Regardless of the election results, the Israeli religious right is on the rise. The public face of its success may belong to Benjamin Netanyahu — a patently secular politician, whose weakness for luxurious nonkosher restaurants is a well-known fact in Israeli politics — but the long-term consequences of its ascent will outlive the career of any specific leader.
A closer look at the political camp Netanyahu has been heading for over a decade — from its key institutions, to its flagship legislation, to its grassroots organizations — reveals that most of the right’s ideas and energies don’t stem from the prime minister’s palatial villa in seaside Caesarea, but rather from a new political elite based in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank. It also indicates just how radically the Israeli right has changed in the past few years.
Gone are the days when even right-wing politicians in Israel would speak about a necessary compromise with the Palestinians: A few years ago, Likud, Netanyahu’s party, endorsed the unilateral annexation of the West Bank as its official position. Gone, too, are the days when the Israeli right would proudly declare itself the champion of the poor: Today, its leading figures espouse a libertarian worldview of the kind that sounds much more at home in a fancy Washington think tank than a socialist-style government building in Jerusalem. And finally, gone is the age when the right would be the ultimate defender of the Supreme Court: Nowadays, its moderate wing calls for an overhaul of the court’s constitutional authority, while its more hot-blooded wing quite literally calls for the court to be razed by a bulldozer.
But perhaps what is most remarkable about Israeli politics’ swerve to the right is that it has no parallel, or precedent, in public sentiment. The vast majority of Israelis still support the two-state solution, progressive economic policies and freedom of religion.
At the same time, the lion’s share of American liberal Jews, who are sincerely concerned for Israel’s future, aren’t familiar with the story presented here. For years they have heard about the vast sums pumped by American conservative donors, Jewish and evangelical, into the settlements and right-wing media outlets. Israel Hayom, Netanyahu’s personal propaganda newspaper, is the easiest example to point to. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson bleeds millions of dollars every year to have it handed out for free on every street corner. What liberal Jews do not know is that much of the troubling news they receive from Israel on a weekly basis — another discriminatory law, another assault against the judiciary, another incendiary attack on the Arab citizens of Israel — is the product of a political machine designed and paid for by fellow American Jews.
Settling the hearts
To understand how this happened requires an understanding of an ascendant political elite, one whose look and language may be distinctly Israeli but whose political strategy and policy prescriptions were very much made in the United States. The story of how we got here — to a point where the loopy, marginal ideas of the settler far right are now at the heart of the political mainstream in Israel — goes back some 15 years.
In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. This was a moment of deep trauma and rupture for the religious right, one that sent it spiraling into a panic. In pulling settlers out of the Strip, Sharon, the godfather of the settlement project, had shockingly turned his back on his favorite children. The politician they had relied on since the late 1970s to bankroll their hilltop homes and to force helpful legislation through the Knesset had betrayed them. Worse: most Israelis supported his plan. While the leaders of the religious settler right sermonized in public squares against Sharon’s plan, using every apocalyptic warning in their arsenal, most Israelis continued to sip their morning lattes in nearby cafés, entirely indifferent to the settlers’ outcry.
When Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, kept the religious right out of his coalition government in 2007 and held serious negotiations with the Palestinians, the settlers decided it was time for a strategic change: The next time there was a decision to be made about the future of settlements, they would take center stage.
In 1987, the right-wing journalist Uri Orbach published an op-ed in the settler journal Nekudah. There, he laid out what would become, in the wake of 2005, a blueprint for a systematic settler takeover of the country’s levers of power. In his article, Orbach pleaded with the settler youth to divert their ideological fervor from grabbing land to grabbing the spotlight — in other words, to take over the Israeli media. “The People of Israel needs someone to be their voice,” wrote Orbach, who went on to explain that filling the ranks of the country’s media outlets with settler reporters who held “the right positions” would ensure a future where only “the right questions are asked” and certain issues — the price Israelis pay in blood and taxes for the settlements, for example — “never get on the air.”
The leaders of the religious right sensed an opportunity. The old social democratic elite, which had founded the State of Israel, began losing interest in public institutions and withdrew into itself. The sons and daughters of the founding generation, and then their grandchildren — our generation — gravitated toward careers in business or the law rather than public service.
In 2005, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a prominent figure in the settler movement, broadened Orbach’s famous call to arms. “We will conquer Israeli democracy from within,” wrote Rosen. “We will achieve this by directing more and more worthy people to the media, the judiciary, politics and even the arts.”
This strategy, commonly referred to among the right wing as “settling the hearts” (as opposed to the land), proved a resounding success. Today, some of the most prominent broadcast reporters in Israel — who, indeed, succeeded in shifting the public debate in the country markedly farther to the right — cite Orbach’s seminal article as inspiring their careers. As Hillel Ben Sasson explained in a 2012 article published by the progressive think tank Molad: “The knitted kippa, the identifying mark of the national religious community, has become increasingly visible in the media, judicial and educational systems, to the point where many of Mr. Netanyahu’s senior staff have donned the garment.” In the military, the nation’s holy of holies, this is even more pronounced: “Some 40 percent of IDF officers wear a kippa — and the number is rising,” Ben Sasson wrote.
A tea party in the West Bank
So far, so Israeli. But the settlers’ colonization of Israel’s public sphere and state apparatus is not the result of some sudden divine, or even domestic, inspiration. They have consolidated their power in a methodical manner, ensuring that organizational effectiveness and financial backing compensate for a lack of popular support. Settlers, it is crucial to remember, make up a mere 4.5 percent of Israel’s population. The profound irony of their ultranationalism is that, in the name of serving Israel, the new religious right is importing to the region an unmistakably American-style conservative ideology, which represents a sharp shift from the ideas traditionally held by its political predecessors.
To understand what’s new about the new Israeli right, it is worth taking a closer look at Ayelet Shaked, who served as Israel’s justice minister from 2015 until just before April’s election. Shaked, the chairwoman of the newly formed, far-right Yamina (Hebrew for “rightward”) alliance, is repeatedly tipped by pundits as Netanyahu’s most likely successor. Arguably the religious right’s most powerful politician, she is also one of its most atypical. A young, Facebook-savvy, secular woman from Tel Aviv, trained as a software engineer, she came to public attention as a fierce opponent of allowing African asylum seekers the possibility of refuge in Israel. For the settler right, her usefulness derives from her ability to translate their messianic ideas into simple, ultranationalist sound bites that resonate with the Israeli mainstream: Instead of quoting obscure passages from the Bible, Shaked uses simple slogans about national security, identity and patriotism.
In 2016, Shaked published an economic manifesto in a new right-wing, American-style libertarian publication called Hashiloach. “Each time members of the Knesset vote for a new law,” she wrote, “they are simultaneously voting against our liberty in another sphere of life, because it then becomes regulated by the state.” Shaked, a self-confessed Ayn Rand admirer, displayed in her text a conservative economic perspective that, until recently, was simply unheard of in collectivist Israel. A 2018 poll conducted by the Berl Katznelson Center found that more than 80 percent of Israelis are sympathetic toward trade unions; 76 percent are willing to pay higher taxes to strengthen public education; and 70 percent support the nationalization of natural resources. Shaked’s dog-eat-dog worldview couldn’t be more out of whack with how much Israelis trust and support the idea of a welfare state.
But it is not just one right-wing magazine that published one right-wing politician. A blaring flurry of right-wing publications have popped up in the last dozen years. Media outlets run by the religious right regularly feature articles extolling the virtues of trickle-down economics, making them sound as if they had just been translated from Fox News: “Raising the Minimum Wage Would Harm the Poor” and “When Taxes are Cut, Everyone Enjoys the Fruits of Growth” are concepts that have “Made in the USA” written all over them. Lately, they have even expanded to climate denialism, publishing articles like “Trump is Right: It’s Time to Stop Fighting Global Warming.” These conservative talking points and ideas flow like water from the Atlantic all the way to the Mediterranean.
The ocean runs deep. Haggai Segal, editor-in-chief of the religious right’s foremost newspaper, Makor Rishon, also picked up the libertarian thread. A few years ago he suggested that Israel’s national insurance system, which includes full state-run coverage for all, wasn’t fair and harbored freeloaders. “Instead of each person financing his own insurance,” wrote Segal, “the state coerces him into also paying for his neighbor, who doesn’t bother to make a living.”
Two in five Israelis live under the poverty line, but in the tea party mind-set, facts like these are up for debate. Bezalel Smotrich, a prominent religious right politician and current transportation minister, infamously quipped: “The poverty statistics are exaggerated: I have five children, and I don’t believe that two of them are poor.” In the midst of an intense political battle fought by the left to increase disability insurance, Rabbi Uri Sadan of the Keter Institute for Torah Economics, declared disability “a divine edict that doesn’t accord its possessors the right to a salary from the state.”
In fact, the religious right has stood at the forefront of resistance to every single social justice campaign in Israel — from the massive protests in the summer of 2011, to the struggle to raise the minimum wage. They even declared themselves on the opposite side of the elderly and the disabled during the campaign to raise their government-issued disability insurance.
The latest gospel the religious right has imported from the world of the Koch brothers-funded think tanks is that of the misnamed “right to work” laws that are geared at crushing organized labor. This signifies a deep ideological transformation. Up until a decade ago, the religious right would regularly ally itself with the social democratic left around important education and welfare reforms. Today, following a decade of heavy conservative influence, its leadership has become fully proficient in libertarian dogma.
The South African option
The American right has not only given Israel libertarian economics. A new issue, also formerly unheard of in Israeli politics, was recently added to the religious right’s agenda: gun rights.
Amir Ohana, a young Likud lawmaker closely affiliated with the new right’s political infrastructure and Israel’s transition justice minister, began pushing for new legislation aimed at loosening firearm restrictions. “Self-defense is our most basic right,” declared Ohana last year, claiming that arming Israeli citizens would serve as “a force multiplier for the security forces” against Palestinian terrorists. “Unfortunately, it is likely that there will be more shooting accidents,” he conceded, adding: “When you cut wood, chips fly.” His initiative was proudly featured on the NRA’s website.
In civil rights terms, the religious right is determined to roll back the impressive achievements of Israeli liberalism, specifically the “constitutional revolution” that began in the ’90s and granted constitutional supremacy to Basic Laws concerning human rights. Recently, Shaked led an attempt to defang the Supreme Court entirely and revoke its power of judicial review with a law that was just a hair’s breadth away from being enacted. If she and her allies succeed the next time around, the right would effectively eliminate the only surviving veto point in a political system characterized by an all-powerful coalition government and an unusually weak parliament.
And this is all before we’ve touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, the religious right’s leadership has done a great deal of work to replace the status quo of settlement expansion in the West Bank with a new beast: annexation — that is, a unilateral Israeli declaration of sovereignty over the West Bank. Until just a few scant years ago, this was considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics, a doomsday scenario for both left and right. If Israel gave citizenship to the 2.5 million Palestinian residents in that swath of land, Jews would be voted out of office in what would spell the end of a Jewish state. If, alternatively, it did not grant them citizenship, that would sound a death knell for Israel as a democracy.
The old right never properly formed a clear thesis about the conflict. Its approach was largely reactive and consisted of opposing the two-state solution advocated by the left. But over the past few years, the leaders of the new religious right have sidled up to annexation and have presented plans that are aimed at including more West Bank land in Israel proper. Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett suggested that Israel annex Area C, defined by the Oslo Accords as some 60 percent of the West Bank. (Area C is where all Israeli settlements — and some 200,000 Palestinians — sit).
Bennett’s plan, launched on social media in the form of a slick viral video, involves the construction of a complex array of bridges and tunnels to connect the hundreds of tiny Bantustans that would remain under Palestinian control. Other figures on the religious right, such as National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich, have proposed annexing the entire West Bank without granting citizenship to a single Palestinian — a plan that would make Israel the next South Africa.
Crucially, these campaigns have been complemented by changes on the ground, in large part due to the fact that the politicians who advance them (Shaked, Bennett and Smotrich) have served as ministers for the last number of years. Although only a small part of his ruling coalition, this hell-bent band of ideologues was able to exploit Netanyahu’s inveterate hesitancy to steer the whole government their way.
For example, in early 2017 the religious right steered through the so-called regulation law, which legalizes the status of settlements built on private Palestinian land, forcing the legal owners to forfeit their property in return for land elsewhere or monetary compensation. They did not do all of this alone, however; it takes more than a handful of energetic politicians to rewrite the norms at the basis of a nation’s public life.
From classroom to cabinet table
To understand how the right-wing institutional machine operates — and how steeped it is in American money and influence — all one need do is look at Israel’s recent passage of the controversial nation-state law, which the Knesset passed last year. This legislation, which provoked an international stir, bestows a constitutionally superior status on Jewish citizens in Israel over Arab and other non-Jewish ones — thus, in effect, violating the principles set forth in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The law originated in two of the religious right’s most prominent research centers: The Institute for Zionist Strategy, which introduced the idea underlying the bill almost a decade ago; and the Kohelet Policy Forum, which accompanied the drafting of its final version, gave it public and intellectual backing, and hired Zvi Hauser, a former Netanyahu cabinet secretary, as a lobbyist to promote it.
When the bill became law, Kohelet threw a celebratory banquet attended by politicians, scholars and media figures associated with the right. The periodical Hashiloach, in which Shaked presented her libertarian credo, published essays that provided the camp’s agents of change with effective talking points. The Israel equivalent of Breitbart, a website called Mida, dedicated dozens of pieces to the law, which it heralded as a “fulfillment of Zionism.”
Academics associated with Kohelet have, in recent years, rewritten the civics textbooks used in Israel’s public schools system, in the spirit of the nation-state law: Reframing Zionism as a religious movement; painting Israeli Arabs in a negative light; and dropping any mention of the settlements. These same researchers often double as staff in partisan institutions such as the Jewish Statesmanship Center, a training ground for right-leaning youngsters seeking entry to key positions in public service. At the same time, the religious right’s network of premilitary prep schools and student programs is educating a whole generation of right-wingers in accordance with the worldview that elevates Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic commitment.
The Kohelet Policy Forum, named after the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, is perhaps the most important cog in the right-wing machine today. Its annual budget is estimated at over $8.5 million, an enormous sum in terms of the Israeli political system — nearly equal to the annual budget of the Israel Democracy Institute, the country’s leading nonpartisan think tank established some two decades prior to the forum.
In addition to the nation-state law, Kohelet has bigger, more dangerous legislation coming down the pike: It is pushing for “right to work” laws that would unseat union power; annexation legislation that would apply Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank; and, finally, a bypass law that would effectively strip the Supreme Court of its power of judicial review.
“Kohelet’s people are involved in virtually every significant legislative reform enacted by Netanyahu’s government, far beyond settlement-related issues — from the country’s Jewish identity to the national energy policy,” says a source who worked till recently in the Justice Ministry. “Their reports turn into government policy; their messaging memos are quoted verbatim by civil servants and politicians. When they appear before Knesset committees, all other civil society organizations are immediately sidelined. Their approach — which sanctifies the settlements on the one hand, and wild, unfettered markets on the other — has become bon ton in government circles.”
Learning from the Kochs
The spread of American-style conservative ideas is certainly not confined to the corridors of power in Jerusalem. One cannot walk into a bookstore in Israel nowadays without coming face-to-face with Ben Shapiro’s smug face, grinning on the cover of the Hebrew edition of “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument.”
This “survival manual,” along with Jordan Peterson’s conservative mega-bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” was published recently by Sella Meir — a publishing house supported by the American neoconservative Tikvah Fund and managed by luminaries of Israel’s new religious right. In recent years, the publisher has flooded the Israeli book market with key texts from the Anglo-American conservative bookshelf, from Ayn Rand to Douglas Murray and, of course, Donald Trump.
Books are not the only thing the Tikvah Fund has to offer Israelis. It attracts Israeli students to its seminars at home and abroad, thanks to lavish study conditions and generous scholarships. In these seminars, young Israelis are educated in the tenets of conservative thought, guided by speakers such as John Bolton, Bret Stephens, Bill Kristol and Elliott Abrams (the last two also sit on the fund’s board of directors).
In Washington, where think tanks and leadership training operations are thick on the ground, the activities of these groups may seem par for the course. But in Israel, which has far fewer stable, well-funded political institutions, the appearance of the Tikvah Fund and other conservative projects with U.S. money behind them is a dramatic political development.
Last May, Jerusalem hosted the first-ever Israeli Conservatism Conference. A brand-new organization, calling itself the Israeli Conservatism Movement, was behind the event: Its stated goal is “developing a distinctly Israeli and conservative school of thought, and a community affiliated with its ideas.”
Roger Hertog, a U.S. conservative businessman and chairman of the Tikvah Fund, shares this vision. “On the road to conservative victory,” he explained from the podium, “ideas must manifest themselves in the cultural and political processes that will shape Israel’s destiny. That is the challenge facing conservatism in Israel … and I think it can be won. It’s not just that ideas matter. They’re the only thing that matters,” he concluded.
According to estimates, the Tikvah Fund invests $10 million to $15 million a year in its project to transform Israel. And its cumulative impact can’t be overstated: Each and every one of the publications and institutions mentioned above is either fully or partly sponsored by the fund.
This is, of course, a legitimate move in the battle of ideas that takes place in any democratic society. And yet, one should call it for what it is: The right-wing, spearheaded by the Tikvah Fund, is attempting to replace Israel’s Declaration of Independence — the closest thing Israel has to a constitution, and a document that outlines a model for liberal Zionism, upholding equality for all citizens, Jewish or not — with the tea party’s manifesto.
To achieve that, it is employing the tried-and-true strategies of the Koch brothers, the Mercers, the Adelsons and other royal families of the American right. It is important to understand the involvement of U.S.-based foundations and thinkers in the war of ideas in Israel — not only since it proves how ridiculous the Israeli right’s incessant cries of “foreign interference” are, but primarily since it illustrates why Israeli progressives and their American partners keep swinging and missing: They avoid talking about the far-reaching differences between liberal and conservative strategies when it comes to investing money and efforts in Israel.
Do-gooders vs. power builders
For two decades now, the idea of liberal Zionism has been under constant attack both from the right (for an alleged betrayal of Zionism) and the far left (for an alleged betrayal of liberalism). Meanwhile, as a political actor, it has been losing elections with consistency. But its leadership in Israel and supporters abroad have been missing the point for years: They have become obsessed with ethics rather than politics, and preferred sporadic activism and self-styled heroic dissent to the systematic, long-term building of power.
It isn’t the case, of course, that there is less money on the liberal wing of the American Jewish community. However, liberal U.S. 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, they invest in projects aimed at empowering marginalized groups and promoting civic activism. Noble causes, to be sure, but apolitical ones.
Liberal donors who are engaged with Israel in a more political manner do so mainly by supporting projects that promote equality between Jews and Arabs and even by assisting election campaigns. But here, as well, we’re talking about short-term, project-based strategy — not about laying a strong institutional infrastructure for the long-term.
Conversely, Israel’s right-wing organizations are, well, right wing. All of them, almost without exception, deal with ideas and policies that cut across all aspects of life and differ only on the basis of function. Some focus on education and training; others work on policy and research; still others are media outlets.
In contrast, many of the left-wing organizations and foundations are issue-specific. They support youth programs; lift people up from poverty; promote peace. These initiatives — led by organizations that rarely perceive themselves as part of the same political camp — may mitigate the worst effects of right-wing rule, but do very little to advance the only political force in the country that could, by taking office, prevent these harms from taking place to begin with.
Those of us who believe that the road to a better and fairer life in the Middle East doesn’t go through boycotting the Jewish state — both because that wouldn’t be moral, and since it would only lead to a sharper rightward turn in Israeli society — are left with only one strategy: To strengthen the Israeli left.
The battle over the soul of Israel is a political one and is to be waged between the religious right and a new, reinvigorated left. The problem is that this institutional, power-centered approach has been consistently overlooked by progressive commentators and donors. This is precisely what has to change.
When people examine the Israeli left, they give one of two explanations for its current state. The first blames the crisis on the unattractiveness of its ideas — chiefly, the two-state solution. The second blames the weakness of its politicians and parties while completely ignoring the state of the left’s institutions. Both explanations are myopic. What the religious right and its American conservative backers understand is that ideas need policy research, mechanisms for educating young people, media institutions to promote them, groups of activists to demand them, and training programs to funnel the best and brightest of the movement into public service.
They also understand that political parties can only ever see as far as the next election campaign, and that nothing can replace institutions that work year in, year out to build a political camp over the long-term.
The Israeli left, which established the State of Israel, has already written a glorious chapter in Jewish history — and did so against all odds, in the dourest historical circumstances imaginable. In all likelihood, it can do it again. If we compare the state of the religious right following the disengagement from Gaza to that of the left today, we will find that the left’s starting point is still significantly better.
Even after years of no negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, poll after poll shows that most Israelis prefer the two-state solution over the right’s path of annexation — this despite public debate being heavily tilted in favor of those who reject any kind of diplomatic compromise. On questions of socioeconomics and freedom of religion, the left enjoys an even clearer advantage.
In other words, public opinion is, at least for now, well ahead of the political system — and the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state depends on the latter’s ability to catch up. This can happen only when the Israeli left creates its own network of public-facing, politically focused institutions.
To be sure, the responsibility for the country’s future lies, first and foremost, on the shoulders of young Israeli activists like us. But after a decade in which conservative money and expertise have been building up a new, dangerously effective far-right elite in Israel, it is time for our progressive partners abroad to seriously rethink their own game plan.
Rami Hod is executive director of the Berl Katznelson Center, an educational and ideas institution working to revive progressive Zionism in Israel.
Yonatan Levi is a research fellow at the Berl Katznelson Center and a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.