Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present

About the author


The general election in Israel on 10 February 2009 produced a move to the political right, likely to be capped by the formation of a new governing coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud. In the perspective of Israel's history, however, there are losers as well as winners among the established forces on this side of the spectrum - as is true (more obviously) of the left. The emerging constellation of Israeli politics has serious implications for any prospects of movement towards a settlement with the Palestinians.

In this respect the current intertwining of domestic and regional issues follows a consistent pattern, whereby violence in the middle east is always accompanied by an electoral move to the right in Israel. The first intifada (which began in 1987) led to the election of Yitzhak Shamir in 1988; the wave of Hamas suicide-bombings catapulted Binyamin Netanyahu into office in 1996; and the onset of the second ("al-Aqsa") intifada in 2000 persuaded the Israeli electorate to bring back Ariel Sharon from the political wilderness in 2001.

The logic has been that only the right can stand up to nihilist enemies. After the three-week conflagration in Gaza in 2008-09 - amid near-universal expectation that this is not the end of the story - virtually all the Israeli parties prepared for the election of 10 February by producing platforms of militant defiance and national resilience to entice the voters. The Israeli peace camp, undermined for years by the bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, shrank into oblivion. For them and their counterparts in the Palestinian peace camp, there was no political space to enunciate a rationalist approach. Now, the Palestinian rejectionists have in effect elected the Israeli rejectionists.

A militarist storm

Indeed, the success of Avigdor Lieberman - the enfant terrible of Israeli politics, whose Yisrael Beiteinu won a record number of seats (fifteen) and seems certain to enter government alongside "Bibi" Netanyahu's Likud - marks a shift not just rightwards but to the far right. True, Israelis often endorse maverick groups as a measure of their profound irritation with their leaders - and then unceremoniously dump them in subsequent elections (the secularist Shinui and the Pensioners' Party are examples from recent times). But the advance of Lieberman is a commentary on Israeli politics' deeper stagnation - marked as it is by failed, recycled figures such as Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, tainted by incredulous tales of financial corruption, and exemplified in the moral flaws of presidents and premiers.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli history and politics:                           
Stephen Howe, "Troubled links to the narrow land" (13 June 2001)                                     Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)                                    Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)                               Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)                                     Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)                             Thomas O'Dwyer, "Slouching towards Kadima" (26 March 2006)                                 Menachem Kellner, "Israel reverses gravity" (29 March 2006)                                       Jim Lederman, "What Israel's election means" (4 April 2006)                      Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)                             Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel's post-heroic disaster" (30 April 2007)                                    Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)                                    Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)                        Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

There is also a sense of resignation that there has been no movement towards peace with the Palestinians due to the rise of Islamism. Hamas does not simply not recognise Israel, it does not recognise Israelis. There is no dialogue with the Israeli peace camp, nor - even if indirect and clandestine - with Israeli officials. For Hamas, unlike the Palestinian nationalists of Fatah, there is a theological imperative to root out the Zionist weed from hallowed ground; and it makes no distinction between Jews and Zionists.

When Hamas calls a ceasefire, it is not to secure time to be left alone to rebuild a damaged society, but to rearm with more sophisticated weapons. The range of missiles from Gaza has increased fivefold since 2001. Now Beer-Sheva University is in range. Even the Israeli left was muted over the "cruel necessity" of the Gaza operation. What, they asked, will happen if the Islamists acquire bigger and better missiles?

Even after Ariel Sharon had facilitated the evacuation of the Jewish settlers from Gaza in August 2005, the Islamists continued to fire their rockets into Israel, thus eradicating the possibility of further settlements being evacuated from the northern West Bank.

An analogy with the peace process in Northern Ireland is increasingly invoked, but often in a misleading way: for the proper comparison is not between Hamas and Sinn Fein, but between Fatah and Sinn Fein. Both the latter are nationalist movements in the end capable of being influenced by Enlightenment values in the sense of formulating a rational compromise, whether it was the Oslo accords (1993) or the Good Friday agreement (1998). Israelis see no sign of such movement within Hamas, and this has encouraged a centuries-old fatalism amongst the Jews - to batten down the hatches until the storm passes over.

A Russian odyssey

The political immobility of the period since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 has allowed West Bank settlements to expand and to establish new outposts. There is a growing public acceptance that any attempt to uproot the 300,000 settlers will be near impossible, even though a majority of Israelis would desire this.

This dire situation has boosted Avigdor Lieberman's party as well as many other far-right parties. The fact that Yisrael Beiteinu is ideologically closer to Binyamin Netanyahu than to Tzipi Livni underlines Bibi's claim to be the election victor, even though Livni's centrist Kadima party won a seat more. Yet the Israeli right split as well as advanced in this election - many members of Likud's natural constituency switched to Lieberman's party.

Yisrael Beiteinu's name in Hebrew translates to "Israel, Our Home" in English. This betrays its Russian immigrant origins. When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his perestroika and glasnost policies in the second half of the 1980s, the reins restricting Jewish immigration from the USSR were loosened; with the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, the trickle became a flood.

In the 1990s, a million Russian immigrants came to Israel. Yasser Arafat believed that they would all settle on the West Bank, but his fear was not realised. Indeed all the Russians wanted was a modicum of normality following their Soviet experience. They did not want the uncertainty of living in the settlements. Moreover, they were also assimilated and secular - and thus rejected the immediate embrace of Israel's religious parties. Indeed, many voted for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.

At the same time, probably 25%-30% of the immigrants were not even Jewish according to the strictures of Jewish religious law. They could be educated as Jews, fight for Israel and die for Israel, but not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As the Russian immigrants enter their third decade in Israel, this problem has still not been solved by the rabbis, causing much anguish and annoyance.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:                                 Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)                       Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)                                 Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)                             Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)                            Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)                                 Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)                                      Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)                          Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)                            Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)                           Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)                             Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)                                Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)                              Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)                               Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)                           Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)                                    Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)                                       Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)                              Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)                           Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Here, Lieberman's promise to introduce civil marriage in Israel (rather than obliging Israelis of Russian origin to travel abroad) and in addition to ease the conversion process delighted Russian Jews. It also stimulated the bitter opposition of rightwing religious parties such as Shas and HaBayit Hayehudi - which, forced to choose between their religious adherence and their political affinity, opted for the former. This schism within the rightwing camp has made Netanyahu's job of forming a broad coalition much more contentious.

The Russians - like other immigrants to Israel from countries with a history of authoritarian regimes, such as South Africa and Iraq - have tended to favour "strong leaders" to navigate them out of a political morass. Lieberman - a former refusenik from Kishinev (Moldova) who during Netanyahu's first term (1996-99) headed the prime-minister's office - fitted the role. In 1999, he effectively fragmented the first Russian immigrant party, Yisrael B'Aliyah, to form Yisrael Beiteinu. A decade on, the party retains a Russian core, but has moved far beyond this constituency to embrace the radical right, the alienated and the disillusioned.

This shift is reflected in the fact that the number-two to Lieberman on the party list in the election was Uzi Landau, an articulate and long-time member of the Likud who broke with both Sharon and Netanyahu over the question of returning territory to the Palestinians.

Landau‘s father was a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi which fought the British during the 1940s in Mandatory Palestine, and a confidante of Menachem Begin. It took Begin nine attempts before he finally became prime minister in 1977 at the age of 64, thus ending the hegemony of the Labour party. In one sense, the prominence of Landau today outside the Likud symbolises the fragmentation of the coalition of the right assembled by Begin over many years (see A History of Modern Israel, Cambridge University Press, 2008).

A political fragmentation

Menachem Begin had emerged from the maximalist wing of Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky's movement, but he was not (as is often wrongly stated) a Revisionist Zionist. He integrated the pragmatic liberal conservatism of Jabotinsky and the military Zionism of Abba Achimeir, a rightwing intellectual (and admirer of Benito Mussolini) in the inter-war years.

Begin won only fourteen seats in the 1949 election; but by shrewd coalition-building - first with the Liberals and then with the remnants of the David Ben-Gurion wing of the Labour party - was able to establish the Likud in 1973, and thereby win the election four years later. In government, he broadened the right through attracting the National Religious Party (who represented the religious settlers) and persuading the disaffected Moshe Dayan to leave Labour and cross the floor.

The other midwife of the Likud, Ariel Sharon, was a follower of Ben-Gurion and not Jabotinsky. His lack of ties to the idea of a "greater Israel" for purely ideological or religious reasons meant that he was able in 2005 to initiate the disengagement from Gaza and to break with the Likud to form Kadima. This splitting of the Likud unravelled Begin's painstaking work that had created a grand coalescence of the right. 

The future of the Likud then seemed to be that of a minor grouping - alongside a range of other small far-right parties - led by an unpopular leader, Bibi Netanyahu. But two factors - Sharon's stroke and removal from the political scene, and the failure of his successor Ehud Olmert during the Lebanon war in July-August 2006 - allowed Netanyahu to rise once more from the political graveyard.

In this perspective, Avigdor Lieberman's success in the election of February 2009 appears to be yet another stage in the fragmentation of Menachem Begin's grand coalition. But Likud's new opponents are not part of a resurgent left or even centre, but parties still further to the right. 

A diplomatic mountain

This development, apart from its impact on domestic Israeli politics, makes it even harder to envisage that after the apathy of the George W Bush years a constructive approach from Barack Obama's administration will make a real difference. While the Palestinians are split between nationalists and Islamists, the Israelis believe that the right is their salvation in difficult times - though the prospective Netanyahu government may be short-lived, especially if it comes under concerted pressure from Washington.

The new political constellation, however, may provide the impetus for Hamas to be on its best behaviour, utter soothing words and decrease its volley of missiles in order to initiate a dialogue with the United States while effectively excluding Israel from key deliberations. For their part, the Americans may hope that increased involvement on their part will prevent further outbreaks of violence. But the current political dynamics in both Israel and the Palestinian territories suggest that even this - let alone the long-term solutions needed - will be a vain hope. 

Colin Shindler is professor of Israeli Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His books include A History of Modern Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right (IB Tauris, 2005; paperback 2009).