The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right
By Ami Pedahzur
Oxford University Press, £18.99
In 1969, 32 per cent of the Israeli electorate voted for the centre right and its allies. Forty years later, this had increased to more than 52 per cent, securing the premiership for Netanyahu. Israeli academic Ami Pedahzur tells the story of this remarkable transition.
Menachem Begin transformed the Irgun into Herut, then Gahal and finally Likud in 1973. Begin was never a Revisionist in the mould of his mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky, yet by astute manoeuvring he managed to construct an umbrella that sheltered the far right as well as his own Likud. This arrangement held until the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. The far right then broke away into a plethora of parties and flourished.
Pedahzur pinpoints two figures who were instrumental in changing the Israel of Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban into the Israel of Netanyahu and Lieberman — Meir Kahane and Ariel Sharon.
Kahane, who also worked for the FBI under the name of Michael King, bequeathed the politics of the sewer to his heirs, who played on the fears of the electorate in the age of the suicide bomber. Sharon was a disciple of Ben-Gurion and essentially followed him out of the Labour movement. Indeed, Ben-Gurion’s followers were among the founders of the Likud. Like Ben-Gurion, Sharon was ideologically flexible, supporting the settlers for 30 years, then deserting them with his disengagement plan in 2003. His initiation of the separation barrier left tens of thousands of settlers outside its periphery. Once an advocate of a Greater Israel, Sharon moved towards accepting an archipelago of Palestinian population centres, termed “a Palestinian state”, and a downgrading of its national authority to that of a local council.
The American background of both Netanyahu and Kahane assisted in securing funding from Jewish sympathisers in the US. The Moskowitz Foundation successfully settled Jews in East Jerusalem. Front companies in places such as Guernsey allowed the indirect purchase of Arab property. Sam Domb, a property entrepreneur and Reuben Mattus, founder of Haagen Dazs, passionately embraced the Israeli right.
Pedahzur outlines three characteristics of the far right: nativism, which regards all non-native elements as a threat; authoritarianism, which has facilitated the merger of political radicalism with religious literalism; and populism, which regards the media, civil society, academia and the judiciary as populated by an unpatriotic, left-wing elite dedicated to the subversion of the Jewish nature of the state.
This drift to the right has not happened in a vacuum and Pedahzur scarcely mentions the rise of Palestinian Islamism. Every time there is violence in the Middle East, the Israeli electorate moves to the right in the belief that it knows best how to protect its citizens. If the majority disagree with its policies, they consider that the price they have to pay. This is the conundrum at the heart of the body politic in Israel today.