Media Analysis

The real divide in Israeli politics is between religious and secular ultra-nationalism

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Was Israel’s election last week really a hotly contested fight between two sides – an Israeli center-left and a right wing – as the Israeli and western media keep characterizing the result?

And does the narrow defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party by the Blue and White party, led by former army general Benny Gantz, indicate, as some commentators suggest, a change of ideological direction in Israel, offering a hopeful sign for the future? That deceptive narrative has only been reinforced by the coverage of the Palestinian-led Joint List party recommending Gantz as the next prime minister.

The strangest thing about the reporting of the deadlock between the Israeli right and the “center-left” is that none of Israel’s parties see it that way, as we shall see. Even according to their own assessments of their ideological positions, only a tiny fraction of the new Israeli parliament consider themselves to be on the so-called center-left.

Illusory Zionist ‘left’

First, it should be noted, the very notion of a Jewish Zionist “left” is deeply flawed. Modern Zionism is an ideology that assumes one group, Jews, should enjoy superior rights in Israel over another group, Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the Israeli population, based on their different ethnic or religious identities.

In today’s United States or Europe, any argument that citizenship privileges should be assigned to a group because of its ethnicity or religion would be considered overtly racist. That nonetheless is precisely the position of all the Jewish parties in the Israeli parliament – without exception.

All of them believe, for example, that it is essential that Israel has two differentiated citizenship tracks. One, the Law of Return of 1950, allows all Jews in the world to automatically immigrate to Israel. The other, the Citizenship Law of 1952, bars almost all Palestinians from ever returning to their homes in what is now Israel. It also denies Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population, a basic human right: to marry a Palestinian non-citizen and live with them in Israel.

‘Treasonous Jews’

But instead of holding Israel to the more usual civic and human rights standards adopted in western political systems, let us classify Israel’s Jewish parties in accordance with the way they characterize themselves to their own voters (rather than foreign media outlets).

Again, there is a problem. In Israel nowadays, the term “leftist” is considered a dirty word by virtually all of Israeli Jewish society. Netanyahu consistently uses it as a synonym for “traitor”.

It is usually forgotten that his notorious warning in the 2015 election that “the Arabs are heading to the polls in droves” was actually an accusation directed at the Jewish “left”, whom he blamed for “busing” the Arabs to polling stations to subvert a pure Jewish democracy.

In this month’s election, Netanyahu was at it again. Headlines focused on the fact that Facebook temporarily shut down his page for hate speech after it sent out an automated message warning that the Arabs “want to destroy us all – women, children and men”.

But Palestinian citizens were actually the secondary target of his incitement. His sites were again on the Jewish left. Here is the relevant section of the message – supposedly sent out by a Likud party supporter – via Netanyahu’s page:

“I am donating my time because we cannot have a dangerous left-wing government with Lapid, Odeh, Gantz and Lieberman in a week’s time. A secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men, and will enable a nuclear Iran that will eliminate us. We cannot allow this to happen!”

Of the four politicians mentioned, only one – Odeh – is Palestinian. The rest are Jewish, and notably none of those politicians are on the left. They are positioned firmly on the right.

Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteini party, is well known for his ugly racist incitement against Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. He has even called for them to be beheaded. His political history includes stints in the banned, anti-Arab Kahanist movement and in the Likud party, as director of Netanyahu’s office.

Netanyahu’s smears

In fact, of the Jewish parties contesting this month’s election only two have historically described themselves as on the center-left. Because of Netanyahu’s success in smearing the Jewish left, both entered into agreements with other parties or politicians during the campaign to shore up their nationalist credentials.

The venerable centrist Labour party, which founded Israel, teamed up with the small rightwing Gesher party in an attempt to draw away from Gantz’s Blue and White party rightwing voters belonging to the Mizrahi population (Jews of non-European, mainly Arab, origin).

And Meretz, usually identified as on the left, allied with Ehud Barak, both a former military chief of staff and a former hawkish Labour party leader, to create Democratic Union.

Remember, it was Barak’s intransigence in 2000 – and his insistence that the Palestinians were “no partners for peace” – that led to the collapse of the Oslo process, the implosion of the remnants of the Israeli left, and ultimately to the rise of Netanyahu, who has been continuously in power for the past decade. Despite all that, Barak was seen as a fitting bedfellow for Israel’s only self-described leftwing party.

Gauging ideology

The election result offers us a simple but effective way to gauge how well the center-left did and understand the wider ideological composition of Israeli Jewish society as it exists today. It provides a yardstick for measuring the strength of these various idelogical camps.

There are 107 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, that went to Jewish parties. The other 13 seats were won by the Joint List, an umbrella comprising four Palestinian-dominated parties.

So how did Israeli Jewish society vote last week?

Between them, Labour-Gesher and Democratic Union won 11 seats, out of those 107. In other words, those parties that might describe themselves as on the center-left comprise – on the most charitable view – only about 10 per cent of Jewish voters.

(This may even be an overestimate. A small proportion of those votes, as well as some for more rightwing parties, came from Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially the Druze, who serve in the Israeli army and profess loyalty to a Jewish state. Nonetheless, the results do offer an approximate guide to the respective strengths of the various ideological camps in Israeli Jewish society.)

Gains for militaristic right

The secular right, meanwhile, was represented by Gantz and his Blue and White party, led by three former generals and TV personality Yair Lapid. As one Israeli analyst explained to me, Gantz’s party is really the Likud party of 30 years ago, before Netanyahu started decisively driving it into the arms of the religious and settler camps.

Many commentators have lumped Gantz’s party in with the center-left. But this is clearly not how the party views itself, and makes no objective sense either given the known politics of its leaders.

Blue and White has three prominent generals at the helm. One, Moshe Yaalon, was formerly in the Likud party and sat as a particularly hawkish defence minister in a previous Netanyahu government.

Yaalon has compared the Palestinians to cancer, has long supported giving legal status even to those settlements that are outlawed under Israeli law, and has equalled Netanyahu in his warmongering against Iran.

Gantz, meanwhile, oversaw the army’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed more than 500 Palestinian children. That’s not an embarrassing episode in his backstory, it has been at the center of Blue and White’s election advertising campaign.

The militaristic right represented by Blue and White narrowly won the largest number of seats, at 33. That suggests their secular, nationalist worldview is shared by about 31 per cent of Israeli Jews.

Far-right triumphs

Next are the fundamentalist, ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox were once seen as anti-Zionist, or at least ambivalent in their attitude towards Zionism. That view is now outdated.

As more and more ultra-Orthodox have been encouraged into the settlements by the copious, cheap housing built on stolen Palestinian land over the past few decades, the two parties’ voters have moved relentlessly to the nationalist right. Between them these two parties won 17 seats, or about 16 per cent of the Jewish vote.

That leaves what we might loosely call the far-right, a mix of parties that chiefly represent the interests of the settlers and those who virulently hate Palestinians and Arabs, whether such voters are religious or secular. They are Netanyahu’s Likud party, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Yamina electoral coalition of three settler parties.

(It should be noted that whereas Likud and Yamina both now chiefly represent the religious far-right, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu regards itself as holding a torch for a staunchly secular far-right. It is this split on the far-right that has led to the loss of an automatic majority for the far-right and fundamentalist religious bloc Netanyahu has traditionally headed. It has also resulted in the current electoral deadlock that has prompted two elections in a matter of months.)

Between them, these far-right parties won 46 seats, or 43 per cent of the Jewish vote.

The real divide in Israel

Broken down like this, the strength of the ideological camps representing Israeli Jews is much clearer. The center-left represents 10 per cent of the Jewish public, the nationalist right 31 per cent, and the religious and fascist far-right 59 per cent.

In other words, the Israeli far-right should have a permanent and large majority. It is only two other factors that have prevented it from easily forming a government.

One is the fact that 13 seats in the 120-member parliament are held by the Palestinian-led Joint List, votes that it will necessarily withhold from the far-right. That has helped to stymie the far-right’s control, something Netanyahu understands only too well – reason enough why he incites so relentlessly against Palestinian lawmakers.

The other is a growing, secondary fault line between the religious far-right and the secular far-right. This is why Lieberman appears to have managed to crown himself kingmaker. Currently he indicates that he prefers a unity government. He wishes to ally with the secular Blue and White party and hopes to drag the Likud party back towards the secularism it once espoused. Such a unity government would exclude the rabbinical parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism but would ensure a militaristic ultra-nationalism continued.

The current political paralysis in Israel should not be mistaken for proof of some kind of equal split between the center-left and the right, as the media would have its audiences believe. Even if Israel has a center-left, which is a questionable assumption to begin with, it has gotten punier with each passing election.

The right and far-right dominate Israel overwhelmingly. Its elections are a contest over which brand of Israeli ultra-nationalism will triumph – and which will once again deny the Palestinians any chance to make peace.

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Fact check:

A new survey by Hiddush, an Israeli organization that supports religious pluralism, shows that 57 percent of the Jewish Israeli electorate does not want the incoming governing coalition to include or depend on parties that are haredi Orthodox, commonly referred to as ultra-Orthodox in the United States. That 57 percent majority also wants the coalition to support religious freedom in Israel.

Thirty-four percent of Israeli Jews disagree