What will it take for Israel’s right-wing voters to say enough?

A small group of right-wing voters could tip the balance and lead to a change of government in Israel. Who are these voters, what do they care about, and would a Kahanist party in the Knesset be a step too far?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Until one week ago, it looked unlikely that Benjamin Netanyahu could lose an election. It looked even less likely that the center and left-wing parties in Israel could ever outnumber the right-wing bloc to form a government. But last week, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz merged with Yair Lapid’s centrist party and polls showed their new Blue and White party pulling ahead. Then on Thursday, the attorney general finally announced a long-anticipated decision to indict the prime minister on corruption charges.

Now, everything depends on Israeli right-wing voters. Their choice will determine if Likud and the right shrink sufficiently in April to herald a new era of leadership, or whether “King Bibi” proves unbeatable, yet again. All votes are equal, but some could change everything.

Since a stable plurality of Israelis – and a clear majority of Jewish citizens – are right wing, it has looked unlikely that the right-wing bloc will lose the 12-seat advantage it won over the center and the left in 2015. Yet on February 9, a two-week average gave the right-wing bloc just a two-seat advantage. A new average produced on February 25, just after the creation of the Blue and White party, showed an even 60-60 split (from a total of 120 seats).

These shifts could represent just a bounce for the new center party, drawn out by the attorney general’s likely indictment of Netanyahu; a bounce that can always fall. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to ignore polls – especially averages and trends – entirely.

Are some right-wingers planning to turn their backs on the bloc? Given the merger between the Jewish Home party with the extremist, Kahanist-inspired Otzma Yehudit, is it possible that the right has gone too far even for many of its own?

In recent years, the right has made it all too easy to brand its entire camp as racist, nationalist, populist and fascist. Since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, a slew of anti-democratic and racist legislation, creeping annexationist policies in the West Bank and ongoing torment of Gaza, as well as rhetorical attacks on Arab-Palestinian citizens, the left, the media, and democratic institutions, demonstrate that the meaning of “right wing” in Israel has become more extreme.

But if winning elections depends on some slice of voters peeling off, it won’t help to paint all right-wingers with the same brush. It’s also not accurate.

The Jewish Home party, the current iteration of what used to be Israel's National Religious Party, votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, Feb 20, 2019. (Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90)
The Jewish Home party, the current iteration of what used to be Israel’s National Religious Party, votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, Feb 20, 2019. (Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90)

My surveys show that respondents who identify as “moderate right” are different from those who are just “right” (these can be considered “firm right”). The right wing in Israel tends to break down almost evenly, or slightly more who are firm (30 percent) than moderate right (20 percent) among Jews, for a total of roughly 50 percent. The two groups overlap, but their vote breaks down differently, and they show moderate but clear differences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion and state, and democratic values.

In a December 2017 poll I conducted with Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, one-third of the moderate right said its supported a two-state solution (34 percent) compared to 19 percent of the firm right. In a survey I conducted for B’Tselem last December, more than twice as many moderate right-wingers said it is in Israel’s interest to reach a two-state solution rather than continue the status quo (44 percent) as those who gave this answer on the firm right (21 percent).

Despite the recent claims that Israeli politics might be gravitating towards two blocs, right-wing politicians clearly believe there are diverse constituencies among their voters. There are currently no fewer than five different right-wing, non-Haredi parties likely to cross the electoral threshold: Likud, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and the United Right (the union of Jewish Home, National Union, and the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit). There are even a few smaller right-wing parties currently polling below the electoral threshold.

So, what’s on these voters’ minds?

Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, says that there are three main axes that define the right today: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, economic worldview, and democracy issues.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “it’s not exactly two states versus annexation or Greater Israel,” he says. Instead, some right wingers, like him, accept a two-state solution but don’t believe there is a partner, or feel that the security concerns are too great. “It’s not that there’s something sacred – or even if there is, we can still compromise on it for the sake of a Jewish and democratic state. But I don’t want rockets on Kfar Saba,” he explains. His is a common perspective, drawn from the Israeli experience of rocket fire from Gaza from the mid-2000s. Many Israelis view the rocket fire in isolation of both the broad closure of Gaza from 2007, and from the 52-year occupation.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and President Reuven Rivlin at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2019. (Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and President Reuven Rivlin at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2019. (Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The democracy axis, Fuchs explains, ranges from individual rights on the left versus majority rule currently represented by the right. This division is counterintuitive, he says: it’s the right that once focused on liberal protections for the individual. “Unfortunately, many politicians and people on the right are convinced that there must be more freedom to rule, fewer checks and balances, less individual rights, and less power for the justice system.”

The 2018 B’Tselem survey showed that among firm right-wingers, twice as many hold a negative view of the Israeli Supreme Court as those who have a positive view (49 to 25 percent). Among the moderate right, the trend is nearly reversed: 42 percent held positive views of the Supreme Court to 29 percent negative. This means the Supreme Court divides the right and moderate right much more than the two-state solution.

Fuchs, who supported the Likud in the past, struggled to explain the party’s direction on the issues of democracy and the justice system. “I think it’s because the right wing has governed for so many years — they have started to think that any limitation on government is anti-right,” he says.

Yosef Halper owns Halper’s Books in Tel Aviv – a legendary shop among Tel Aviv’s Anglophones. Halper, 59, moved from the United States to Israel in 1983 and now lives in Petah Tikva, a city east of Tel Aviv. Halper is still not sure which party to support in April. “I’m tired of Netanyahu, tired of his face,” he remarks. He criticizes Netanyahu for focusing conveniently on external threats while neglecting severe domestic problems of economy and corruption.

Halper also says his personal politics have changed. He was more religious in the past, and used to support the National Religious Party, the forerunner of Jewish Home, the party which merged last week with the Kahanists. Israel needs to “acknowledge that [it] is a mature country, that there are people here who aren’t Jewish. They’re not going anywhere,” he adds. The far right can’t have it both ways, he says: “People are living with pipe dreams if they think they can have all Judea and Samaria, and also peace, and also a Jewish state.” Though he personally remains observant, Halper says he is also increasingly concerned with the need to separate religion and state in Israel, citing the American tradition.

But it’s not yet clear if Halper will move blocs. He says he feels jaded and sees “a dearth of leadership on the left.” He appreciates Yair Lapid but he is skeptical of the three generals in the Blue and White party. He is not the only person to praise Netanyahu for avoiding wars. In fact, under Netanyahu’s leadership, two wars were fought in Gaza, but Halper looks north: “With Hezbollah on the Syrian border, or ISIS, which was threatening Israel’s border, Netanyahu managed to keep us out of a major war. I ask if these three generals will be sending tanks over the border.” Gantz, it seems, may have oversold himself with violent campaign ads boasting of flattening Gaza during wars he commanded.

Fuchs and Halper look like candidates who could conceivably switch blocs based on Netanyahu-fatigue, democracy issues, and religion-and-state concerns. But when the political strategist Roni Rimon said that some might flee the right bloc to avoid putting the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit into the next coalition, was he right?

The far-right merger of Jewish Home with the Kahanists has in fact created a powerful rift. The prominent orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau compared the ideology of Otzma leaders to Nazis, and about 90 prominent modern Orthodox rabbis condemned Netanyahu for his role in pressuring the parties to merge. Individual influencers in the national religious community wrote heartfelt posts on social media denouncing the deal.

Meanwhile, Bennett and Shaked left Jewish Home to establish their own New Right. They branded their party as a more secular version of a right-wing ideology. Still, while leading Jewish Home, these two have pushed a strong Jewish agenda as ministers in the previous government. The New Right’s platform published this week calls for the annexation of 61 percent of the West Bank. This is something they have supported in the past, alongside settlement expansion in the West Bank and in all of Jerusalem.

Shosh Shilo is a proud settler. The 67-year-old has lived in Kedumim, a settlement in the Nablus region of the West Bank, for more than 40 years. She is religious, has worked for the far-right settlement activist Daniella Weiss, and knows some of the most prominent and openly racist members of Otzma Yehudit personally.

Still, she won’t be voting for the United Right. “I already decided I’m with Naftali and Ayelet,” she says, using the first names of the New Right leaders. She supports parties with “strong Zionist roots, linked to Torah. But if they are only linked to Torah, it’s a problem.” In her view, the New Right represents a more inclusive party.

Right-wing politician Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Right-wing politician Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Another American immigrant, Carmi Wisemon, is deliberating between Jewish Home (now United Right), and a small party formed by former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, because he likes the libertarian approach Feiglin has come to represent. But Feiglin’s party is currently polling below the electoral threshold. Wisemon, 51, who has six children and lives just on the Green Line, is drawn to Jewish Home for their values of religious Zionism as well as “the effort to continue to settle the Land of Israel.” Settlements are needed for Israel’s security, he says, and because they are part of Biblical Israel. “Generations of Jews have desired, prayed, hoped to live in all parts of the Land of Israel. I’m just continuing what generations of Jews have wanted for thousands of years.”

In recent years, the Israeli settlement population, infrastructure, and strategic location of settlements have expanded through the West Bank. They already fragment Palestinian society and make it highly unlikely that Palestinians will ever have a separate independent state. What if Israel becomes a single state in which Jews are a minority, ruling over Palestinians as unequal subjects under Jewish rule?

“Obviously it would be better if there was a Jewish majority in Israel. But we don’t need a Jewish majority as much as we need a state with a Jewish character, where Jews can live comfortably, safely and unharmed,” Wisemon  says. As an American Jew, he admits he wouldn’t want the United States to to be a Christian country, though. Wisemon thinks the argument for two states is disingenuous as well. He correctly points out that the left hasn’t resolved how Israel should define itself, given that about one-quarter of Israeli citizens within the Green Line are not Jewish.

Shilo, the settler, believes that the solution lies in providing full equality to “Arabs” in terms of quality of life, citing water, electricity, sewage – but not national rights. “I’m much more scared of them being a state than of them being citizens,” she says, especially if they swear allegiance to Israel. She doesn’t believe that Palestinians even want to live in a Palestinian state and insists they would prefer to live under Israeli authority.

What about the extremism of the Kahanists? I ask both Shilo and Wisemon what they think of the fact that Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit has admitted to having a picture of Baruch Goldstein — a religious Jewish settler who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994 — in his home. Shilo responds that she’s heard Ben Gvir admires Goldstein as a doctor who treated both Jews and Arabs. (It’s hard not to wonder if there are other doctors to admire instead of one who became a terrorist). Wisemon, on the other hand, says, “that is a problem. It is.” He appreciates that Ben Gvir, a lawyer, has defended the civil rights of religious Jewish terror suspects, who he claims are often falsely accused. Like prominent Otzma figures who lead the extreme right-wing anti-miscegenation group Lehava, he, too, opposes assimilation and intermarriage, though Wisemon  is concerned about their “confrontational” approach. On balance, though, the new United Right still looks like a good option for him.

On the other hand, Fuchs, of the Israel Democracy Institute, views Otzma as “an extremist racist party, which shows how the right has lost its way.”

It’s not clear whether Fuchs, Halper, the bookstore owner, or the rabbis who condemned the Kahanists are the many or the few. But as Netanyahu himself has pointed out in his attempts to rally his base, even a few can tip the balance to the other side.