Israel's right rises as peace prospects fade

The decline of the left has hastened "colonial" divisions within Israel's citizenry.


    Occupied East Jerusalem - For David Kazanovich, the growing popularity of far-right political parties in Israel is just a sign of the times.

    "There is no way to end the conflict [with the Palestinians]," the healthcare worker told Al Jazeera as he shopped for toys less than a week before Israel's parliamentary election. "You can only manage the conflict."

    The "peace process" is basically non-existent; construction of illegal settlements continues unabated and support for a Palestinian state among Israelis seems lower than it has been in two decades. Meanwhile, leading candidates for positions in the January 22 Knesset elections are advocating policies that would have been considered "extreme" not long ago.

    Neftali Bennett, millionaire-leader of the Jewish Home Party and the rising star of this election campaign, heads a lobby group for illegal settlers, and says there should never be a Palestinian state.

    Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is campaigning in alliance with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's governing Likud, has demanded that Arab citizens of Israel swear an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state.

    'Insular' direction

    These far-right positions have become reasonably popular with voters. Camil Fuchs, a pollster and statistics professor who tracks public opinion for Israel's Channel 10 News, has seen the change in attitudes through his data.

    "Israeli society is becoming more insular and the Arab Spring didn't help," he told Al Jazeera. "Islamic parties are winning elections in Egypt and Gaza and there is a political attitude in Israel today that inspires fear and distrust towards our [Palestinian] partners… that is fertile ground for the right."

    "Israeli society is becoming more insular and the Arab Spring didn't help ... that is fertile ground for the right."

    - Camil Fuchs, pollster

    Divisions among the Palestinians, with the religiously oriented Hamas and its de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh governing the Gaza Strip while Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank, mean serious negotiations are even more difficult.

    Rockets shot by Palestinian fighters towards Israeli towns don't make the proposition of "land for peace" an easy sell for politicians who consider themselves Israeli progressives, analysts said.

    The final opinion polls, released on Friday, indicate that the governing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance is likely to win between 32 and 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from 42 in the outgoing parliament.

    Labour is predicted to win 16 or 17 seats, while the upstart Jewish Home is slated to win 13-14. Centrist parties Yesh Atid and HaTnuah are set to win 10-13 and 7-8 respectively. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party is expected to win 11-12. 

    'Fragmentation' of the left

    Some voters blame the rise of the right on a failure of organisation among parties traditionally considered left-of-centre.

    "If you define the right as a set of economic policies and the free-market, there is actually a big struggle in Israel after [social protests] last summer and perhaps some mild movement to the left," Oren Yiftachel, professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University told Al Jazeera.

    "When the right is defined as nationalism or colonialism, there is indeed a movement towards more hawkish policies," he said. "On the surface, there is definitely a problem with disorganisation and fragmentation of the centre-left."

    Attempting to capitalise on brooding resentment from the middle classes over rising prices and high housing costs, the Labour party's Shelly Yachimovich has campaigned almost exclusively on economic issues. That hasn't seemed to appeal to many voters in a country where security dominates political discourse.

    "The biggest issue is to elect someone who will take care of both the economy and security," Danielle, a kindergarden teacher in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera. "I feel like we don't have any politicians who have a spine."

    Binyamin Netanyahu announced this election in October, as parliament was unable to agree on a budget because of austerity programmes proposed by the government. Despite debates over cuts, Netanyahu is almost certain to return as prime minister, primarily because of his security credentials.

    "The biggest issue is to elect someone who will take care of both the economy and security. I feel like we don't have any politicians who have a spine."

    - Danielle, kindergarten teacher

    The economic situation played a larger role in past elections, Fuchs, the pollster, said. "[But today] people want to see a strong leader."

    Demographic changes

    Other analysts believe the right-ward shift dates back further than recent events in the Middle East, cutting deeper into Israeli society than merely being the result of poor electioneering from the traditional left.

    "The process of getting more conservative has probably been happening since the 1970s," Ami Pedahuz, author of The Triumph of Israel's Radical Right told Al Jazeera. "The shift is an outcome of demographic changes within Israel… and more radical ideas concerning religion."

    The settlers who developed the Zionist project in the wake of the holocaust were often Europeans holding what they considered a left-leaning worldview. In contrast, newer arrivals, especially from the former Soviet bloc, are usually more hawkish when it comes negotiations with the Palestinians.

    Immigration from Soviet states exploded during the 1990s. Those newer arrivals now constitute some 15 per cent of Israel's population of almost eight million.

    Bill Clinton, the former US president who facilitated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, called Russian immigration an "obstacle to peace".

    Avigdor Lieberman, who reportedly worked as a bouncer in Moldova before emigrating to Israel and throwing his weight into the political ring, personifies the stance of many recent arrivals.

    "Many of the immigrants are coming from a huge country and they find it strange to give up what they perceive as a homeland to the Arabs," Pedahuz said. "Because of their experiences [under the Soviet system], they don’t like the left. These people immediately become part of the ruling ethnic group and there is immediate animosity towards the Arabs."

    Like the former foreign minister, Jews from any country are able to obtain citizenship after moving to Israel, even if they were born thousands of miles away. Palestinians and their descendants who were born on land now occupied by Israel, on the other hand, are unable to return home. 

    International perceptions

    Demographics aside, Israel's place in the world has shifted. Many of its founders believed they were creating a thriving beacon of "socialist labour" through the kibbutz system of collective farming.

    "Because of their experiences [under the Soviet system], they don’t like the left. These people immediately become part of the ruling ethnic group and there is immediate animosity towards the Arabs."

    - Ami Pedahuz, author

    During its first war with Arab states soon after its creation in 1948, Israel received crucial arms shipments - not from Uncle Sam's patronage - but from the socialist bloc via the Czech Republic.

    As decolonisation movements swept much of the world in the 1960s, many came to view Israel as an aggressive occupier, oppressing an indigenous Palestinian population, rather than seeing the nation as a scrappy pseudo-socialist state.

    Israel's victory in the 1967 war, and its increasingly close relationship with the US, undermined the state's remaining leftist credentials in the eyes of many. Meanwhile, changing international perceptions of Israel led a group of once-liberal youths in the US to switch sides and become what came to be known as neoconservatives.

    But the right-ward shift among Israeli voters was not caused by these international trends. Instead, it seems average people became tired of politicians promising a peace deal that never materalised. 

    Unlike parties considered centre-left, who talked about a two state solution while building settlements on Palestinian land, the "new right" - especially through leaders such as the Jewish Home Party's Bennett - has been reasonably clear about its intentions.

    "Many people don't understand the fact that peace with the Palestinians is impossible," healthcare worker Kazanovich said as he left Jerusalem's largest shopping mall, echoing the view of many Israeli voters. If peace is impossible, then permanently dispossessing the Palestinians is the least bad of all possible options for Israel, many here believe.

    Some 58 percent of Israeli Jews believe Israel is already practicing apartheid against the Palestinians, according to an October poll published by the newspaper Haaretz.

    More than 65 percent of Israeli Jews polled in that survey said the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank should be denied the right to vote if the territory were formally annexed into Israel.

    "More than 500,000 Jews now live in colonial situations in settlements. As their numbers grow there will be more of a shift to politicians who support the project. This makes it very difficult to secure the long term peace and security that both Jews and Palestinians deserve."

    - Oren Yiftachel, Ben Gurion University

    "More than 500,000 Jews now live in colonial situations in settlements," Yiftachel said. "As their numbers grow there will be more of a shift to politicians who support the project. This makes it very difficult to secure the long term peace and security that both Jews and Palestinians deserve."

    'Colonial' status quo

    As Israeli society becomes more conservative, political parties of the right are following suit in their internal choices. When deciding candidate lists for Tuesday's vote, Likud dropped Dan Meridor, Avi Dichter and Benny Begin, who were seen as more moderate than other party members.

    When asked about his departure from Likud, Begin, the son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, told Al Jazeera that "the definition of left and right is different here than in other countries".

    So has Likud mirrored Israeli society in moving further to the right? "I don’t want to comment on election issues," Begin said. Then he hung up. 

    Rather than serious discussions about the prospects of long-term peace, many right-wingers seem content with the status quo - the occupation of the West Bank and continued settlement construction and expansion. For them, it's imperfect, but acceptable. 

    Others, including Zionists such as journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and Israelis such as Professor Oren Yifatchel, believe staying on the same path is not sustainable.

    "The main concern after this election would be the continuation of a colonial status quo leading us further into an apartheid situation that will be almost impossible to undo," Yiftachel said.

    "It's a status quo built on decaying foundations that no regime can hold."

    Follow Chris Arsenault as he reports on Israel's election on Twitter: @AJEchris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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