U.S. Conservatives Gave the Israeli Right Huge Political Power. When Will the Left Do the Same?

Funded by ideologically-driven American conservatives, the new right is redrawing Israel's political map and government policies. The center-left needs to start adopting similar practices or risk being left behind

Rami Hod
Rami Hod
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Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, center, flanked by Avi Maoz, left, and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, center, flanked by Avi Maoz, left, and Itamar Ben-Gvir.Credit: Rami Shllush
Rami Hod
Rami Hod

Regardless of the composition of the next Israeli government, the most important political development following the recent election is the dramatic increase in the power of the religious right.

The Yamina party headed by Naftali Bennett won seven seats. Bennett, who was the first Israeli politician to publish a detailed plan to annex parts of the West Bank, is now a legitimate candidate for prime minister. The newly formed Religious Zionism slate, headed by Bezalel Smotrich and including the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and declared homophobe Avi Maoz of the Noam party, won six seats.

To these one must add the Likud party itself, most of whose lawmakers promote an openly religious-conservative agenda. This includes an opposition to civil marriage and LGBTQ rights, and the independence of the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, the more moderate right-wing party headed by Gideon Sa’ar, New Hope, suffered a defeat and proved that the moderate right in Israel is not a significant political force.

Thus, the new distribution of seats within the right-wing bloc reflects the deep change taking place in Israeli politics over the past decade: the decline of the old moderate right and the rise of the “new right,” which is religious and conservative.

While the composition of the next government is still unclear, as is the question of whether Israel is headed for yet another election later this year, it is utterly clear that the right wing in Israel has changed, and that this change will remain with us long after the Netanyahu era ends.

In order to thoroughly understand this change, one must return to the important and comprehensive report on the Kohelet Policy Forum published by Nettanel Slyomovics in Haaretz last month. His article described the think tank as the brains behind the Israeli right, and one of the factors behind the conservative-religious turn it has taken.

Any attempt to build up the strength of the center-left camp demands an understanding of the ideological and organizational move behind this transformation.

Yamina head Naftali Bennett waving to supporters on Election Night last month.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

The American model

Haaretz’s report about Kohelet revealed the strategy and funding sources behind the attempt to import the ideas and operating methods of the U.S. conservative movement to Israel. Since the early days of the Reagan administration, the foundations, field organizations and think tanks that make up this movement have managed to turn the steering wheel of policy in the Republican Party sharply to the right.

Their success has been so great that it appears ideas such as opposition to universal health care, environmental regulation and increasing the minimum wage, alongside support for tax cuts for the rich, will continue to head the party’s agenda in the 2024 presidential election, regardless of who the candidate is. Similarly, support for the supersession clause (which removes the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down Knesset laws), the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (which gives legal legitimacy to discriminate against Arab citizens) and annexation of the West Bank will continue to lead the Israeli right even after Netanyahu exits politics.

In the United States, as in Israel, the right wasn’t always like this.

In his 2007 book “The Conscience of a Liberal,” economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman shows that until the 1980s, the positions and voting patterns of Republican and Democratic congresspeople regarding economic policy were not so far apart. The situation has changed not because Republicans voters have changed their positions, but due to the erection of an ideological-organizational machine that has been heavily and consistently funded by mega-rich people such as the Koch brothers, Jeff Yass and Arthur Dantchik (the last two are also Kohelet’s donors). This acts to destroy the New Deal arrangements that have created the American middle class, replacing them with a deregulated financial sector, a smashing of organized labor and privatization.

The institutions that make up this machine, systematically and effectively feeding Republican politicians, have succeeded in reshaping the character of the American right and its policy objectives. The exposé on Kohelet outlines how a similar move is taking shape in Israel.

The article shows that unlike initiatives such the Israel Hayom newspaper, which are designed to serve Benjamin Netanyahu and echo the spin of the day, the people behind institutions such as the Kohelet Policy Forum and the Tikvah Fund seek to build the politics of tomorrow. This is a fundamental difference, and it’s being missed because of the left’s tendency to treat the entire right-wing as a monolith.

A vendor handing out copies of Israel Hayom.Credit: © Amir Cohen / Reuters

At Kohelet and Tikvah, they know that right-wing politics in Israel is devoid of ideas, that one part thereof serves Netanyahu and all its members care about is money, respect and power, as governing coalition chairman Miki Zohar put it, and the other part is wholly committed to the settlement enterprise. No transformative vision for Israel has ever come from them, nor will it.

So what can be done? Kohelet’s chairman, Prof. Moshe Koppel, explains this well, as quoted in the article: You don’t send position papers to Knesset committees, as think tanks from the center-left do. Instead, you write the agendas of those committees for right-wing politicians. You don’t send them learned opinions about proposed bills; you actually write the bills for them. You don’t wait for the right-wing elite to see the light and adopt the ideas behind those proposed bills, but rather work consistently on winning hearts and minds.

Thus, an unofficial division of labor is forming on the Israeli right: Netanyahu and his people run an ongoing populist campaign that divides society into us and them and delivers results at the ballot box; and the new right organizations, including Kohelet, deal in consolidating and integrating the new right’s agenda among the right-wing elite.

When the nation-state law needs to be put together, when an economic plan for Bennett needs to assembled or the supersession clause needs to be written – they’re on hand. When the lawmakers from Religious Zionism will want to legally codify gender separation in the public sphere, you can be sure they’ll be there as well.

Political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker describe how a similar combination of populism as a political strategy and neoliberalism as an economic policy was the overriding principle of Donald Trump’s politics.

In their recent book “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Ruled in an Age of Extreme Inequality,” they call this strategy “populist plutocracy” and explain how while the rhetoric of nationalist populist politicians appeals to the emotions of the masses – in Trump’s case through Twitter – the economic policy they promote is formed by that same ideological-organizational machine funded by the 1 percent for the interests of the 1 percent. In the morning, Trump gave a speech to autoworkers, promising them jobs; and in the evening he signed a tax-cut reform that made the 1 percent even richer, eroding the social services relied upon by those same workers.

It’s hard to recall a significant right-wing economic move promoted by Netanyahu in recent years. A strenuous effort will at most yield the natural gas deal. Maybe this is because he has long since stopped doing policy. But when the Kohelet Forum acted to kill life-saving regulations at day-care facilities out of a libertarian opposition to any form of regulation, all the right-wing politicians they feed voted against the regulations.

This is how ideas characteristic of the American conservative right, but foreign to the foundations and values of Israel, are imported directly into the government and Knesset, and deep into the lives of each and every one of us as Israelis.

The new right

The Kohelet Policy Forum is but one manifestation of the conservative-religious shift in the Israeli right’s character and agenda. The roots of this “new right” are planted within the settlements project, but unlike the leaders of the Yesha Council of settlements, it aims at effecting a sea change in all walks of life in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Moti Milrod

Its political rhetoric is similar to that of populist right-wing leaders the world over, and is centered mostly on combating the liberal agenda and the institutions that represent them. And the leading group in the new right comes from within the religious right, as can plainly be seen in the article about the Kohelet Policy Forum.

New right organizations have managed to turn annexation into the right-wing’s official goal, long before Netanyahu adopted it. They wrote the language of the Basic Law on the nation-state long before Likud minister Amir Ohana, then-chairman of the committee that brought it to vote, ever heard about it. They wrote proposals for the supersession clause long before Netanyahu and his henchmen began vilifying the justice system.

They have also managed to trot out the tired old “trickle-down economics” that has increased inequality in every single country that implemented it, and presented it as a magical solution for Israel’s coronavirus-related economic woes (via Bennett’s campaign platform).

These four projects – annexation, the nation-state law, the supersession clause and neoliberal economics – are the cargo being carried by the organizational freight train built by the new right over the past decade. They are the ideological glue binding Likud to the conservative religious parties headed by Bennett and Smotrich. True, in the Netanyahu era, most of these ideas serve as campaign fodder and little else. But on the day after he’s gone, they’ll remain the right’s leading notions.

And on the left?

One of the most common reactions to the Kohelet exposé was this question: “Where is the left’s Kohelet?” Answers online were split between “It’s there, but the left’s out of power so has no way of implementing the policies advocated by its think tanks”; and “Why would rich people want to donate to institutions promoting equality?”

Both answers miss the larger picture about a major and underreported component in the continuing crisis of the center-left in Israel: The camp’s failure to build stable institutions that produce ideas, policies and agents of change for public service, as the new right has done.

Here, as in other issues, a glance at the United States will make it clear that the differences between the camps are not unique to Israel. In 2005, Andrew Rich, then-president of the Roosevelt Institute, published an article titled “War of Ideas: Why mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks they support are losing in the war of ideas in American politics.” Rich argued that while there are a limited number of large, stable institutions on the right that coordinate tightly with each other and work to influence politics, the left has a dizzying array of nongovernmental organizations, many of them apolitical, with a tendency to give to time-and-issue-based projects rather than investing in the development of stable infrastructure, and an aversion to power.

In the early 1990s, Beth Schulman, associate publisher of In These Times magazine, discussed the difference in funding strategy of progressive and right-wing funders. She pointed out that while right-wing funders invested in the building blocks of their movement – such as think tanks and leadership institutes – progressive foundations were not committed to movement building, but were funding projects that promoted equality and tolerance with no specific political orientation.

Political scientists such as Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, who have studied the Koch brothers’ network of institutions on the one hand, and the networks built by liberals on the other, reached similar conclusions: A multiplicity of organizations pushing different causes the left; tightly integrated, multipurpose political network on the right.

Charles Koch.Credit: David Zalubowski,AP

Despite the contribution of liberal and progressive Israeli organizations to aid disadvantaged and marginalized populations – changing public opinion on issues of religious freedom and civil equality, and ongoing documentation on the harm of the occupation – the distinctions regarding the differences in strategies and modes of operation between the institutions and foundations of the left and right in the United States hold true for Israel as well.

As Yonatan Levi and I have previously written in Haaretz, liberal foundations involved in Israel pursue a very different course of action compared to their right-wing counterparts. They are mostly looking to support “do-gooders” – or, as they put it, to “strengthen the social cohesion in Israel” and “create a vibrant Israeli democracy.” That is to say, invest in projects aimed at empowering marginalized groups and promoting civic activism. Noble causes, to be sure, but apolitical ones. Conversely, the institutions built by the new right and its American funders, especially in the last decade, are committed to movement building and political influence.

True, the responsibility for changing that lies mainly with us on the Israeli left. However, after a decade in which the new right and its U.S. funders have built an effective ideological and organizational machine, with no parallel on the left, it’s time for our partners abroad to reconsider their influence strategies here in Israel.

This may sound like an internal discourse, but the increase in the religious right’s power following the election, the influence of this school of thought within the Likud party, and the important article about the Kohelet Policy Forum, all provide an opportunity to discuss the ideas, the philanthropy and the strategy behind politics, and to realize their vast importance to the current political reality.

I sincerely hope that in the short-term, we progressive Israelis manage to remove Netanyahu from power and create a government of change. But that will be only the beginning of our task, because the right wing, which will long outlast Netanyahu, will be no less conservative, nationalist and goal-driven, backed by massive and stable financial, organizational and ideological infrastructures.

Our long-term mission on the center-left is to build similar infrastructures, for that is the only way to win the battle over the soul of Israel.

Rami Hod is Executive Director of the Berl Katzenelson Center, a think tank and leadership institution working to build the future of Progressive Zionism in Israel.

Former President Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in February.Credit: ERIN SCHAFF / NYT

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