The Ascendency of the Far Right in Israel

The result of the election in Israel in 1977 is known in Hebrew as ‘the Earthquake’. It marked the end of the Labour party’s long rule and the beginning of the long decline of the Israeli Left. The party with which Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson had identified was replaced by Menahem Begin’s nationalist Likud and its enthusiasm to establish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, conquered by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. 

While the Centre-Right was sufficiently pragmatic to establish peace with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt through the Camp David Accords of 1979, a faction broke away from the Likud in protest — this was the genesis of the far Right in Israel. It was matched in the 1980s by the emergence of Palestinian Islamism — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — to rival Yasser Arafat’s nationalist PLO.

During the last forty years, the far Right has accelerated further to the Right, espousing positions that had previously been thought unthinkable. The far Right has been personified by factionalism and rivalry, by splits and coalescence. It has also been characterised by the advance of the zealous heirs of the moderate National Religious Party of the 1950s in becoming a radicalising, messianic, religious movement.

The assassination of Israel’s Labour prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by Yigal Amir in November 1995, was a watershed in the rise of the far Right. While this act was designed to halt the Oslo Accords, signed with the PLO’s Yasser Arafat in 1993, it ironically paralleled the intentions of Hamas to halt any Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. For Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel was a poisonous weed planted in the Middle East that should be uprooted. 

Many on the far Right quietly admired Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir — and no less than Itamar Ben-Gvir who formed the Committee for Saving Democracy and produced a video in 2007 that called for the release of Amir. Ben-Gvir was a follower of the American rabbi, Meir Kahane whose reactionary views were shunned by many Diaspora Jews. Meir Kahane had worked for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI during the 1960s and using the alias Michael King, removed his skullcap and informed on Jews who opposed the Vietnam war.  

When Amir’s brother, Hagai, was released from prison in 2012, he immediately began to associate with Kahanists such as Bentzi Gopstein, who was a keen advocate in the burning down of churches in Israel. Gopstein was also the head of Lehava, which opposed intermarriage, the mixing of Arabs and Jews on beaches, the movement of non-orthodox Reform Jews and the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. Itamar Ben-Gvir often defended Gopstein as Lehava’s lawyer.

Ben-Gvir, Gopstein and others all became leaders of a reinvigorated Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, which won six seats in the November 2022 election. The leader of the biggest party, Benjamin Netanyahu, required 61 to form a coalition in Israel’s parliament of 120 seats, the Knesset.  He could only do this by embracing Ben-Gvir’s party and thereby allowing them to become a constituent part of his government. Ben-Gvir moved from the obscurantist margins of the far Right to the heart of government as Minister of National Security. Living in the West Bank settlement of Kiriat Arba, next to Hebron, he also supervised the Israeli Border Police on the West Bank. His tenure in office has been characterised by a general rabble-rousing to energise his base and to intimidate his opponents both within and outside government. 

The current crisis has pitched the far Right against the families of the hostages — those civilians killed or abducted on 7 October 2023 and now held in the tunnels of Hamas, deep underground in Gaza. The families argue that Hamas has been downgraded militarily sufficiently with a probable 10,000 of its fighters killed in the conflict and therefore Netanyahu should strike a deal. The longer the conflict goes on, the families believe, the less the likelihood that their loved ones will return. 

Netanyahu has proclaimed the goal of ‘total victory’ and has seemingly rejected all proposals. If he reached a compromise agreement which would allow for a temporary cessation of hostilities, the release of the hostages and leave a remnant of Hamas in place, Itamar Ben-Gvir and the far Right would leave Netanyahu’s coalition. One scenario of this step would be the collapse of the government, a new election and the ousting of Netanyahu — already on trial for corruption. Opinion polls have consistently demonstrated that the Likud would lose the election heavily and be replaced by the centrist National Unity party with Benny Gantz as prime minister. It is also likely that the Israeli Labour party will be unable to pass the 3.25% threshold to gain representation in the next Knesset. Almost 150 days since Hamas killed and kidnapped hundreds of civilians, Netanyahu is driven by personal interests to maintain the status quo. 

Chartist 6 March 2024

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