Day War, NRP ministers were reluctant to go along with the decision.
Following the war, and as young religious activists became the vanguard of the movement to establish Jewish settlements in the newly-occupied territories, the community began shifting to the far-right. In 1979, the NRP still voted in favor of the peace agreement with Egypt, enraging the younger, right-wing members, some of whom left for Tehiya. Another right-wing faction broke away and formed in the 1984 election the religious and far-right Morasha Party, but they eventually returned to the NRP and took over the party.
Today’s Religious Zionism Party is the culmination of that generational shift; a resolutely far-right and religious party, focused on establishing a de-facto annexation of the West Bank and building many more Jewish settlements there, while creating a more religious “Jewish” ethos within Israel. Its leader, Smotrich, said after a shooting attack in which two Israeli settlers were killed, that he is in favor of destroying the Palestinian town where the attack occurred.
The smallest party on the Religious Zionism list Noam, which has currently a single Knesset member and shares much of the religious and nationalistic positions of the other two parties but has a different main emphasis. Noam’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Zvi Thau, believes that there is a global campaign directed by “progressive” forces to eliminate the traditional family institution and therefore he founded a party to protect Israel from such ideas. Noam’s parliamentary leader and sole Knesset member was appointed in the new coalition a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, where he has responsibilities for educational programs and tries to root-out progressive ideas on gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
None of these three parties would have such powers, in fact only one of them would have probably made over the electoral threshold and into the Knesset, if it were not Netanyahu pressuring them to join one candidates’ list and then included them in his coalition. This was partly out of political necessity, Netanyahu would not have won a majority without the far-right, but in the process, his own party, Likud, which still officially describes itself as a “national liberal party,” has increasingly veered to the far-right itself. Many of its younger members and Knesset members are themselves drawn from the religious community and far-right groups. Back in 2009, Netanyahu seemed to be taking Likud towards the center-ground when he made his Bar Ilan Speech, accepting the two-state solution. Today’s Likud, including Netanyahu himself, is pro-annexation of parts of the West Bank and it supports the religious and ultra-conservative policies of its far-right allies.
The third element of Netanyahu’s coalition is the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas which represents “Mizrahi” Orthodox Jews, those whose originally families hail from the Muslim world, and the two Ashkenazi-Haredi parties, Agudath Yisrael, originally founded in 1912 in eastern Europe which currently represents mainly Hassidic communities, and the non-Hasidic Degel Ha’Torah, which broke away in 1988 (both parties have since 1992 run in the Knesset elections on the joint United Torah Judaism list).
Officially, the ultra-Orthodox parties do not define themselves as being of the right or the center-left in Israeli politics. Ideologically their founders were either opposed to Zionism or agnostic about what they saw as a secular movement. Their aim was to use what little political power they had to ensure their community’s independence as a semi-autonomous group within Israel.
In the past, they have cooperated with center-left governments, but in recent decades, they have also shifted decisively to the right. The official and ideological reason for rejecting their previous alliances is that “the Likud is closer to Judaism,” or in other words, not as predominantly secular as the center-left parties. But Netanyahu in his long political career has built a rock-solid alliance with these parties, showering them with public funding and jobs, tying them to the right. In the process, the Haredim, especially their younger generation, have also developed hard-right positions on the Israel-Palestine issue (many of them live in urban settlements on the edge of the West Bank, though the main reason for that is a housing crisis within Israel rather than ideology). Their authoritarian tendencies are now more pronounced, thanks to the increase in their proportion of Israel’s population due to higher birth-rates and the power they have received from Netanyahu. Their policies are no longer aimed just at allowing their autonomy within Israel, but towards religious coercion of the rest of Israeli society.
All three elements of the Netanyahu coalition, Likud, the traditional far-right parties, and the ultra-Orthodox, are now partners in the new far-right project of trying to drastically weaken Israel’s Supreme Court, a bastion of liberal values and essential safeguard in a political system which does not have a written constitution. The laws, limiting the judicial review powers of the court, have become the focus of massive protests and unprecedent civil unrest.
All the parties of Binyamin Netanyahu’s sixth government, whatever their official platforms and despite their more moderate traditions are all now part of coalition which is both promoting and enabling the Israeli far-right’s agenda, and should all be now considered as far-right parties.