How Russian and Arab Israelis ‘Castled’

Carolina Landsmann
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Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman speaking last year.
Carolina Landsmann

The political imbroglio of the past two years is the result of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political divorce from Avigdor Lieberman. The reason for divorces no one ever knows. What’s clear is that the right-wing family has never recovered. The children freaked out a bit, Gideon Sa’ar and Zeev Elkin left home, and Naftali Bennett felt he was old enough to be prime minister.

Even if Netanyahu is to blame for the rift, without Lieberman there wouldn’t be a political mess. Netanyahu realized right away, even before Lieberman, that Lieberman “is now part of the left,” as he announced in May 2019 minutes after the Knesset was dissolved. It sounded so wacky. Lieberman part of the left. Come on. Here’s more proof that Netanyahu has lost it.

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But Netanyahu was right. Little by little, Lieberman found himself in a new sociopolitical milieu, joining Yair Lapid (in his reincarnation as head of the left-wing camp), Labor (in its radical feminist reincarnation) and Meretz, and open to a relationship with the Arab parties.

That’s how it is in Israel. Moving away from Netanyahu means getting closer to the “left” and vice versa, because “left” and “Netanyahu” are opposites. We can’t infer from this that Netanyahu is “right-wing” or that “left-wing” is left. “Netanyahu” and “left,” similar to explanations by commentator Avishai Ben-Haim and sociologist Lev Luis Greenberg, are the names of tribes.

If you consider the division into camps tribal, it’s clear that leaving one tribe means joining another. If you ask historian and Haaretz columnist Dmitry Shumsky, he wouldn’t suggest pinning your hopes on Russian voters thronging to the left. He keeps stressing that Soviet-born Israelis’ affiliation with the right is “a clear result of the post-Soviet conceptual, cultural baggage.” That is, their political DNA is anti-left.

But if we think of “the left” not as a collection of ideas but as a tribe and a political home for elites, can we be sure that climbing the social ladder won’t be reflected in a switch of political homes?

As Lieberman and his party made their way from Netanyahu’s camp to the left camp, we saw the beginning of a movement in the opposite direction – Arab Israelis who abandon the left and according to the tribal distribution find themselves in the Netanyahu camp, or at least on its periphery. (See United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas.) In a rough description, one can say we’re witnessing the beginning of a political “castling” between the Russians and the Arabs.

Presumably, as long as the struggle against the occupation is identified with the left and the occupation’s expansion is the right’s goal, this castling won’t be completed. But if Netanyahu continues along the lines of the Abraham Accords and the left feels that the two-state solution is anachronistic, everything is open. The farther you move from the occupation debate, the political castling between the Russians and the Arabs is entirely organic.

The Russian immigrants closed the gaps with the native Israelis very quickly, and the left after all is the political home of Israel’s elites. In contrast, in a reverse political reality, the right wing of the ultra-Orthodox and Netanyahu is the poorer classes’ political home. Isn’t it natural that Arabs from the poorer classes should find their political home on the right?

So it’s not surprising that Netanyahu interpreted Lieberman’s relocation to the left as an invitation to the Arabs to join the right via the services of his associate Nathan Eshel, who wrote a Haaretz op-ed calling for an alliance between the right and the Arabs, like the one the right has with the ultra-Orthodox. The call didn’t go unheard, as Abbas has proved.

In this tribal reality, this process seems inevitable. And if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, it will happen the day after.

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