Israeli Right-wingers Have a Chance to Redefine Themselves

Avi Shilon
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A black and white Israeli flag flown during a protest in Jerusalem, last year.
Avi Shilon

At a time when many people remain preoccupied with the future of Benjamin Netanyahu or of his Likud party once he leaves the scene (which will happen sooner than imagined, “The king is dead – long live the king” is an iron law of politics that even David Ben-Gurion could not defy when he tried to return to the stage after his time as prime minister), the bigger question is the future of the right.

The new government, which joins the parties of the right with those of the left and center, was created mainly out of a desire to escape Netanyahu’s grip. But the coalition was made possible by something deeper yet hidden from view: In 21st-century Israel, there isn’t a secular right with a clear ideology that stands in opposition to the left, certainly not one of the Revisionist mode.

It’s no accident that the Netanyahu era was characterized by struggles over identity politics (ironically, since it began as a progressive tool of the left in support of multiculturalism) or by attacks on state institutions: Netanyahu supporters were not drawn to a coherent right-wing worldview, so they adopted populism instead. Nor is it an accident that the right-wingers who stayed out of the Netanyahu coalition gravitated toward Bezalel Smotrich and his friends. That is because what is called the “ideological right” in our day has a religious element, something completely at variance with the original ideology of Revisionism.

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One reason for the retreat of right-wing ideology is that over the years the left has adopted it. Once the liberal economics of Ze’ev Jabotinsky stood in opposition to the socialism of the labor movement; today almost all of the parties have adopted neoliberalism as a way of life. Menachem Begin believed in judicial independence and universal civil rights, while Ben-Gurion preferred giving greater power to the collective nation. On that issue, too, the two sides switched places during the Netanyahu era, even if it arose out of Netanyahu’s personal needs. Practically speaking, in the post-Netanyahu era, there is no ideological disagreement over the judiciary. By the same token, over the current Zionist alliance with Mansour Abbas the left marches behind the right. The Zionist right, more than others, originally viewed the treatment of Israeli Arabs in the context of universal civil rights. That view also manifested itself in terms of economic freedom, which stood in contrast to the suspiciousness with which the labor movement’s collectivist vision looked at the Arab minority.

The right in its early days was more alienated from religion than the left. Thus, the radical secularism of the Canaanite movement, which sought to break the link between Judaism and Hebrew settlement, can be traced to figures from the Revisionist right. It was Begin who forged the link between the right and religious tradition, which today helps to sharpen the distinctions between left and right – but vis-à-vis identity, not ideology.

While one can infer from the maximalist rightism of Abba Ahimeir, the Irgun or Lehi the willingness to fight and use force, today’s right does not seek an armed conflict with the Palestinians. To the contrary: It seeks to avoid as much as possible physical confrontation and to maintain control over the occupied territories through technology.

So, the truth is that in stark contrast to its political power, as an ideology the secular Zionist right has weakened over the years. When Begin returned Sinai to Egypt, it was mainly the religious right that opposed it, not the majority of Likud voters. And when Ariel Sharon left Likud under the banner of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, his new Kadima party drew most Likud voters.

In contrast to its revolutionary origin, the modern right — not the right rooted in religion — advocates for realpolitik, sometimes more hawkish and sometimes less so, a position that is not fundamentally different from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, nor very far from the Labor Party.

In fact, the right dominated Israeli politics for so long mainly due to socioeconomic reasons. By adopting neoliberalism, it created the sense that under Netanyahu’s rule the situation was good both economically and in terms of security. His support wasn’t due to ideology.

One question remains: the attitude toward the occupied territories. But if you are a right-winger who is not religious, it’s mainly a question of security, not values. Israel has transferred parts of the Land of Israel to the Palestinian Authority in the past. So, Naftali Bennett’s plan to reduce friction and better manage the conflict will not divide the left and right.

The noise generated during the Netanyahu years created the illusion of an ideological rift between left and right. But the ease with which the new government has won acceptance demonstrates the extent to which the positions of the left and the right have converged, so that the differences within the Zionist camp today are small.

After Netanyahu goes, and in light of the current cooperation among the various parties, the right will have to redefine itself, to decide what it is. Policy on Iran is not an ideology. The right will have an opportunity to examine its politics from a refreshing new angle, as a contest between moderates on one hand and extremists and non-Zionists on the other, or one between conservatives and liberals that opens new paths and possibilities for the state.

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