In August, Israel almost witnessed a spectacular duel. MK Oren Hazan, the colorful Likud politician known for numerous scandals, affairs and embarrassing statements, drove his car to the Israeli- Jordanian border crossing at the Allenby Bridge. There, he was supposed to face Yahya Saud, a Jordanian MP who challenged him to a fistfight.
The reason was a radio interview, in which Hazan allegedly “insulted” the Jordanian people, in response to particularly rude anti-Israeli comments of Saud and his parliamentary colleagues.
On their way to the bridge, both belligerents were (predictably) blocked by their respective governments, but that didn’t matter. They received ample media attention and applause from their supporters as “real men” and fearless patriots. For both Hazan and Saud, that was a win-win situation.
Indeed, in recent years, Hazan has had an enduring presence on Israeli TV screens and in the country’s political life. Calling himself “the Israeli Trump,” he has adopted his role model’s penchant for scandalous behavior. No accusation, no shaming, no exposure seems to undermine his position. When, for example, journalists brought evidence about his shady past as a casino manager in Bulgaria, as well as connections to the sex industry, no harm was done.
Nor were his numerous mischiefs and pranks ever punished.
Once, he even managed to sneak, uninvited, into a reception ceremony for US President Donald Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport, and pressed the president for a selfie.
Each of these pranks, the latest one being his “duel” with Saud, has bolstered his image among his crowd. For many Israelis, he is one of them: young, cool and completely indifferent to the mockery of the media and snobbish cultural elites.
Many observers see Hazan as a joke.
Yet he deserves a long, hard look. Not because he is a serious politician – he obviously isn’t – but because his demeanor and popularity reflect the post-ideological stage of the Israeli Right.
Here one needs a little bit of background.
Since 1967, Israeli has been holding a large Palestinian population under military occupation – temporary in theory but permanent in practice. All sectors of the Israeli political mainstream have had to find a way to justify this occupation, as it is inconvenient to define it as a land grab or outright colonialism.
The Zionist Left, the Center and the moderate Right have always quoted security: Israel has to rule the territories in order to guarantee the safety of its citizens from hostile attack. That made a lot of sense after the Six Day War, and for many, it still does. The religious Right, however, has more emotional and idealistic arguments. We control the territories because this is our promised land.
By evoking biblical terminology and imagery, the settlers and the religious Right are able to tap deep emotional reserves of tradition, romantic legends and 2,000 years of Jewish prayer and longing for Eretz Yisrael.
The fact that such sentiments are widespread among many Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, has always been the religious Right’s wellspring of political power.
But at the same time, the religious Right’s ability to win hearts and minds in the mainstream has always been limited. The settlers on the hills of Judea and Samaria are too idealistic, too ascetic, too “pure,” in a sense, to draw anything more than fleeting sympathy from the larger Israeli middle class.
Whenever faced with real prospects for a comprehensive peace deal, the mainstream has seemed ready to abandon both settlers and the territories.
That was evident both during the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the disengagement plan in 2005.
The religious Right has its sympathizers, but most Israelis support the continuous occupation of the territories because they believe that the Palestinians are unready to recognize Israel, and plan to use any territory acquired as a launchpad for a new offensive.
The deadly terrorist attacks after the Oslo Accords, the Hamas coup in Gaza after the disengagement plan and the subsequent rocket attacks on southern Israel have reinforced this notion. In other words, most Israelis want to remain in the territories in order to safeguard their own security, and as we’re not leaving anyway, the settlers may as well do what they want.
A new approach, however, is already in the making. Younger Israelis have grown up with the occupation, never having experienced any other reality. They have learned to live with Palestinian resistance, occasional terrorism and feeble international reaction. Israel’s efficient security system, its technological prowess and US support have all made these ills tolerable.
And meanwhile, controlling the West Bank can also be fun. Settlers have learned that in order to win Israeli hearts and minds, biblical ideology is not enough. Settlements are now full of wine-tasting venues, mountain cycling routes and vacation homes overlooking breathtaking scenery. Now the religious claim over the territories not only corresponds with security needs, it is also attractive, even cool.
And the Palestinians? They are a nuisance that one has to live with, no more.
Repress them when they’re making trouble and ignore their existence in all other occasions. And when the non-Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank, let alone Gaza, are far from one’s mind, it is even possible to deny the very existence of the military occupation.
“Occupation?” declared Hazan on one occasion. “The only occupied things are the pickles in my fridge,” a Hebrew pun playing on the vocal similarity between the words kibush (occupation) and kvushim (pickles).
In another instance, Hazan demanded the segregation of Arabs and Jews in West Bank buses, so settlers wouldn’t have to see Palestinians even on public transportation.
A former bartender and casino handler, Hazan is the face of a young, emerging secular Right: mischievous, hedonistic and self-centered. The Jewish religious claim to the West Bank still exists as a cover – Hazan still pays lip service to tradition – but the real motives are essentially secular.
Similarly to Israelis who cut in queues, drive wildly on the road or behave rudely in foreign hotels, Hazan’s occupation ideology is based on the well-known Israeli notion of magi’a li (roughly translated to “it’s mine because I hold it”).
He is therefore interesting not as a politician but as an indicator: his approach to the conflict is a mirror for us all – and the picture is not pretty.