Background / Israel's New Right - a Field Guide

The disengagement plan remains firmly clamped to the drawing board, still far from the slightest hint of substantive implementation. Nonetheless, perhaps more than any development since Oslo, the plan has radically re-engineered the workings of the right.

Half a year after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced its broad outlines, his disengagement plan remains firmly clamped to the drawing board - still undergoing refinements and revisions, still as many as eight months or more even from a cabinet green light for the slightest hint of substantive implementation.

Nonetheless, perhaps more than any development since the Oslo process, the initiative has radically re-engineered the workings of Israel's right, rescuing old names from obscurity and seclusion, thrusting new and controversial figures into key roles.

Certainly, change is no stranger to the right. Of the many names by which the nation's rightists are known, one is conspicuous by its absence: conservatives.

In fact, the tradition of the right in Israel is one of unceasing ferment, a volcanic process of perpetual revolution and re-invention. Molded by decades spent in the political shadow of the Labor collossus, the Likud, flagship of the Israeli right, lifeboat of the embittered Sephardi Second Israel, became a force that - even when it ruled the country - has ever and always remained a party in opposition.

An expression, even today, of reaction to the pro-socialist establishment that once controlled Israel from statecraft to sports, from diplomacy to department stores, from agriculture to popular culture, the rightist tradition is determinedly iconoclastic, founded in the rebellions represented by Menachem Begin's Irgun Zva'i Leumi pre-state underground, Yitzhak Shamir's even more militant Lehi armed group, and the come-what-may settlement cadres of Gush Emunim.

For decades, internal rightist political activity has been at once stoked and undermined by what may be called the Davka Factor - the contrarian, attention-attracting lurch to the further right, of which Ariel Sharon, for decades the leading also-ran of his creation the Likud, was a principal exponent.

That's how it came to be that dissension among hard-liners in the national camp was what helped end the Likud reigns in 1992 and 1999. In what may be a corollary of the axiom that "Only the Likud-led rightist government can bring peace," it may also be argued that only the right can bring down a Likud-led government.

This year, the tectonic shock of the disengagement plan has jolted the latent oppositionism of the right into the fore once again.

Long opposed to the evacuation of even one settlement, the right - faced with a Sharon plan to level more than one out of every six settlements in the territories - is now struggling with a number of possible responses, including accepting the disengagement as a springboard to future Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement blocs; refusing to follow orders to evacuate; and fighting an indefinite delaying action within the government, against implementation of the plan.

For a growing circle of hawks, the downfall of the Sharon government has become the immediate goal. The Yesha settlers council, the nation's best-oiled political machine, this month vowed to send the government to the bottom. Then Effi Eitam, the gruff, at times messianic chairman of the National Religious Party, jumped ship this month, soon after Sharon shoved the pro-transfer National Union overboard.

At the same time, there are signs of the emergence of a different form of a New Right in Israel - a center-right public that may portend a powerful force in the country's political landscape

The right as centerEarlier this month, the results of a public opinion poll suggested that there has been a shift in the way Israelis have come to view the political spectrum itself.

Asked whether they defined themselves as right, center or left, the Peace Index poll showed that fully 50 percent of Israeli Jews currently define themselves as right, 21 percent as center, and 18 percent as left.

Even though 71 percent defined themselves as right or center, the same poll, taken after Sharon's resounding defeat in the Likud referendum on the Gaza evacuation plan, showed that 63 percent of Israeli Jews believed that the prime minister "should remain in his post and continue promoting the disengagement plan in other ways."

According to Haaretz commentator Gideon Samet, "There has been a major change in the definition of 'right' and 'left.' The right is no longer what it used to be in the time of Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, and even what it was during Sharon's first term."

As a whole, Samet says, "The right has withdrawn from the dream and the vision of a Greater Israel. Moreover, it has deserted the idea of 'no withdrawals,' and has come close to the center."

Likud voters still regard themselves as belonging to the right, Samet notes, "but what they are saying is no longer the stuff of the right, it's no longer the classic stuff of the Likud."

Within the new climate, with disengagement in the air if not on the ground, the following are a few of the less-renowned principals who have taken notable recent roles in what may be a fateful struggle for Israel's future:


Former bureau chief of the head of the Prime Minister's Office during the Netanyahu administration, Uri Elitzur has long headed election-time public relations for the National Religious Party, and is currently editor of the Yesha settlement council's Nekuda monthly.

Elitzur, who once headed an organization opposed to the evacuation of Sinai settlements under a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, stirred wide reaction last week by writing in a national religious publication that "the uprooting of a settlement is illegal and shocking and thus justifies the refusal of orders, violence excluding the use of firearms, and any method by which an individual is able to defend his home from which he is being evicted for political reasons."

He further advised soldiers to refuse to evacuate settlements because "these would be illegal orders and whoever carries them out would be put on trial."

Heretofore, support for refusal to obey military orders had come largely from the left.


A farmer by profession, Zvi Hendel is the only member of Knesset who lives in the Gaza Strip, in the settlement of Ganei Tal.

He is a member of the firebrand National Union faction, a far-right amalgam of transfer supporters, anti-compromise settlement officials, and hard-liners who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Even before he became one of the most strident anti-disengagement voices of the right, Hendel came to public notice with his response to a reported January 2002 statement by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, that Israel would rather spend money on settlements in the territories than on its disabled citizens, who were then in the midst of protest strike for government benefits.

"It can't be that Israel allows the interference of a little Jew-boy, a little Jew-boy, that represents the United States ... in an internal Israeli dispute," Hendel told a dumbfounded Knesset.

More recently, Hendel strongly implied that Sharon had devised the disengagement plan in order to divert attention from police investigations into alleged corruption on the part of the prime minister, parodying a one-time Labor diplomatic formulation ("The deeper the peace, the deeper the withdrawal") by saying, "The deeper the investigation, the deeper the withdrawal."


Leader of the relatively moderate sector of the strongly pro-settlement National Religious Party, Zevulun Orlev is seen as the key to the future of the current Sharon government. When NRP chief Eitam and his predecessor Yitzhak Levy bolted the government - leaving the coalition with only 59 seats in the 120-seat Knesset - it was Orlev who kept the NRP's remaining four legislators in the Sharon camp, keeping the government afloat, at least for the near future.

In an argument that has resonated with Likud backbenchers, who fear new elections could leave them out of parliament, Orlev maintains that the current framework keeps Labor out of a unity government and simultaneously forestalls new elections.


Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who until the disengagement plan was one of Sharon's signal confidantes and vocal champions, has taken advantage of his position to lobby against the initiative during state observances and official functions.

Drawing leftist criticism for politicizing the central Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, Rivlin dedicated a torch to the Knesset and the "pioneers who go before the camp, those who settle the land of our forefathers and redeem its earth, from Hanita [on the northern border] to Kfar Darom [a Gaza settlement slated for evacuation under the disengagement], and from Negba [in the south] to Kiryat Arba which is Hebron."

Last week, Rivlin followed Sharon in addressing the dedication ceremony of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Sharon quoted Begin as having said it was his duty to carry out the evacuation of Yamit as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. "Until the day I die, I will carry this pain in my heart," Sharon quoted Begin as saying. "But it was my duty as prime minister."

"It is in this spirit that I have acted up until now," Sharon declared, "and this is how I intend to continue."

In Rivlin's address, he responded by quoting Begin as well. "So long as I lead the nation as prime minister," Rivlin quoted Begin as vowing, "I promise that we will not leave any part of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and Jerusalem will be the only capital of Israel forevermore."