The Roots of Right-Wing Dominance in Israel
Most commentators have focused on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s personal qualities to explain what looked to many to be an unlikely election victory. But there are important structural reasons for Likud’s durability in power, and a strong economy is just the start.
JERUSALEM – Binyamin Netanyahu’s latest electoral success, winning a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, is by any measure a remarkable achievement for him and his right-wing Likud party. Serious corruption charges did not seem to diminish his popularity among his base, and his close relations with both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin obviously enhanced his standing in the country.
Trump clearly helped Netanyahu’s campaign by scrapping decades of American policies. Not only did he withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama; he also moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and – just a few days before the election – recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Many may deplore Netanyahu’s own Trump-style tactics – instilling fear and hatred of real and imagined enemies, delegitimizing the press, and attacking the judicial system – but they worked. This, and Netanyahu’s undeniable campaign savvy, helped him beat back the challenge from the newly formed Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, a respected but politically inexperienced former military chief.
Not surprisingly, most commentators have focused on Netanyahu’s personal qualities to explain what looked to many to be an unlikely victory. But there are important structural reasons for Likud’s durability in power: Israel’s economy is thriving, inflation is under 2%, and unemployment is at historic lows.
And there are some deeper trends at work as well, beyond politics and economics. The historical liberal and social-democratic nature of the Jewish state was rooted in the worldview of its founders in the early twentieth century. Zionist leaders like Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Golda Meir wedded the secular idea of national self-determination for the Jewish people to a vision of social justice. Under external and internal pressure, these values were not always successfully implemented, especially during the post-1948 mass immigration, but they continued to define the ideology of a society that viewed itself as both Jewish and democratic.
That worldview is no longer shared by all Israelis. The growth of Israel from a small and poor embattled land with 650,000 Jewish inhabitants at its founding to a thriving nation of almost eight million people today resulted from demographic changes that gradually but decisively altered the country’s social structure and politics. It is now clear how dramatic the impact of those changes has been.
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One million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have arrived since the late 1980s are enriching Israeli science, technology, music, and culture. But their political attitudes also reflect decades of life under Soviet rule: though mostly secular, many of them believe in a strong state with a hierarchical leadership structure, having little patience for outsiders or enemies (in this case, Arabs). As one of them quipped to me, “I do not want to live under Putin, but I want my leader to be like Putin.”
The wishy-washy social-democratic ethos of Israel’s Labor movement looked to them like a variant of bolshevism, and the kibbutz reminded them of a Soviet kolkhoz. Consequently, many of them felt much more comfortable with Netanyahu’s robust nationalism than with left-wing supporters of Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
Likewise, earlier immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East – the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities that now comprise almost half of Israel’s Jewish population – found the secular, egalitarian ethos of Labor to be deeply at odds with their religiosity and patriarchal values. For many, kibbutzim mean the breakup of the family and enforced secularization. And many brought with them memories of oppression in their Arab-majority countries of origin. Menachem Begin, the first Likud prime minister, capitalized on these immigrants’ resentment of the hegemony of the left-wing establishment.
Their descendants, together with immigrants from the former USSR, still form the backbone of support for Likud. And, given Likud’s natural alliance with orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties, the right-wing has gained a built-in advantage which will not disappear when Netanyahu leaves the scene. Israel is not on its way to becoming a Hungarian-like “illiberal democracy”; its democratic structures and norms remain resilient (though this will be tested by Likud’s looming attempt to grant Netanyahu immunity from the corruption charges he faces). But the institutional edifices that once made its liberal and social democratic sectors dominant have been significantly weakened.
The Labor Party – which led the country for decades – has suffered from the general erosion of center-left forces currently characterizing Western democracies. These tendencies are strengthened by the Palestinian leadership’s inability to convince many Israelis that they are truly willing to accept the Jewish state. By elevating suicide bombers and other terrorists to the status of “soldiers of the nation” and granting their families official pensions, the Palestinian Authority is not encouraging more Israelis to support a two-state solution. Nor does the latent civil war between the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, bode well for any future peace with Israel.
Yet the fact remains that Gantz’s Blue and White finished in a near dead heat with Likud, winning 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats (to Likud’s 36). Together with a diminished Labor Party (six seats) and the small left-wing Meretz party (four seats), Blue and White could mount a vigorous opposition to Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist and religious coalition, which will control 65 seats. But Netanyahu’s opponents will have to come up with coherent alternatives to Likud’s attacks on the press and the judicial system if they wish to regain the traction lost in recent elections. Demographics do not favor a center-left alternative in the immediate future, but it is not impossible: the electorate is split right down the middle.