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Israel's Settler Elite Is Trying to Emulate the Tea Party. But It's Faking It

Unfettered capitalism can't go hand in hand with massive government support for the settlements

Yonatan Levi
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Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at a conference of their Habayit Hayehudi party, 2017.
Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at a conference of their Habayit Hayehudi party, 2017.Credit: David Bachar
Yonatan Levi

Not long ago, Ayelet Shaked returned from a family vacation in Italy. Of all the breathtaking sights that she encountered, one particularly impressed Israel’s justice minister. “There was no lifeguard at any pool,” she told a professional gathering with astonishment late last month, adding, “The children were the parents’ responsibility.” Shaked explained that in Israel hotels with pools are obliged by law to employ lifeguards. From her perspective, this reflects a far more extensive problem: “In Israel it’s thought, for some reason, that regulators and business owners should be responsible for the public’s health, and not that the public is responsible for its own health,” she said.

The audience, consisting of senior figures from the food industry, were undoubtedly pleased by what they heard. Shaked put forward a worldview that matches their rosiest dreams – reduced business regulation, the state’s withdrawal from the realm of defending public health and the quality of the environment, and a limit to the right of citizens to file class-action suits against large corporations.

This wasn’t the first time Shaked had declaimed a message sheet that is music to the ears of the big-capital lobbyists. Last year, she delivered a militant speech in Jerusalem that was roundly applauded by the religious right. Dubbed the “freedom speech,” its principal argument was that the state’s excessive intervention in the economy has made Israel “a place where it’s hard to do business.” In fact, the justice minister as much as declared that every bill is a type of injustice – even if it’s aimed at protecting defrauded consumers, exploited workers or marginalized communities.

Her example of a draconian law that’s harmful to the citizenry is the fair-rental bill submitted by MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union/Labor). “Try to imagine what kind of world these proposals would create,” Shaked bristled, “a world in which a property owner is prohibited from raising the rent on an apartment.” The bill, which included a number of regulations meant to protect renters, was subsequently enacted into law, but not before the minister voided the clause restricting rent hikes. Her rationale: It’s wrong to harm the property rights of home owners (a concept she’s only too familiar with, as the owner of a private home in Tel Aviv valued at more than 6 million shekels, or $1,705,000).

So, while parties on the right and the left are making a concerted effort to adopt a “social justice” image, the folks in Habayit Hayehudi and their close circles are busy doing the opposite. The religious right led the vilification campaign against the social protest movement in 2011 (Shaked: “The protest is being led by anarchistic, post-Zionist organizations”); spearheaded the campaign to deny the existence of poverty in Israel (MK Bezalel Smotrich: “The poverty data are exaggerated: I have five children, and I don’t think that two of them are poor”); was in the forefront of opposition to state nursing-care insurance (Haggai Segal, a journalist and former member of the 1980s Jewish terror underground: “Instead of each person financing his own insurance, the state will coerce him into also paying for his neighbor, who doesn’t bother to make a living for reasons of conscience or comfort”); and even took the lead in opposing the struggle of the disabled (Rabbi Uri Sadan, of the Keter Institute for Torah Economics: “Disability is a divine edict that doesn’t accord its possessors the right to a salary from the state”).

The love affair of the settler elite with libertarianism of the American Tea Party type did not begin with the Shaked family’s Italian vacation. Dozens of institutions across Israel – think tanks, journals, training programs – are engaged in imparting the doctrine of the unrestrained market to the young generation of the national-religious public. More often than not, their funding derives from conservative American Jews and evangelical Christians. For Shaked and her party’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, that imported worldview is particularly profitable.

These two people, it’s worth remembering, are above all a public relations project. The secret of their charm comes from the high-tech, secular, unthreatening patina they overlay on the messianic agenda of the Yesha Council of settlements (Sharon [region] on the outside; Shomron on the inside). The ambitious pair’s fervent preaching in favor of unfettered capitalism allows them to detach themselves from the parochial agenda of Habayit Hayehudi and to counteract the left’s monopoly on issues of social justice. More important, it allows them to recruit to their side the business elite, which reviles their religious and political outlook.

Libertarianism is, of course, a legitimate viewpoint. But no matter how hard they try, the Habayit Hayehudi public cannot be libertarians. An irreconcilable contradiction exists between the religious right’s flagship project and the cardinal tenets of the global right that it wishes to emulate.

Let’s begin with the self-evident: A party whose basic principle is the perpetuation of military rule over millions of people cannot evoke the concept of freedom as the rest of humanity understands it. The economic thinkers of the right whom Shaked quotes would, if forced to choose, probably prefer to sing the “Internationale” in the town square than to validate the occupation project, which undermines all rights that underlie the principle of Western liberty. Friedrich Hayek lauded the free market not out of concern for the right of hoteliers trying to save a few shekels on lifeguards, but because they wanted to protect citizens from the unlimited power of the state.

But the absurdity goes deeper than that. An examination of the record of Habayit Hayehudi reveals that the party is an enemy not only of the principle of freedom, but also of the free market that Shaked purports to sanctify. As minister of economy, whenever a factory in the Negev or Galilee ran into difficulties, Bennett declared that the government must not support a workplace that cannot stand on its own feet. But for some reason, when it comes to the settlement project – another enterprise that is unable to stand on its own without assistance – his approach is the polar opposite.

Without massive government support, the settlement project would not last an instant. It consists of locales scattered about artificially, on the basis of political considerations, with no geographical, economic or security logic. That’s why preserving the fabric of life across the Green Line – security, transportation, housing – requires vast amounts of funding. That’s why the per capita government investment in the settlements is twice what it is in the communities of the Israeli periphery. The local authorities in the territories survive thanks only to annual grants given to them by the state.

The truth is that a built-in contradiction exists between Ayelet Shaked’s grand residence in north Tel Aviv and Habayit Hayehudi (“the Jewish Home”). It is untenable to defend the first in the name of the free market – and at the same time to prevent the collapse of the second by means of governmental resuscitation. Beyond the rhetorical fog, the position of Habayit Hayehudi is that the government is not entitled to protect two million renters of apartments around the country, because it is wrong for the government to intervene in this matter. On the other hand, every year it needs to pump billions from the state’s coffers to underwrite the housing of citizens who settle in the heart of Palestinian territory. The government doesn’t have the right to support faltering enterprises in the periphery either, but is obliged to inject fantastic sums into a settlement enterprise that needs not temporary aid but eternal subsidizing.

Of all the parties in the Knesset, Habayit Hayehudi is the one that most resembles a communist party. No other party advocates such deep governmental intervention in the lives of the citizens, or demands that immense amounts of public funding be diverted to do what in other places is done by the market. Shaked and Bennett believe in a market economy? Terrific. Let’s see how Itamar, Har Bracha, Otniel and other settlements survive without a huge package of benefits, free land and secret cash pipelines.

But have no fear – that experiment will never be conducted: Shaked and her colleagues know that it would end in abject failure. Which is why it’s easier for them to talk about freedom as it’s reflected in the swimming pools of Italy.

Yonatan Levi is a research fellow at the Berl Katznelson Foundation, and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Politics. An earlier version of this article (in Hebrew) was published by the Molad Center.

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