In July 2011, thousands of young Israelis took to the streets demanding social justice in demonstrations that consciously echoed scenes familiar from the Arab Spring. Eighteen months later, as Israelis go to the polls, those heady days seem distant, for all that assorted parties have tried to cash in on the calls for social change.
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But another element of the momentous upheaval in the Middle East is being replayed here, in the first post-Arab Spring Israeli elections. In the same way that in Tunisia and Egypt the first flush of secular democracy was replaced by political Islam, in Israel a messianic-flavored Jewish nationalism has transplanted the social justice “tent protests.”
The regional turmoil which seemed such a game-changer in the Middle East has played its own part – if perhaps at times a subliminal one - in the campaigns of Israeli political parties in recent months. The pattern of oppressive but apparently stable dictators being unseated by popular revolution only to be replaced in turn with Islamist-led governments has resonated with candidates and voters alike in Israel.
The logic runs that it’s an even scarier neighborhood than it was before and therefore this is certainly not a period for concessions or diplomatic flexibility towards the Palestinians. The Likud slogan - “A strong Prime Minister – a strong Israel” reflects that assessment, but Netanyahu’s boasting of his own apparent strength has always been part of the Bibi brand. Similarly, a Middle East in flux may have served to entrench the right-wing position – but this has been a trend which never needed much help from outside.
It is easy for many in Israel to translate the Arab Spring into meaning just what they want it to mean. Even as Egyptian protestors rose up against president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, politicians in Israel were warning that while the western world was celebrating the victory of democracy, more ominous forces were at play. Since then, they have constantly announced their prophecies fulfilled as Muslim Brotherhood made gain after gain in first the parliamentary, then the presidential elections and then the changes proposed by President Mohammed Morsi. In Tunisia the pattern was repeated; in Libya chaos threatens to rule; and civil war has long overtaken the peaceful Syrian opposition movement.
But there is an irony at work here. For decades Israelis have spoken of their country as the only democracy in the Middle East, ascribing the animosity of the Arabs to a large degree on the dictatorial nature of their regimes. Now that at least some Arab states are taking their first tentative steps towards democracy, the relationships with Israel are deteriorating. The one step that Israel has to undertake to upgrade its own democracy - to end its rule over millions of Palestinians - now seems further than ever, as regional instability are cited as yet another reason for not risking the establishment of a Palestinian state.
There isn’t really a directly comparable Israeli political trend to the Muslim Brotherhood – although Shas does offer a swathe of social benefits (and makes that a central part of their election campaign). But the 2013 Israeli election has seen the rise of a religious, ideologically-driven agenda, and a political future where the possibility of a separation of religion, state and citizenship becomes more tenuous than ever.
The most extreme example of this is the extraordinary rise of Habayit Hayehudi. Its head, Naftali Bennett, put the growing success of his party down to “a ‘Jewish Spring’ that is sweeping Israel” - that is to say, a revival in Jewish pride and Zionism. He has a point here that goes beyond the media-friendly soundbite.
Bennett himself was one of the few right-wingers who joined the protestors in 2011 on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Unlike his colleagues in the Yesha settlement council, who feared that the feelings of resentment focused on the government’s fiscal policies might also be directed against the settlers, Bennett believed that there was a more fundamental shift afoot that could lead to the entrance of new forces into politics.
And he was right. A year and a half later, he is one of those forces. Polling indicates that it’s the youth vote that’s drawn to his particular brand of accessible, feel-good, change-is-possible philosophy - just the sort of people who marched that summer, looking for a new political home.
But beneath their extensive repackaging, Habayit Hayehudi is still nothing more than a settler right-wing party that has no room for the secular, the non-Jewish, or those whose reading of “Jewish values” differ from their own. It doesn’t take too much paranoia to detect a sinister edge to Habayit Hayehudi’s incessant calls for the Jewish nature of Israel to be “strengthened.” The people may have demanded social justice in the long summer of 2011, but it now seems further away than ever.