iENGAGE: The struggle for the Israeli Right

The 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 Israel.

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
The most important issue to be determined in this election is the future of the Israeli Right.
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.
That 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 compromise.
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 camp.
But that speech was taken very seriously by the Israeli hard Right, which understood that Netanyahu had consigned it to the political fringe.
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 2009.
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 list.
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 betray it.
Attacks against the Supreme Court, for example, are now coming not only from ultra- Orthodox spokesmen but from some Likud MKs, who oppose the court’s activism.
(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 democratic vitality.
When the court ruled against a settlement being built on private Arab land, Begin declared with pride, “There are judges in Jerusalem.”
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 movement’s mainstream.
The creation of a democratic right wing was one of the glories of Zionism.
Now that honorable tradition is under attack.
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 settlements.
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 this.
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 ideologue.
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 ideologue.
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 National Union.
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.
The 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 Israel.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of the iEngage Project research team. Find out more at