How the settlers took over Israel

Over the past 13 years the settler Right succeeded in establishing itself as a hegemonic force in Israeli politics, education,  judiciary, culture, and society. If the Left has any chance of pushing back, instead of moderating itself it must radicalize.

By Rami Kaplan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2015, ahead of Israel’'s March 17 elections. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2015, ahead of Israel’’s March 17 elections. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

A sense of doom has overcome the left-wing camp in Israel these days. The prospect of replacing the right-wing government appears more out of reach than ever, and even the term “left wing” has become a slur. The Left’s despondency could be because its flagship issue of the past 30 years, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is either too complex or even outright impossible. It could also be that the country is simply moving further and further to the right, in line with broader global trends.

There is truth to all these explanations, but the feeling of despair — following a protracted period in which the Left has been unable to have an impact — has made these factors appear more decisive than they actually are. I argue that the downfall of the Israeli Left is largely a result of strategic steps implemented by the Right, which have defeated the former in the struggle for hegemony and leadership in Israeli society. These are steps that can be overturned.

In the last decade, right-wing organizations and parties have adopted new methods, which have been described as “incitement,” “anti-democratic,” “fascist,” “populist” and a “changing of elites.” There are parallel patterns around the world, but in Israel they appeared in the context of a strategic shift, set in motion by the settler movement over a decade ago, toward a “war over hegemony.” The goal of this persistent, calculated initiative is to destroy the Left’s sources of influence and install a right-wing hegemony instead. Since the Left has indeed lost this war, it is expected to continue and expand; the Left has to increase its awareness of this war and find a way to fight back. Its downfall should be understood not as inevitable, but rather as a misstep that can and should be fixed by reorganizing itself and taking strategic steps that can have an impact.

The spark that lit the flame of the Right’s hegemony war was the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. It raised the question: how is it possible that the Likud, led by Ariel Sharon, is withdrawing from occupied lands and evacuating settlements? Right-wing thinkers posited that although the Left had lost the trust of voters, it continued to enjoy a disproportionate level of impact in the realm of ideas and values.

Israeli soldiers wait as Jewish settlers in Neve Dekalim are escorted from their houses in the Gaza Strip on 18 August 2005. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers wait as Jewish settlers in Neve Dekalim are escorted from their houses in the Gaza Strip on 18 August 2005. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Gramsci – but in reverse

Take, for example, an article from the compendium “In the Shadow of the Disengagement” from 2008, which stated the following:

“The centers of power in Israeli society have been left entirely in the hands of the ruling class in Israel (the Jewish-secular-liberal elite). This is true when it comes to the economy, judiciary, courts, media, cinema, theater and television. From time to time … there are elections, but … those who determine what is permitted and prohibited are not elected representatives but legal entities and the ruling groups.”

The development of a critical perspective vis-à-vis the extra-governmental sources of influence on the Left led to the conclusion that in addition to an electoral struggle, the settlers have an interest in focusing on the deep structural levels of public influence.

In fact, the Right borrowed the radical left’s line of thinking. Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci’s doctrine on hegemony is especially relevant. According to Gramsci, hidden powers are at work behind formal politics, defining what is deemed “right” or “appropriate” in every society. In other words, they determine the framework for the political game. The power to control the definitions of “right” and “appropriate” – what Gramsci calls “intellectual, moral and political hegemony” – tends to be concentrated in the hands of the hegemonic elite. This is a leadership group whose sources of influence are located both within and outside state mechanisms, and in civil society (in his case, Gramsci, a communist, was disturbed by the bourgeoise hegemony).

As such, in order to guarantee the continuation of the settlement enterprise, the settlers need to take the intellectual and moral hegemonic order in Israel into their own hands. For that, it’s not enough for the Likud to win the elections; the settler Right has to wage a long and tedious battle to take control of the nodes of influence in the fields of law, education, media, and culture – thereby weakening the Left’s influence.

The war to assume hegemonic power has been waged on the battleground of civil society. Since the early 2000s, the right has established a slew of organizations that specialize in this: NGO Monitor (founded in 2001), Israel Academic Monitor (2004), Institute for Zionist Strategies (2005), Im Tirtzu (2006), The Jewish Statesmanship Center (2007), My Israel (2010), Mida (2012), Kahelet Policy Forum (2012), The Movement for Governability and Democracy (2013), Ad Kan (2015) and others. These organization have played a pivotal role in fomenting the consciousness of the hegemony war, distributing it within the Right and leading the battle through activism, research and media.

The hegemony war truly took off in 2009 after Likud re-assumed power under Netanyahu. At the time, right-wing civil society organizations introduced arguments that would become legitimate and mainstream. For example, following Im Tirtzu’s “Syllabus Report,” which sought to discredit academics who criticize Israeli policy, the Ministry of Education held a meeting in 2010 under the banner “The Exclusion of Zionist Positions in Academia” where representatives of the organization met with university presidents from across the country.

Knesset members and the government – in cooperation with right-wing organizations (which started integrating into government jobs, education, and hasbara) – became the spokespeople of this hegemony war. They helped expand it into the realm of policy — what the Left has called “anti-democratic legislation,” and the right calls “defensive democracy,” or simply “democracy.” Since then, the messaging of this battle over hegemony has spread from the Right and to the Center and Left – to the point where it has become a daily component of the political discourse.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett poses for a selfie with Israeli students during a visit to Ariel University in the West Bank, March 10, 2015. (Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett poses for a selfie with Israeli students during a visit to Ariel University in the West Bank, March 10, 2015. (Flash90)

Narrowing the Left’s wiggle room

The Right’s hegemony war has targeted the Left’s sources of intellectual and moral influence from two directions. One effort is to uproot the Left and its worldview from the judicial system, media, academia, education, and culture. By doing so, the Right seeks to diminish its structural influence on shaping both public discourse as well as policymakers.

On the negative side of this attack, NGOs, journalists, and ministers on the Right are working to narrow the Left’s room to maneuver – what Likud MK Yariv Levin calls “the same people who keep losing Knesset elections over and over, but operate to impose their values and world views through their control of systems that are not elected, such as academia, large swaths of the media and first and foremost, the judicial system.” For example, using the campaign against “anti-Zionist biases” and “political preaching” in the universities, organizations like Im Tirtzu and Israel Academia Monitor, together with successive education ministers, have managed to limit academic freedom, long considered a bastion of the Left.

Meanwhile, institutions like the Jewish Statesmanship Center in the settlement of Kedumim in the West Bank operated more positively to “cultivate a new leadership in Israel that can change the public discourse and establish a new national agenda based on its Jewish identity and the historical mission of the State of Israel.” It is hard to estimate the achievements of a project that intends to “swap the elites,” but it is clear that there is an open campaign being waged in various fields of hegemonic influence. For example, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and Culture Minister Miri Regev are trying to enact – with some pushback and various degrees of success – changes to the procedures for appointing judges, restructuring the school curricula, ethical regulations in academia, and a re-evaluation of government funding for the arts.

This campaign could not have been as powerful and out in the open without the ethical backing of the Right, which, as part of a global trend, has flourished since the end of the last decade: the populist justification for a hegemony war.

According to this narrative, the “secular-liberal elite” is a small, self-absorbed group detached from the “nation.” It is allegedly pro-democracy, but in effect is cunning and power-hungry, holding on to its position of influence and privilege against the will of the majority, which elects right-wing parties. The attack on the Left comes off as an attempt – in the name of democracy – to reach some kind of “balance” in the allocation of resources of impact. The Right can portray itself as a group of noble patriots and frame, for example, Ariel University, located in the West Bank settlement of the same name, as a place that strengthens Israel’s periphery.

As such, in addition to the justification it provides for the hegemony war, the populist attacks help eternalize the right’s alliance with low-income communities against old elites, even when the latter are no longer in power – as has been the case for over a decade. Demonizing the Left as an exploitative and manipulative elite undermines its own moral hegemony and casts a deep shadow on its claims to lead the country.

Right-wing Israeli activists march in support of Elior Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian attacker, in Jerusalem, November 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Right-wing Israeli activists march in support of Elior Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian attacker, in Jerusalem, November 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Fascism lite’ in service of the right

The left-wing leadership is also attacked from another direction, which I will call “fascism lite.” This is the second part of the war over hegemony, and it stretches the democratic debate between doves and hawks to a point in which the latter accuse the former of borderline treason and aiding the enemy. This, the Right claims, is done by trying to hinder IDF conscription, limiting the actions of Israeli soldiers, undermining the Jewish character of the state, promoting boycotts, abetting terror, etc. The Left is portrayed as the enemy from within, which allies itself with Israel haters. It is blamed for receiving funding from foreign governments, for airing Israel’s dirty laundry abroad, and for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

This kind of rhetoric fans the flames of hatred against the Left as traitors, and severely damages its public standing. The 2013 slogan “stop apologizing,” coined by political strategist Moshe Klughaft and adopted by Bennett’s Jewish Home party, was an expression of the settler Right liberating itself from its moral inferiority in the eyes of those previously considered the “enlightened public,” which has now become the defeated, traitorous Left.

The “fascism lite” attack focuses on easy targets: extra-parliamentary organizations in the “extreme Left” such as the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, Peace Now, and others. These groups are distinguished from the “moderate, sane, Zionist” Left, as Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ben Dror Yemini has defined it, or, in other words, those whose opposition to the occupation is moderate.

But the moderate Left, which the Right supposedly deems legitimate, is the actual target of this mechanism. While the “extremists” are demonized and attacked, the Centrists are pressured to moderate themselves further; to distinguish themselves from the extremists, justify themselves and declare their loyalty to the military, the state, Zionism, etc. Toeing the Right’s line – a consensus in which the occupation is identified with Zionism and the IDF, in which opposition to said consensus is equivalent to opposing the Right itself – projects a weakness and a loss of direction. As such, it stands in the way of an opportunity to cultivate a viable alternative to the right-wing government.

The wave of legislation that we have seen since 2010 — including the Nakba Law, the Boycott Law, the NGO Transparency Law, the Jewish Nation-State Law, among others — is the flagship offensive of the “fascism lite” campaign and the hegemony war in general. These legislative steps, based on fascist justifications with a heavy dose of populism, are designed to narrow the space for political expression and action by those who oppose the Right – Jews and Arabs alike – and the sobering authority of Israel’s judiciary. But while in Fascist Italy regime opponents like Gramsci were imprisoned, the defining characteristic in Israel is the sophisticated application of these laws.

The anti-democratic legislation is indeed alarming. Yet the change it has brought about in how the regime operates is surprisingly minimal. Most of the proposed bills did not ultimately pass, while the ones that became law were watered down and are barely enforced. Of course, it would be remiss to ignore the dangers of Israel becoming an authoritarian regime like Poland or even Turkey, and it would not be far off to argue that a gradual process of regime change toward fascism and authoritarianism is taking place.

It is important to add that it is the Left’s responsibility to search for these fascist tendencies under every rock and rail against them with all its might. With that said, how can one explain the dramatic gap between the Right’s incendiary rhetoric and its moderate actions, or the fact that the formal structure of the government in Israel has not changed since 2009? It is important to underscore this, since the automatic comparison with authoritarianism — like the regimes in Hungary or Russia, or the fascism of 20th century Europe — even if they play a necessary role as a form of opposition, could blur the logic of action in the hegemony war here and now.

These legislative initiatives should be understood as a symbolic mechanism whose role is to create a continual media storm. With every such initiative, right-wing speakers make severe allegations against the Left and Israel’s Arab citizens. They describe a supposedly insufferable reality that demands the intervention of the authorities. The debate then fades away after some time, but a month or two later, another storm begins to brew – and we go from one witch hunt to another. While the changes in the legal books are minor, the real achievements are on the image level: the Left falls victim to a systematic and protracted public hanging. The barrage of mudslinging and threats that accompany every initiative pummel the Left’s public image and puts it on the defensive. Every such incident damages its chances to assume leadership.

The Left duplicates the Right’s attacks

The right deploys rhetoric regarding the “resilience of the nation” and “the enemy from within” in order to demonize, incite, police the Left on the one hand, while minimizing formal changes on the other. It’s a smart approach. The destruction of democracy in Israel (it is unclear whether most of the Right actually wants to do away with democracy) has a price when it comes to domestic and international legitimacy. A price there is no reason to pay as long as the “fascism lite” approach is working. That is why the Left viewed the Jewish Nation-State Law as the Right taking off its mask, revealing its true intentions to the world. But the truth is, even in this case, the law is prudent and very ambiguous. The Right is not quick to remove its masks.

As long as the masquerade — the gap between inflammatory rhetoric and deeds — continues, the Left will continue to prop up this mechanism. On one hand, it exerts critical pressure, which then waters down the language of the bills. In doing so, it actually helps the Right identify the red lines it should not cross in order to preserve its legitimacy (when criticism swells, the regime backs down), and gives the regime an excuse that enables it to come out on top, despite the gap between threats and their realization.

On the other hand, because many of the Right’s initiatives are blocked or watered down, the Left comes off as crying wolf over the dangers of the Right’s fascism and its fomenting of unnecessary panic. Thus, the left comes off as hypocritical: the supposedly deprived elite is decrying the restrictions on its excess privileges. In typical fascist-populist style, the Right champions itself as promoting the will of the people – “protecting our soldiers,” for example – while the liberal elite comes off as abandoning them.

The “fascist lite” offensive manages to make the Left look bad on all fronts: it crushes its image, uses its opposition to promote itself, and denies it credit for its role in protecting democracy.

At the end of nine consecutive years of Likud rule, the option of an election upset appears even more distant, with the hegemony war playing a significant role in preserving the Right’s hold on power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a Rubik’s Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Pandering to the base

If the hegemony war is a methodical effort whose objective is to uproot the Left from all its extra-parliamentary sources of influence, while delegitimizing its values and positions, how can the Left ever get itself out of the crosshairs?

The Left was defeated because its two primary defense tactics were ineffective, or worse. Criticizing fascism is one defense that, while necessary, will not turn the tables in the hegemony war. The second defense, capitulating to the Right’s offensive, is defeatist. Instead of pushing back on the onslaught, it helps promote the Right’s moral intellectual revolution, through which it further entrenches itself as the hegemonic power and puts the Left on the defensive.

That is why the right way to disrupt this mechanism is by facing it head on. This means a principal rejection – similar to that of the settler Right during the days of Oslo – of the right-wing revolution, which sees no difference between the state and the values of occupation and Jewish supremacy. An unequivocal and uncompromising opposition, even if unpopular in the short term, is essential for rehabilitating the Left’s leadership potential in the long term.

The Left should “radicalize” itself, not moderate itself. A left-ward shift that moves closer to the “hard” left, rather than abandoning it, would be a late but much-needed response to the radicalization of the Right in the last decade. The Right should serve as a model. It embraces all corners of its base because it understands that rallying around an ideology and forming unity within the camp are essential for subverting the hegemony.

Is there reason to be concerned that the Right – in response to determined opposition from the Left – will deepen its fascism and remove its masks? Will the day come when the government will put its opponents in jail? In my opinion, despite the endless occupation, the culture of democracy in Israel is stronger than in Poland, Hungary, Russia or Turkey, and the identification with democratic and global values is stronger. In Israel, it will be harder to garner public support for full-blown fascism and ignore international criticism. That is why it is fair to assume that resolute opposition will burst the “fascist lite” bubble and will cause the Right to retreat from this strategy. This kind of retreat will distance the state from the dangers of fascism and re-open the political competition.

Over the last decade, the Israeli Right has demonstrated innovation, determination, and successful public outreach that led to impressive gains in the hegemony war. The result has been the tragic demise of the Left, which lost its public standing, along with the loss of hope, a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a solution to other national problems. As such, the prerequisite for solving the conflict is overcoming the despair and channeling one’s energy into renewing the hegemonic struggle: moving toward strategic actions that can put an end to the Right’s onslaught and restore the Left’s influence and leadership.

Dr. Rami Kaplan is a resident of Tel Aviv, sociologist with the Open University and a political activist. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, read it here.