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Israel’s New Right-Left Divide

Assessing what constitutes right-wing policies and what constitutes left-wing policies can often be confusing. What looks right-wing in one country may not look so in another country; for instance, Britain’s Conservative party – traditionally the mainstream party on the right – looks far more centrist in the context of American politics. Many of the mainstream left-wing parties in Europe would look like radical socialists in the U.S. system. Shifts within a country’s political system can take place as well. We are witnessing such a shift in the U.S. right now, where policies traditionally thought of as right-leaning and associated with the Republicans – such as free trade, unwavering and uncritical support for intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a large footprint foreign policy – are now becoming associated with Democrats and being portrayed as liberal policies. In Israel, however, the shorthand for what is left and what is right has remained constant for decades. It has been almost entirely defined by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli policy in the West Bank. In short, to be on the right in Israel has meant taking a hawkish stance toward Palestinians, and to be on the left has meant taking a dovish one.

As Israel has undergone enormous political and demographic changes in the past quarter century, it has taken some time for those changes to make their way through the system, but it appears that Israel’s old right-left divide has finally shifted. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a handy marker for doing a quick assessment of right versus left, it is no longer the fundamental variable that defines the two camps. As crystallized by the debate and furor surrounding the nation-state law, the dividing line between Israeli right and Israeli left is nationalism; specifically, an embrace or a rejection of a narrow brand of nationalism that seeks to keep all perceived outsiders at bay. The implications of this have been playing out in Israeli domestic politics in multiple ways, but it also may have counterintuitive implications for what to expect with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the years to come.

The nation-state law is the clearest representation of this nationalist divide. It is why politicians traditionally associated with the right due to their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as President Ruvi Rivlin, former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, and longtime MK Benny Begin have been tagged as leftists due to their opposition to the law. But this debate over nationalism has been playing out in other ways as well. It manifested in the Israeli government’s decision to deport African migrants and the opposition to this move outside the coalition. It manifested in the various fights between the Israeli government and North American Jewry over what role Diaspora Jews should have inside Israel. It is why Rivlin, who is a pro-annexation one-state supporter, is in many ways the face of the new Israeli left.

This divide also explains the political direction that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been taking as elections and indictments grow closer. A few months ago I wrote that in order to survive, Netanyahu was going to have to cater to his camp’s most extreme desires, meaning pushing for some form of West Bank annexation. While I had the general strategy right, I was wrong on the details because I was still thinking about the right-left divide in an outdated way. Much of Netanyahu’s Likud base wants to see Israel remain in the West Bank and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, but that is not the core ideology driving their support of Likud. The bulk of the right-wing base is not a settler constituency, but a nationalist constituency.

It is why Netanyahu resurrected the nation-state bill, of all things, at the end of the Knesset summer session, telling the Haredi parties that he would support whatever they wanted with regard to a military draft law if they would support the nation-state legislation (despite their reservations) since he needed it to pass. The voters to whom Netanyahu needs to cater do not care about settlements, settlers, or permanently securing the dream of Greater Israel. They care about Israel’s Jewish character and a vision of Jewish political and cultural hegemony, unthreatened by any outside forces. They are moved by the nation-state law, by proposals to limit the reach of Israel’s High Court, and by efforts to reduce the influence of outside forces like the European Union and foreign funded NGOs. If this sounds similar to populist nationalist movements in other countries, including the U.S., it is because it is part and parcel of the same global phenomenon. While this agenda dovetails in many ways with the Greater Israel project, it is not identical.

This is also one of the reasons why the left and center-left have abandoned or downplayed their past championing of dovish policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all that Oslo has been discredited and Israelis still feel the sting of the Second Intifada and rockets coming from Gaza, it remains jarring to see Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay suggest that all settlements can permanently remain where they are or watch Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid kick off election campaigns in Ma’ale Adumim with explicit imagery designed to associate himself with the settlement movement. It is more than the fact that pushing for a two-state solution has not been a winning political issue; it is that the meaning of left-wing has changed in tandem with a changing electorate.

In thinking about how this will affect the two-state agenda going forward, there are two equally plausible possibilities. The first is that an embrace of Jewish nationalism and a deep suspicion of outside forces will diminish support for a two-state solution even further. After all, why do any favors for the Palestinians, particularly when they refuse to support the concept of a Jewish state? Under this line of thinking, better to absorb all of Area C, if not the entire West Bank, and loudly assert the Jewish claim to all of the Jews’ historic homeland, not out of a theological or even ideological position in favor of Greater Israel, but as an expression of an unwavering Jewish nationalism.

The second possibility, however, points in the opposite direction. If the right remains focused on an assertive Jewish nationalism, it portends not making any sudden moves that fall outside of that core project, and saving up any and all political capital for the large battles that fall along the nationalist axis. It may also lead to the conclusion – as so many in the two-state camp have already arrived at – that pushing for permanent Israeli control of the West Bank actually threatens the Jewish nationalist agenda and the very concept of a Jewish state. There is no scenario in which absorbing the West Bank does not dilute Israel’s Jewish majority, and separation strengthens Israel’s Jewish character. If that is the primary motivating force, then the new Israeli right might actually support moves that will secure Israel’s Jewishness against any future threats, including the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state and evacuation of settlements that fall outside the blocs that would be included in land swaps.

A preview of this can be seen in Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s plan to unilaterally redraw the borders of Israel and exclude the Arab triangle in the Galilee – a bigoted plan that should be opposed by everyone as it would strip Israelis of their citizenship by fiat and for no other reason than that they are non-Jews, but one that also does not fit into the annexation agenda. The irony of all this is that while the new ideological forces driving the Israeli right make it harder for many liberal Israelis and many American Jews to like what they see, a new right-wing agenda may also remove some of the impediments that have stalled a two-state outcome.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.