Anyone following Israeli politics is likely, at some point, to come across the following brief history of the past decade: After the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks—a catastrophe generated, depending on one’s worldview, either by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s inflexibility or by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s incompetence—the majority of Israelis drifted rightward, and the left, once a robust voting bloc, melted into thin air.
The demise of the Israeli left is a fact. Together, Meretz and Labor—formerly the twin pillars of the Zionist left—currently hold 11 Knesset seats, four fewer than Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Ignored by most political commentators is the strange and unexpected death of the Israeli right. And like all good thrillers, this one, too, is a murder mystery.
At first glance, pronouncing the Israeli right dead sounds like a bit of sophistry. The current governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is widely regarded as the most stringently conservative in Israel’s history. Since being voted into office in 2009, it has, among other achievements: de facto outlawed the public commemoration of the Nakba, the Palestinian narrative of the events that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948 and to the expulsion of nearly three quarters of a million Arabs from their homes; passed a bill requiring new immigrants to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a stroke of legislation that mainly targets Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to marry Israeli Arabs and become Israeli citizens; enacted the anti-boycott bill; and threatened to establish official committees of inquiry targeting human-rights and civil-rights nonprofits. But this busy résumé hides the fact that the political and ideological leviathan that shaped so much of the country’s character for its first five decades has been supplanted by a new and foreign political culture that would have been utterly unrecognizable to Israelis even a decade ago.
One major influence on that culture arrived in Israel from Russia after 1989, along with the million or so immigrants who made aliyah after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While it is never wise to speak of a culture as if it were inalterable and hereditary, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that, to the extent that Russian political culture can be discussed, it is a ghastly oppressive enterprise. This is, after all, a nation that has spent much of the past millennium stumbling from one oppressive autocracy to the next. The majority of Russia’s population lived, until as recently as 1861, as serfs. As Richard Pipes, professor emeritus of history at Harvard and a former Soviet expert, suggested in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, given the Russians’ iron-fisted history, they have traditionally expected their leaders to be groznyi, a word that, applied to Czar Ivan IV, was improperly translated as “terrible” but really means “awesome.” This, Pipes wrote, explains why a 2003 survey found that 22 percent of Russians supported democracy, while as many as 53 percent actively disliked it. Pipes called this phenomenon, still very much in force today, a flight from freedom, and he explained it had much to do with Russia’s perception of itself as a country under permanent siege. The prominent newspaper Izvestiya, he noted, captured this spirit perfectly when it described Russians as “living in trenches,” surrounded by enemies.
It takes a very small leap of imagination to see how perfectly this mentality translates into Hebrew: In Israel, aspiring politicians born in the former Soviet Union found that talk of trenches and enemies made for stellar political currency.
The most renowned example of this new autocratic style is, of course, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current foreign minister. The Moldovan-born politician started his career as Netanyahu’s assistant; within less than two decades, he surfaced as his former boss’s most valuable political partner and, some say, puppet master. Lieberman’s path to power was simple: Whereas most other right-wing politicians spoke sotto voce about ideological opponents, he favored incendiary statements. The Israeli left, he told a radio interviewer in 2007, was responsible for all the nation’s woes. Appearing on television that same year, he compared a prominent civil rights group to concentration camp capos. He snubbed or humiliated foreign dignitaries who would not play by his protocol, refusing, for example, to meet with the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when da Silva chose to skip the customary visit to Theodor Herzl’s grave. While most Israeli pundits saw such acts as petty and harmful to Israel’s standing in the world, most Israeli voters think Lieberman is groznyi: In mock elections held in Israeli high schools in 2009, a majority of students said they would vote for Lieberman.
But Lieberman is far from alone. Nearly every one of the current government’s repressive bills was sponsored by politicians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The Nakba law, for example, was sponsored by the Moscow-born Alex Miller of Yisrael Beiteinu. The anti-boycott bill was the brainchild of Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, who emigrated from Ukraine. The bill to form official committees of investigation targeting the left, defeated last week in the Knesset, was formed by Faina Kirschenbaum, also from Ukraine. The list goes on.
Even some staunch Likudniks have been appalled by the Russification of the Israeli right. Most vocal among them was Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset and one of the party’s most prominent figures. A day after the anti-boycott bill passed, the chairman took the unlikely step of criticizing the parliament he himself headed. His ire was reserved for his colleagues on the right; they, he argued, are a disgrace to the legacy of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism and the ideological founding father of Israeli conservatism.
“I stand ashamed and mortified before my mentor, Jabotinsky, for not having succeeded in protecting the individual, whom he likened to a monarch, against the parliamentary fists of the majority,” Rivlin wrote. “It might have been hoped that in an era in which Jabotinsky’s followers are scattered across the whole political spectrum, from the coalition to the opposition, things would be different. But in the absence of an ideological backbone, it appears that even the deep commitment to democracy and individual freedoms of those who call themselves his successors is conditional. It is the State of Israel that is compelled to pay the price of political interests that supersede national interests.”
Other Likud stalwarts were equally horrified. Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, for example—the son of Eliyahu Meridor, a former Likud Member of Knesset and close confidant of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin—gave repeated interviews in which he called several of the legislative initiatives brought forth by Lieberman and his associates “very dangerous.” Lieberman wasted no time: Meridor, he told the Israeli media, was a “fineschmecker,” a derogatory Yiddish term for an elitist dandy.
And, as American legislators are learning, once politics becomes a zero-sum game, it is very hard for moderate and mindful legislators to thrive. Ze’ev Elkin, the author of the anti-boycott bill, is a great example. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned the Likud to form Kadima, he was searching for a token settler to add to his new parliamentary faction as a nod to his former supporters in the settler movement who had largely abandoned him in light of his commitment to withdraw from Gaza; he found Elkin. In Elkin’s native Ukraine, the young politician had been known as a capable and committed Zionist activist. After emigrating to Israel in 1990, he excelled in his academic studies, earning degrees in both mathematics and history. When interviewed by Sharon’s associates, he expressed views that were right-of-center, but he stood out as a pragmatic, fair-minded, and soft-spoken individual, a perfect choice for Kadima’s transideological aspirations. Elected to the Knesset in 2006 as a member of Kadima, Elkin soon realized that the winds were blowing away from Sharon’s centrist platform. In 2008, he quit Kadima and joined the Likud. Within a few years, he learned that the only way to survive in a perpetually rightward-moving political universe was to move even further to the right. This, claim some who have long known Elkin, is what’s really behind the anti-boycott bill he sponsored. Aviad Friedman, the Sharon aide who recruited Elkin to politics, told the Israeli daily Maariv last week that “the anti-boycott bill may be good for Elkin when he faces off his rivals in the Likud, but it is very bad for Israel, and I think that deep inside, Ze’ev Elkin knows this well.”
The ideas of the Russified Israeli right find a clear reflection in current Russian political culture, down to the details of the bills that Russian-born Israeli politicians sponsor in the Knesset. In his 2004 State of the Union address for example, Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, announced his intention to investigate nonprofit human rights organizations “obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations.” Accepting international funding is standard operating procedure for many nongovernmental organizations the world over, but Putin’s speech insinuated that those who criticized the government and profited from foreign funds were disloyal to Russia and somehow dangerous. Within a few years, Putin and his henchmen have succeeded in creating an environment in which it is nearly impossible for NGOs to operate successfully, thereby severely crippling the possibility of a robust political opposition. Faina Kirschenbaum’s proposal to investigate left-wing NGOs, and her allegations that the foreign funds some of those NGOs receive—lawfully and transparently—are a sign of nefariousness, are a page out of the Putin playbook.
The blame for the death of the Israeli right, however, lies not only with Russia but with the United States as well. Orchestrated mainly by Netanyahu, a parade of American political consultants began marching into Israel’s electoral battlefields in the 1990s, changing what was previously a cantankerous but civic-minded political culture into a toxic terrain of secrets and lies familiar to anyone who has grown up on American campaign ads. Take a look, for example, at this extended ad for Labor from 1988. Even in the midst of mad inflation and shortly after the breakout of the first Palestinian intifada, the party’s leaders, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, used their on-screen time to calmly address potential voters, offering up the key points of their political plans, sitting at a desk.
By 1996, political ads looked a lot scarier—the ominous voice-overs, the allegations that political opponents are not just wrong but dangerous: They’re staples of a particular style of campaigning introduced to Israel by the American Arthur Finkelstein, the spin-master Netanyahu had hired. Finkelstein had made his political fortune in the United States by applying simplistic tags to the mostly liberal candidates he’d helped unseat. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in his catchy formulation, was “too liberal for too long,” and the 1992 Democratic candidate for Senate in New York, Robert Abrams, was “hopelessly liberal.” Both men lost despite overwhelming odds in their favor—Cuomo to George Pataki, Abrams to Alfonse D’Amato. Liberals lost, too: Finkelstein had helped turn the very term “liberal” into a bad word.
In 1996, Finkelstein was recruited by Netanyahu to run a rather hopeless campaign. Rabin, the popular leader of Labor, was assassinated a year prior to the election by a right-wing fanatic whose act was preceded by months of vehement demonstrations featuring signs portraying the elderly prime minister wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform. Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, was severely criticized after Rabin’s death for fanning the flames of hatred and failing to denounce the violent language and imagery favored by his supporters. To make matters worse, Netanyahu’s opponent was Shimon Peres, Rabin’s closest political ally and co-recipient with him of the Nobel Peace Prize. Early polls predicted an easy victory for Peres. This was when Netanyahu called in Finkelstein.
The American adviser applied the same tactics that worked so well stateside, but he turned up the heat considerably. He orchestrated ads showing the aftermath of suicide bombings. He devised numerous spots showing Peres with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing Peres of blindly succumbing to Arafat’s schemes. Most memorable was his leading slogan: “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” It was false; as prime minister, Netanyahu signed on to the very same peace accords that Peres and Rabin were committed to, and none of them advocated the de-unification of Israel’s capital. The slogan was scary, and it worked wonders: Netanyahu won by slightly less than 1 percent.
Finkelstein’s engagement was the first time an American consultant was so deeply involved in an Israeli campaign, but it wasn’t the last—nowadays, many Israeli politicians, left and right, hire Washington’s brightest minds to orchestrate their quests for power. In less than a decade, Israeli political culture, once staid in a C-SPAN sort of way, has become a horror film, with ads and jingles featuring fear, loathing, and blood.
It is, of course, naïve to expect any political culture to remain unchanged and free of outside influence. But when a transformation as massive as the one that has swept the Israeli right in the last five or 10 years occurs, it is time to stop and recalibrate. Old-time Israeli right-wingers like Dan Meridor and Reuven Rivlin are far more likely to see eye-to-eye these days with Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, say, than they are with Elkin and other members of Likud.
A few weeks ago, when the anti-boycott bill passed into law, I walked to my bookshelf and pulled out a volume. It was my wedding present from my father, a book bound in thick, rich leather, on its cover a copper emblem featuring the map of Israel crossed by an outstretched hand grasping a rifle and the words rak kach, meaning “only this way.” It was the emblem of the Irgun, the paramilitary organization that fought to expel the mandatory British regime from pre-state Palestine. The book’s author was the Irgun’s last commander in chief, Menachem Begin. It was inscribed to my great-grandfather, Chaim Leibovitz.
“Let justice be the cornerstone of Israel,” Begin wrote in Hebrew, “established with labor, with tears, with suffering, with battle, with blood.”
If only the same spirit still guided the Israeli right.