The most important issue to be determined in this election is the future of the
Four years ago, that question was supposedly resolved. On
June 14, 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Binyamin Netanyahu became the
first sitting Likud prime minister to endorse a two-state solution.
speech wasn’t only intended to appease US President Barack Obama but to
transform the Likud from an ideological to a pragmatic right-wing party, able to
become home to Israel’s centrist majority: hawkish on security but flexible on
territory, wary of Palestinian intentions but prepared in principle for
In implicitly acknowledging the political irrelevance of the
Likud’s historic opposition to partition, Netanyahu also transformed the
mainstream Israeli debate over a Palestinian state. No major political party –
including the nationalist Yisrael Beytenu of Avigdor Liberman – now opposed a
Palestinian state on ideological grounds. The question was no longer whether to
create a Palestinian state but under what conditions would it be relatively safe
for Israel to do so.
Historical claims and religious attachments, however
profound, were no longer sufficient reason to deny another people sovereignty
over part of this land. Instead, the only justification for maintaining the
occupation became the ongoing refusal of the Palestinian national movement to
accept Israel’s legitimacy.
The Bar-Ilan speech was widely dismissed
abroad as a non-event, mere lip-service to a two-state solution. Rather than
embrace Netanyahu, Obama treated him like a pariah, as though the Likud leader
hadn’t just courageously violated one of the core beliefs of his
But that speech was taken very seriously by the Israeli hard Right,
which understood that Netanyahu had consigned it to the political
The greatest danger to the ideological Right has always come from
the pragmatic Right: Only a flexible right-wing leader has the trust of the
Israeli mainstream to withdraw from territory and uproot settlements. The
process begun by Menachem Begin in Sinai in 1982, and continued by Ariel Sharon
in Gaza in 2005, had been given its ideological legitimacy by Netanyahu in
But now, in this election, the hard Right is back from the fringe.
Pragmatic Likud has been usurped by a revolt of ideological Likud. Veteran
moderates like Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan were replaced in the Likud
primaries by ideologues like Danny Danon and even Moshe Feiglin, the far
rightist whom Netanyahu had fought for years to keep off the party
Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely even declared that the Bar-Ilan speech was
merely tactical and didn’t represent party policy.
The struggle for the
soul of the Likud isn’t only between pragmatists and ideologues. It is also
between those faithful to the party’s democratic roots and those who would
Attacks against the Supreme Court, for example, are now coming
not only from ultra- Orthodox spokesmen but from some Likud MKs, who oppose the
(Critics ignore the fact that Israel’s unique
circumstances – a democracy that is also an occupier, and under existential
threat – require an active court to defend democratic norms.) In the old Likud
of Begin, the Supreme Court’s interventionism was celebrated as an expression of
When the court ruled against a settlement being
built on private Arab land, Begin declared with pride, “There are judges in
The Likud’s ideological forebear, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was a
liberal nationalist in the 19thcentury European tradition.
And while some
on the fringes of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism were drawn to fascism and
even admired Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, they were rejected by the
The creation of a democratic right wing was one of
the glories of Zionism.
Now that honorable tradition is under
The success of Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) in
attracting young secular voters has expanded the base of the hard Right – much
as Shas has expanded the ultra-Orthodox base by attracting non-Orthodox Sephardi
voters. Bennett is running an appealing campaign, invoking army slang to convey
the shared patriotism of secular and religious. But running behind Bennett on
the list of Bayit Yehudi are members of the former National Union, a party
considered so extreme by Netanyahu that he excluded them from his last
government, the only right-wing party to be kept out of the coalition. Now,
though, thanks to Bennett’s popularity, the National Union could enter the
government through the back door.
A precondition for Bayit Yehudi joining
the government would be massive settlement- building. Yet according to a recent
poll, over 80 percent of Israelis want to cut spending in
Israel desperately needs a responsible Right – able to
realize, for example, that during the year of a decision over how to thwart a
nuclear Iran, a conflict with the international community over settlements is
not in Israel’s best interest.
On his better days, Netanyahu understands
The struggle for the soul of the Right isn’t only happening within
the Likud but within Netanyahu himself. The story of Netanyahu’s leadership is,
in part, the drama of his own vacillation between pragmatist and
When Netanyahu – like Israelis generally – is under attack, he
reverts to a hard-line position. So far Obama has played a deeply damaging role
in the process of Netanyahu’s fitful break with his ideological past. Obama’s
crass intervention in Israeli politics – leaking word of his contempt for
Netanyahu a week before elections – will only reinforce Netanyahu the
Netanyahu’s post-election challenge will be to clarify the
distinction between the pragmatic and the ideological Right. He will need to
reaffirm the relevance of his Bar-Ilan speech and make clear to the hard-liners
in his party that the Likud is not Bayit Yehudi.
One unambiguous way of
reasserting the primacy of the pragmatic right would be to exclude Bennett from
the coalition in favor of the centrist party, Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid.
Including The Tzipi Livni Party in a Likud-led government will be more
problematic, since Livni is committed to the illusion of a negotiated peace with
the Palestinian Authority. (Indeed, Livni and Bennett share this in common: Each
is promoting a discredited position from the past – Livni’s “peace now” versus
Bennett’s “annexation now.”) Excluding Bennett will send the message that, until
it moves closer to the center, the Bayit Yehudi will be treated like the
The future of Israeli democracy doesn’t depend on an
enlightened Left vanquishing a benighted Right, but on the ability of hawkish
Israelis with democratic ideals to control the irrational Right.
outcome of that struggle will depend in no small measure on Netanyahu’s courage
and will, and on Obama’s restraint in imposing one-sided pressure on
The writer is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and
a member of the iEngage Project research team. Find out more at iengage.org.il
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