Israel's Right Wing Is Fighting for Its Soul

The bizarre rightist rally in Tel Aviv was an act of desperation by four different parties, who are fighting over the same pool of voters.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu attends his campaign meeting on March 15, 2015, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv.
A supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu attends his campaign meeting on March 15, 2015, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Sunday night the ideological right wing retook Rabin Square. Back in the days when it was still called Malchei Yisrael Square, the settlers movement Gush Emunim would hold a massive rally there every year, calling upon the government of the day not to give in to the State Department’s pressures and build new settlements. Those were the days before the Oslo process, before Rabin was murdered by the square, before a Likud prime minister dismantled the Gush Katif bloc. Since then, right-wing rallies have never been the same.

The rally was almost cancelled. Party activists on the right tried to dissuade settler leader Daniella Weiss, who tried to organize it as a response to the rally of the left a week previously calling for the replacement of Benjamin Netanyahu. There was concern the square would be half-empty. Netanyahu himself had no intention of making an appearance. Then came the polls and with them suddenly the fear that the dreaded left may be back in power next week. Suddenly it was an emergency rally for Netanyahu’s political survival, a battle for the future of the Land of Israel, for the soul of the Israeli right.

What is the Israeli right today? It was hard to tell at the rally. The settlers arrived in dozens of buses. Before the speeches began hundreds of men stood in minyanim (prayer quorums) and prayed Maariv, and then broke into a dancing circles, men-only. Makeshift stalls sold holy books. But there were many others, bareheaded men and women with tight clothes, with heart-shaped pictures of Netanyahu pinned to their breasts. Russian-accented supporters of Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli-Ethiopians earnestly waving Likud banners. And a potent mixture of Haredim and Kahanists supporting Eli Yishai’s Yahad.

It was a bizarre rally, sponsored by four different parties which are at each other’s necks, fighting over the same pool of voters. But desperation makes strange bedfellows and all of a sudden the entire right is in the same boat. And the right feels that its flesh and blood, good nationalist voters who remained loyal to Likud for two generations, are about to vote for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and as a result the gap between Zionist Union and Likud is growing and endangering Netanyahu, and with him the entire national camp.

That’s what made them all come together, and brought Netanyahu to the square. And they were forced to swallow Netanyahu saying in his speech “we have to close the gap” when the clear message from that was that they their voters must abandon them and vote Likud. In the square Likudniks taunted diehard Habayit Hayehudi supporters, “get this into your heads, without Bibi there is no Bennett.”

Naftali Bennett, Habayit Hayehudi’s leader who spoke immediately after Netanyahu, had to accept his second-rate status and didn’t even call upon the audience to vote for his party. He made do with a promise after the elections to join the Likud “in one national camp, one unified bloc.”

Netanyahu has only one way to close the gap, and that is cannibalizing Habayit Hayehudi. According to some accounts it’s already happening. “In our settlement,” said one former Habayit Hayehudi supporter, “there’s an entire exodus toward Likud. People understand we have to save the right wing and there’s no choice but to vote for Bibi, even if we don’t like him.”

Danny Dayan, a former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlers, who unsuccessfully tried to win a spot on the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset list, admitted that he is also going to vote now for Likud. “It’s clear now that the only way we can save these elections is by closing the gap, that’s why I’ll be voting Likud.”

Not everyone was convinced. “We’re voting for the national camp,” said a couple wearing Habayit Hayehudi T-shirts, in what has become a euphemism for voting something other than Likud, the original national camp. “We’ll be voting Habayit Hayehudi because there are other values we want that Netanyahu isn’t talking about.”

Whether or not Netanyahu manages to prize away enough voters from Bennett to close the widening gap from Herzog’s party, the real worry is another rift in the right wing. Netanyahu acknowledged this when he called upon a leader whose party didn’t take part in the rally, Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu has been whittling away at the Likud’s traditional base. “Moshe Kahlon, a man of the national camp doesn’t crown a leftist government.” But Kahlon’s voters weren’t there to listen.

On Saturday evening, Dudu Amsalem, a supermarket branch manager from Jerusalem who has voted Likud all his life, explained why he wouldn’t be attending the rally and why he was turning against Netanyahu.

“I’m not physically capable as a Likudnik to vote for Labor, but I’m voting Kahlon and I don’t mind if he nominates Herzog as prime minister. Netanyahu has used us, he just doesn’t care about us. I’m still a right-winger, but the Iranians and the Palestinians are not going to change our lives here. We may as well worry about the icebergs melting in Antartica. The right wing always saw security as being personal security of the people, and that means also financial security. Netanyahu doesn’t care about us, and that’s why we don’t care about him or his camp anymore.”

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