Hard Questions, Tough Answers (November 6, 2018) - Why the Israeli mainstream has turned to the right


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The Knesset passed an ultra-nationalist nation-state bill. Orthodox religious teaching is being imposed on secular schools. PM Netanyahu befriends Hungarian and Polish ultra-nationalist leaders. The pro-settlement lobby is setting the agenda. Polls predict more of the same. Why has the Israeli public become so right-wing? You document this dynamic frequently at the level of current events. But could you for once go into the historical and societal background factors as you understand them?

A. I would trace the evolution of Israel’s dominant ultra-nationalism to a number of factors, some of which Israel could have affected, others subject more to the winds of change regionally and globally. While the ultra-nationalist drift has been evident to the outside observer only for a decade or so, many of the seminal causes go back a long way.

Q. Where do you start, chronologically, with the ones Israel could have affected?

A. In 1967. The conquest of East Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the West Bank in the Six-Day War was for many Jews a near-messianic event. Recently we have been able to read transcripts from Eshkol government deliberations in the days and weeks following the war, demonstrating just how difficult it was at the time for Israel’s leadership to comprehend the significance of these conquered lands and to decide what to do with them and their inhabitants.

Back in 1967 only a few influential Israelis--Ben Gurion, Yishayahu Leibovitz--grasped the corrosive effect the occupation would have and the meaning of the messianic reaction it provoked in some circles, particularly in view of the post-war Arab refusal to negotiate peace. Their prophetic voices were drowned out by triumphalism, both secular and religious.

A triumphant Labor-led government controlled the country. In retrospect, seen half a century later, it should have withdrawn at any and all cost--before the first settlement was built, before the Gush Emunim National Orthodox settlement movement emerged, and long before Labor lost power a decade later. It did not withdraw; the first settlements, blessed by Labor, were a matter of mere months after June 1967. What we have witnessed since then, gradually and incrementally, is the empowerment of a pro-settler political right based increasingly on racist, messianic, ultra-nationalist and militant values.

Of course, the settlement movement could have been stopped at a dozen different junctures since then. And of course we can and must fault the Israeli leadership--Likud, Labor, Kadima--since then. But the die was cast in 1967.

Q. And since 1967, what water-shed events and dynamics could Israel have shaped differently?

A. The Oslo process and a variety of parallel and subsequent peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians were sincere and positive efforts that reflected the knowledge and experience that both sides could muster at the time. They also reflected the sincere involvement of a number of third parties, such as Norway, Sweden and of course the United States. But they failed, and their repeated failures contributed to loss of faith in any peace process with the Palestinians on the part of many Israelis.

The question what could or should have been done differently is a complex “what if” issue. I happen to think the most glaring lacuna of the entire process was its insistence that all final status issues had to be solved in one agreement. Slogans like “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and “end of claims, end of conflict” informed repeated abortive attempts to negotiate a deal. This meant that seemingly solvable territorial issues were constantly held hostage to unsolvable narrative issues like the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize the right of return of millions of 1948 refugees and their descendants.

Be that as it may, it is evident since the Camp David summit of July 2000 that repeated failed attempts to reach a final status agreement only make matters worse. They alienate additional Israelis from confidence in a peace process and a two-state solution. Note how the July 2000 Camp David summit not only failed but ended up in the second intifada, and how the abortive Kerry peace mission of 2013-14 deteriorated into the most recent war with Gaza.

Even unilateral Israeli initiatives like the 2005 Gaza withdrawal ended up with negative consequences--the Hamas takeover of the Strip in 2007 and three subsequent limited wars with Hamas. Every failed peace initiative and every prolonged clash with Palestinians, whether intifada or war, leaves a legacy of Israelis disenchanted with peace and a loss of confidence in any and all Palestinian leaders.

Q. Any broader global trends whose negative contribution Israel could have controlled?

A. Trends in global media and communications, and particularly internet apps like Facebook and Twitter, appear to facilitate the proliferation of fake news and bad news more than, say, good news. For example, a lone wolf terrorist attack in the West Bank, the only such attack over a two week period, can be certain to dominate the Israeli media for an entire 24-hour news cycle. Digital media will leverage this to hype the case for more settlements, or more punishment, by the Israeli government. All this has a cumulative effect on the public that was inconceivable 20 years ago.

Then too, the accessibility of the Nazi death camps in Poland since the fall of the Soviet Union could conceivably be a factor. Certainly in recent years the dominant theme of the educational Holocaust tours Israeli high school students take appears to be the theme of “we’re on our own, nobody will come to our aid, so we have to be tough and unyielding”. When managed by increasingly right-wing ministers of education and their senior bureaucracy, this easily becomes the ultra-nationalist theme of a youthful flag-waving display in the streets of Warsaw rather than a call for learning lessons of tolerance and pluralism.

Q. What about the factors not under Israel’s control or influence? How have they turned Israelis to the right?

A. The Palestinians are hardly free of blame here. Yasser Arafat, their chosen leader, never abandoned violence and never really talked sincerely to Israelis the way Arab leaders like Sadat and his successors and the kings of Jordan have. Israelis never trusted him, and many blame Yitzhak Rabin for agreeing to negotiate with him. The Palestinian suicide bombings of the second intifada (beginning September 2000), in which Arafat was complicit took a human and psychological toll in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere and were understood by Israelis as a message of pathological hatred that could not be compromised with. By the same token, in recent years Hamas attack tunnels along the Gaza border represent to Israelis an almost primordial threat of attackers emerging from the bowels of the earth that further damages confidence in peace initiatives.

As one peace process after another failed, Israelis also internalized the message of Palestinian insistence on narrative demands like the right of return and absolute control over the Temple Mount. Israelis were being asked--by Mahmoud Abbas, not Hamas--to acknowledge, as part and parcel of a two-state solution and peace agreement, that their country was an artificial creation bereft of real roots in the land: in effect, “born in sin” in 1948. This message was hardly conducive to support for a Palestinian state.

Apropos the right of return, not only the Palestinian national movement but the entire Arab world must be faulted for undertaking in 1948 to create a system of refugee camps and a UN body, UNRWA, that are all dedicated to keeping the refugee issue alive. In this respect, in 70 years nothing has changed. It is fair to assess that neither Abbas nor any other prospective Palestinian leader can afford to reverse this dynamic without the active backing of the Arab states. The corollary--Palestinian insistence that at the moral and historical level Israel acknowledge the right of return of six million refugees and (mainly) their descendants--remains not only the biggest obstacle to a viable two-state solution but perhaps the biggest reason for Israeli skepticism and consequent support for right-wing and right-religious politicians.

Then there was the fragmentation of the Palestinian Authority in 2007, due to intra-Palestinian conflict. It was followed in 2011 by the fragmentation and/or disintegration of neighboring Arab states: Egypt, Libya, Syria. Implicitly, Israelis asked themselves whether it made sense to negotiate the creation of yet another problematic and possibly anarchic Arab state, Palestine, which was already fragmented.

This, in turn, brings us to Hamas in Gaza, with its explicit Islamist rejection of Israel’s right to exist and refusal to negotiate face-to-face. Hamas wants to rule the West Bank, too. It is not a peace partner. At best, it is a partner for a long-term ceasefire in which it maintains and augments its armed forces. And it rejects the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, who in any case is seen increasingly in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority as a lame-duck leader and not a candidate for any peace process.

Arguably, all these “external” developments have also had the effect of radicalizing Israel’s own Arab citizens, some 18 percent of the population. Over the past two decades or so, Israeli Arab political and intellectual leaders have begun demanding that Israel become a “state of all its citizens” or a bi-national Jewish-Arab state. This frightens Israeli Jews. It helps explain their reservations regarding the idea of creating a Palestinian state next to Israel. It certainly contributed to the recent nation-state bill, which is directed first and foremost against the Arab citizens of Israel.

Significantly, Israel has contributed to this dynamic by failing abjectly to create the conditions whereby Arab Israelis could feel they are a minority enjoying genuinely equal rights in a Jewish state. (Here it is extraordinary to note that roughly half the Israeli Arab population still aspires to this ideal despite the radical demands voiced by their leadership.)

Finally, note the influence of global trends. When Likud legislators pass a basic law in the Knesset that denies Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinians and 120,000 Druze a role in determining the nature of the Israeli state, the legislators rationalize their anti-democratic position with phrases like “we, the Jewish majority, also deserve a few rights”. A Jewish state that feels empowered by the winds of international change to so deliberately dismiss its own Palestinian minority is hardly a candidate for peace with Palestinians. Sound familiar in Trumpland?

Indeed, the Trump administration’s own ultra-nationalism and xenophobia have put wind in the sails of PM Netanyahu and his supporters. They in turn rally the Israeli public to support mindless Trump initiatives that ostensibly take Jerusalem and the refugee issue off the table, when in fact they widen the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and remove the United States, Israel’s ally, from any agreed role in mediating the conflict.

Q. Where does this leave us?

A. When you weigh all these factors, both made-in-Israel and external, it is not difficult to understand why we now find ourselves on a slippery slope toward a one-state reality in which Arabs constitute roughly half the population but are second-class citizens. What is truly depressing is that a growing proportion of Israelis are either grudgingly reconciled to this possibility or, citing God’s gift to the Jewish people of the Greater Land of Israel, actively seek this outcome. What, on the other hand, is amazing and encouraging is that, in poll after poll, roughly half of all Israelis still backs the idea of a two-state solution.

In this regard it was disturbing to read President Rivlin’s public warning about the dangers of the Nation-State bill enacted a few months ago by the Knesset. Rivlin wrote in mid-July: “in the name of the Zionist vision, are we willing to support discrimination . . . based on . . . ethnic origin?” An admirable sentiment. Yet far be it from Rivlin to support a Palestinian state. Rather, he supports annexing the territories and creating a truly bi-national Jewish-Arab state which he somehow believes can remain Jewish, democratic and Zionist.

Sad to say, but in view of the current dynamic Rivlin’s vision may soon be the only alternative that liberal, democratic Israeli Jews will feel free to advocate for. The real corollary to the present reality is more and more West Bank settlement and more anti-democratic constraints on Israeli democracy and civil society.