Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

A Far-Right Israeli Electorate?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Israelis haven’t become radicals. They’ve just abandoned a delusion.

Lee Smith
January 16, 2013
Israelis hold posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during the launch of the Likud-Beitenu election campaign on December 25, 2012, in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israelis hold posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during the launch of the Likud-Beitenu election campaign on December 25, 2012, in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Of all the questions about next week’s Israeli election—is the Labor party and the left finally finished; is Naftali Bennett the new poster boy for the right wing; will the new Knesset actually pursue a policy of annexing the West Bank—the one thing that there seems to be consensus about is that the next Knesset will be most radical right-wing government in the history of the Jewish state. According to the commentators, the new government will guarantee an end to the Arab-Israeli peace process and will set Israel on a collision course with the United States.

Well, not so fast. According to one recent poll, 67 percent of Israeli voters support a peace deal with the Palestinians. Even on the right, a majority said they back the prospect of two states for two people, with 57 percent of Likud supporters backing such a deal and 53 percent of those likely to vote for Bennett’s Jewish Home Party also favoring the two-state solution.

Still, as much as Israelis want peace with the Arabs, they are skeptical of that happening anytime soon. Israeli voters are as rational as voters in any liberal democracy—and in this case, Israel is a liberal democracy that has come under repeated attacks from its neighbors.

The popular belief that Israeli public opinion is moving radically to the right “is profoundly untrue,” said Dan Schueftan, a visiting professor at Georgetown who advised Israeli prime ministers from Yitzhak Rabin to Ariel Sharon. Instead, they’ve adopted the central paradigms of both the left and the right. “Most Israelis are very pessimistic about reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians, and the Arabs in general. This is a core paradigm of the right,” Schueftan told me. “And yet a majority is willing to reach a compromise that would partition the land into two states for two people. This is a core paradigm of the left. They’re not saying we don’t want peace, but that even if they make concessions they don’t think it will lead to peace.”

Israelis haven’t abandoned the dream of peace; they’ve faced reality and are refusing to continue to pay lip service to an illusion. “The last 20 years have seen a process of depolarization,” said David Hazony of the Israel Project. “Go back 20 years, and you had a peace camp that believed peace was just around the corner. The other camp believed that there was no partner for peace, and since there was no one to talk to and we have a right to land, we should just take anything. But a series of events took the wind out of both camps, like the Rabin assassination, disengagement, the Second Intifada,” he added.

If the second Lebanon war and two wars in Gaza marked disillusionment with the peace process, then Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University promoting the two-state solution marked, at last, the acceptance of the idea in the political mainstream. Netanyahu, for all the criticism he gets in the international press, should get credit for leading even the Israeli right into philosophical acceptance of the two-state solution. And perhaps Bibi’s infamous bluster has had its purpose. While his belligerent rhetoric unnerves his many critics, including world leaders, it’s helped keep Israel out of armed conflict. He has presided over more economic success and less war than almost any other Israeli leader in history.

With Netanyahu, Israeli politics have reached a state of equilibrium, at least internally. On the major security issues like the Palestinians and Iran, the Israeli electorate has reached a broad consensus, and there is little within the system—right-wing or left-wing—that can affect it at this stage. The question is how that consensus, embodied by the prime minister, will interact with external forces, especially the Obama Administration, and particularly as Israel decides how to handle Iran.

“There’s a decent chance that as the new secretary of state, John Kerry will try to get negotiations going on the peace process, and I don’t think the president will tell him not to try,” said Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But, Abrams argued, since Kerry will have a lot on his plate and will quickly see that there’s not much room for movement on the peace process, he’ll likely move on. However, Abrams added, it would be a different situation “if the U.S. were to strike Iranian nuclear sites and thereby eliminate Israel’s greatest security threat. It would change the whole Middle East, and in the aftermath of such a strike, then the administration might try to get something going on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It would be quite a demonstration of U.S. power, and lead to a very different situation than if nothing happens or if the Israelis attack.”

But it appears that the Obama Administration is no more ready to strike Iran or to support an Israeli strike in its second term than it was during the first. Indeed, with the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, some fear that the White House may be moving in the other direction, toward a grand bargain with Tehran—as Hagel has previously suggested. “Let them think about the substantial carrots of improved relations, not just the sticks, and there may be a deal to be had,” he wrote in 2008. Hagel has opposed not only military action against Iran, but even sanctions. Moreover, if Abrams believes that an Israeli-Arab peace deal might come out of a strike on Iran, Hagel sees it the other way around. “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict,” Hagel said in 2006. According to this view, resolving the Israeli-Arab crisis makes everything else possible.

This notion—often called linkage—still holds tremendous force among many American policymakers. But most Israelis believe, understandably, that it is not in their power to solve the region’s most pressing issues. No Israeli policy is going to help Mohamed Morsi feed Egypt, or stop the civil war in Syria, or convince the Iranian regime to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Hence the increasing possibility for yet another showdown between Obama and Netanyahu. This dispute between the United States and Israel, said Dan Schueftan “is the product of the unrealistic belief that you can reach a permanent peace with the Palestinians under the prevailing circumstances, and the bizarre proposition that if you reach such an agreement it will make a major contribution toward stabilizing the Middle East.”

The issue then is not that Israel has moved to the extreme right—it has broadly come to accept one of the longtime tenets of American Middle East policy insofar as it recognizes the desirability of a two-state solution—but that Israelis and Americans view the conflict in fundamentally different ways. For American policymakers and many pundits, it’s as if the Oslo Accords never failed and the Second Intifada never happened. For Israeli voters who have lived through suicide bombings and rocket fire from Gaza and southern Lebanon, next week’s elections are about a sovereign electorate that prizes its prosperity and security.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.