Far-right religious nationalists are edging closer to power in Israel
In Israel’s volatile political environment, debating and predicting the outcome of the November election is another way to pass the time during the hot summer days, when most people’s minds are on staying cool, navigating their way through an overcrowded airport for their first post-pandemic trip abroad, or surviving a cost-of-living crisis that is spiralling out of control.
Still, even at this early stage of the election campaign, there is at least one alarmingly consistent phenomenon that stands out in the opinion polls: The rise of ultra-religious nationalism, led by unsavory characters who can only be described as bigots with strong fascist leanings.
The Religious Zionist party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, which even before the most recent national election had incorporated Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist movement Otzma Yehudit, looks likely to more than double its seats in the next Knesset, from its current six to a possible 13.
In the Israeli context, where the current prime minister commands a group of no more than 17 MPs out of 120, and the leader he replaced headed a grouping of a mere seven seats, such a result could have an immense impact on the direction of the country in the next few years. When it comes to the Religious Zionist party, this spells bad news for Israel’s democracy and for relations with Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
These are early days and the public might be using the polls to send a message to other parties, mainly Likud, that it wants them to move further to the right, closer to Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s positions.
Nevertheless, it is also an extremely worrying sign that the racist and homophobic language of the latter has been legitimized, and people are unashamed not only to vote for them in what is a secret ballot, but also to openly and unreservedly express support for their repulsive ideas. To make things even worse, the polls have also highlighted that the party’s showing at the ballot box would be stronger if Ben Gvir, who is regarded as the more extreme of the two, were its leader, although ideologically the difference between him and Smotrich is paper thin.
Both components of the party are oozing with racism and bigotry. For instance, in 2016, Smotrich tweeted his support for segregating Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards. “It’s only natural my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years,” he wrote after his wife had shared a maternity ward with a Palestinian woman.
If one follows his distorted logic, Smotritch should have ensured that his wife stayed in a single room, as who knows, the woman in the bed next to hers, whatever her religion, nationality or ethnicity, might give birth not only to a murderer, but perhaps a rapist, bank robber, fraudster or even a future prime minister who one day would be indicted for corruption (although Smotrich would have no problem sharing a coalition government with the latter).
In any country that has any respect for democratic values, Smotrich’s comments should be enough to disqualify him from ever becoming a public figure, let alone an elected one.
For now, the Religious Zionist party is incapable of winning elections, but it might be pivotal in forming the next coalition government.
As it begins to enter mainstream politics, the far right is becoming more sophisticated in its messaging. It has learned, after the banning in the 1980s of the arch-bigot spiritual leader Meir Kahane, to conceal its motives, softening its direct racist slurs and its outspoken wish to destroy the independence of the High Court of Justice, which is seen as the last barrier to the imposition of the most extreme version of a Jewish state, where Arabs, and anyone holding liberal-left opinions would become at best second-class citizens.
For this strand of Zionism, the Green Line does not exist as far as Israeli sovereignty is concerned, and the Palestinians should either obey and accept it, or face the consequences.
Like other nascent fascist movements on the march to demolish their country’s democratic structures and processes, before they come to power they are learning to talk in coded terms that are clear enough to their supporters, but do not cross the line into illegality. For example, a chant such as “Death to Arabs” has been replaced by “Death to Terrorists,” but in their minds these slogans are interchangeable. In their world of “wink wink nudge nudge,” their supporters understand the subtext perfectly.
Ironically, Ben Gvir is the only current MP who is a convicted felon. While he constantly and baselessly accuses Arab-Palestinian MPs of supporting terrorism, it is he who has been convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism for carrying a sign saying: “Expel the Arab enemy,” and a poster declaring that “Rabbi Kahane was right, the Arab MPs are the fifth column.”
Moreover, he played a crucial role in the incitements against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A few weeks before Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, Ben Gvir boasted in one of his early television appearances, while brandishing a Cadillac emblem stolen from the prime minister’s car: “We got to his car and we’ll get to him, too.”
As if this were not enough, Ben Gvir is an unashamed admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the terrorist who cold-bloodedly murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Ben Gvir also never misses an opportunity to stoke tensions with the local Palestinian population, as he does in the Sheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem.
For now, the Religious Zionist party is incapable of winning elections, but it might be pivotal in forming the next coalition government. Just imagine politicians who subscribe to its ideology in charge of the Interior Ministry, or of justice, education or public security. Imagine the legislation they would demand to further the marginalization of Arab citizens, or the stepping up of their relentless efforts to politicize the justice or education systems, and to demonize those who believe in a liberal democracy.
This is not scaremongering. This is a reflection of what Religious Zionist leaders have stated openly for years and, sadly, an indication of the direction that Israeli politics and society is taking.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg