Hard right shaping Israel's 'new normal'

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:There seems little doubt that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will win Tuesday’s Israeli general election comfortably, a prospect that bodes ill for the resumption of any peace process. Polls suggest his party, Likud-Beiteinu, a recent amalgamation of his right-wing Likud with ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, will take about 34 of 120 seats and form the next coalition government in alliance with other religious and conservative groups.

But that clear front-runner status – a poll found 81 per cent expect him to serve another term – and the reality that he inspires less passion these days, negative or positive, have their disadvantages. Support has peeled off to left and right to the point he is expected to lose up to a quarter of his seats.

Liberal and secular supporters, disappointed by the Beiteinu link-up, the sharp rightward shift in the party’s candidate slate and the prime minister’s provocative encouragement of new settlement-building, are likely to back Labor or two smaller new centrist parties.

Hatnua is led by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and ex-leader of the fading Kadima party, and Yesh Atid, led by TV talk show host Yair Lapid.

Confidence that Netanyahu, in his fifth election campaign as head of Likud, will be back in office has also encouraged many of those on the right to defect to candidates closer to their ideological position, safe in the belief that his position is secure.

That process has helped to consolidate an important dynamic on the right that will see the settler movement and its supporters become a key political bloc in the Knesset . In recent years it has already become a major social force, increasingly influential in the state and institutions like the army – it has its first supreme court judge. It is now very much the driver of the rightwing political agenda; indeed, one commentator argues it is assuming the vanguard place in the national narrative that the socialist kibbutzniks once held from the state’s inception.

In the liberal Haaretz, columnist Ari Shavit wrote of the settler influence that “what is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country”. (Settlers have votes as Israeli citizens although not resident in the state of Israel.)

The settlers’ new influence partly reflects important demographic changes that have seen Israel’s native-born more secular population increasingly eclipsed, while the number of Russian immigrants and religious and ultra-Orthodox is on the rise.

For many middle class secular Israelis, infection by a post-Oslo-accord “there-can-be-no-peace” fatalism has seen them turn away from politics, and, as journalist Noam Sheizaf puts it, concentrate “on improving their own standard of living in the greater Tel Aviv area and in some smaller affluent communities north of the city”.

Hagit Ofran, of the once influential Peace Now movement, complains to the New Yorker’s David Remnick that “our fight today is not so much to persuade the Israeli public that we need two states. The biggest challenge is to ward off the despair and the indifference.” On the right, however, the despair about peace has become a boast, a rallying cry.

Within Likud the party’s internal primaries were a real turning point, with almost all the liberal wing, including three ministers, excluded from winnable positions on its election list. Of the top 20 names, 12 support at least partial permanent annexation of the West Bank. For them, the idea of a Palestinian state is a non-runner.

Such irredentist views are most explicitly articulated by tech millionaire and ex-commando Naftali Bennett, the charismatic young star of the campaign, the leader of the new far-right Jewish Home party, predicted to take third place in the election. He told a paper recently the conflict was “insoluble” and insisted “there is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel”. He is confident of being part of a government led by Netanyahu, for whom he once worked as chief of staff.

His extremism is wrapped in a charming cosmopolitanism, a “freshness” that plays on what many see as the increasing acceptability in Israel of naked anti-Arab racism. As for Palestinians, there is total den- ial that they exist as a nation. There is nothing complex about the question of occupation. There is no occupation. “The land is ours,” he says.

Although a secularist who is as likely to cite Bruce Springsteen as the Torah, Bennett is determined to forge an alliance between settlers and religious ultra-conservatives that will make for a powerful blocking minority in any coalition. Even if Netanyahu wanted to sue for peace with the Palestinians, and there is little evidence he does, the poll looks set to tie his hands

In effect, the election, Sheizaf argues, is taking the form of an internal, sometimes personal, battle within the right, with Netanyahu and Bennett presenting the two faces of “the new normal”. Israeli politics have moved on.

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