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One Name Hardly Heard at Israeli Right-wing Conference: Netanyahu

The conservative conference seemed detached from Netanyahu's campaign to delegitimize Naftali Bennett's government and focused instead on the actual battle of ideas

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Likud legislators in Jerusalem in March.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Likud legislators in Jerusalem in March. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“Israel is, socially, the most conservative country in the western world,” at least that's what the website inviting the public to the Tikvah Fund’s Israeli Conservatism Conference proclaimed. Whether that’s true or not probably depends on how you define the Western world, but the conference Thursday at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center hardly provided a cross section of Israeli society.

Of the overwhelmingly male audience sitting in the main hall and mingling outside, at least two-thirds were wearing kippas.

What is Israeli conservatism? I got more answers to that question, quite a few contradictory, than the number of people I asked – enough for an entirely separate piece. But I was more interested in seeing whether the conservative movement is actually going anywhere in a country where no party with seats in parliament has ever called itself conservative. (Even Likud still officially calls itself a “national liberal party.”)

Were the religious men at the conference Israel’s elite-in-waiting, or is this just a passing trend among part of the religious Zionist community, given exaggerated prominence due to the millions of dollars of American donor money buying it undue publicity?

Beyond the dearth of secular men, and women in general, the most interesting absence was that of politicians. No active politicians were on the program (though it won’t be surprising to find some of the speakers on the Knesset benches one day). And there were very few of them in the main hall or mingling in the corridors.

Say what you will about Israeli politicians, but they're no shrinking violets. They’ll go anywhere, to the bat mitzvah of the niece of a party member in the country's farthest reaches, just for a few votes in a party primary or the chance of a headline.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at Sunday's cabinet meeting. Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Yet here was a day-long event with hundreds of right-wingers at a central Jerusalem venue and the only politicians were a couple of obscure Likud lawmakers and Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman. Were they on to something that all their colleagues with their keen political instincts had missed?

Why did so few right-wing politicians turn up at the biggest right-wing ideological festival this side of the pandemic?

One possible reason is that this conference wasn’t about Israeli politics in the here and now. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu’s name was barely even mentioned, and when I brought him up in conversations on the confab's sidelines, most of my interlocutors didn’t want to discuss him.

“Bibi isn't relevant,” was the refrain I kept hearing – and not necessarily because the conference-goers were against him. Most of them would still prefer Netanyahu to the current government led by Naftali Bennett, it’s just they feel he's a distraction from the deeper ideas they want to push into the Israeli discourse. And besides, he hasn’t done too much to further their agenda.

The Israeli conservatives are in a tight spot right now. The politicians who in recent years have helped them most in trying to pass conservative legislation are people like Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked and New Hope’s Sharren Haskel and Zvi Hauser, ideologues who fell out with Netanyahu and are now in the coalition that ended his hold on power. But the coalition is deeply unpopular while Netanyahu has the slavish loyalty of most of the right wing and religious communities that the conservatives are trying to win over.

Netanyahu’s beliefs have always tended toward the conservative, even the libertarian, but his politics, especially since he led Likud to its worst result in 2006 at only 12 Knesset seats, are much more pragmatic and populist.

His belief in small-government capitalism doesn’t work in a system where his voters and those of the ultra-Orthodox parties he needs for a majority rely heavily on the welfare state. He’s not about to jeopardize his base of working-class nationalists, religious far-right-wingers and ultra-Orthodox – his “natural allies” – and with it his hopes of returning to office.

Ayelet Shaked. She's among the politicians who've done the most to pass conservative legislation in recent years. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But it’s not just the incompatibility of conservative social policies with Likud politics that keeps the Likudniks away. It’s about style as well. Israeli conservatives, at least most of those who were at the conference, are much too cerebral and mild-mannered for the toxic, hatred-fueled, scorched-earth tactics being pursued by Netanyahu and his minions in their bid to delegitimize the Bennett government.

In fact, perhaps my main takeaway from the conference was how friendly and open it was and how eager the people were to engage in what were essentially debates about ideas, without the rancor and vitriol of Israel’s normal politics. No wonder the Bibi-ists didn’t come. If this is what post-Netanyahu politics is like, then bring it on. But as things stand now, that era is still a way off.

At Israel’s center-left think tanks, there are great concerns about the power of Israeli conservatism. I’ve seen presentations with flowcharts on how American money is funneled to finance lobbying and influence legislation, and how members of the movement are placed in strategic positions at minister’s offices. It’s a long-term strategy they say, based on the American model. Much of this is true.

Just one prime example is the nation-state law, which was drafted by Prof. Moshe Koppel, founder of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum. But it’s also true that this legislation languished for years in committee until in 2018 Netanyahu decided to use it as part of his hyper-nationalist rightward push before the April 2019 election.

Ultimately, thinkers have little room in today’s personality-driven political arena where everything is determined by the degree of loyalty, or enmity, toward one man. Netanyahu certainly has no need of them, since only his thoughts matter.

One speaker at the conference told me he thinks conservatism “is an American concept that probably won’t take root in Israel because the right wing is going in a much more radical direction.” If he’s right, Tikvah and Kohelet are the least of the center-left’s worries.

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