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What Makes Israel’s Far Right Different

The Religious Zionist Party’s rise isn’t about immigration, crime, or populist economics—it’s driven by Jewish supremacy and anti-Arab racism.

By , the economics editor and a columnist for the English edition of Haaretz and the author of Israel’s Technology Economy.
An Israeli man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by far-right politicians Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Michael Ben Ari, with a caption in Hebrew reading "Kahane Lives" in a reference to a banned ultranationalist party in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2019.
An Israeli man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by far-right politicians Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Michael Ben Ari, with a caption in Hebrew reading "Kahane Lives" in a reference to a banned ultranationalist party in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2019.
An Israeli man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by far-right politicians Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Michael Ben Ari, with a caption in Hebrew reading "Kahane Lives" in a reference to a banned ultranationalist party in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2019. THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

After four trips to the voting booth in less than four years, it should come as no surprise that, ahead of Israel’s Nov. 1 election, there has been little movement in voter sentiment. The lines are again drawn between those who favor former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power and those who are horrified by the prospect. Polls consistently show the voters delivering yet another deadlock.

However, there is one exception to this reenactment of the last few elections, and that is the rise of the far right. The polls show that the alliance known as Religious Zionism—a grouping of the Religious Zionist, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam parties—is set to double the number of seats it controls in the 120-member Knesset to as many as 14 in this week’s election. That would make this alliance the third-largest bloc in the Knesset and ensure it gets a pick of plum cabinet portfolios in the event Netanyahu forms a religious-right government.

The ideas and attitudes that comprise Religious Zionism’s platform have hovered on the margins of Israeli politics for a long time, but they had been rejected by the respectable right, represented by people like Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Its platform includes things like annexation of West Bank settlements, expulsion of asylum-seekers, and political control of the judicial system. Its leaders have spoken about deporting Arab (but not Jewish) Israelis who attack soldiers and politicians deemed disloyal to the state.

After four trips to the voting booth in less than four years, it should come as no surprise that, ahead of Israel’s Nov. 1 election, there has been little movement in voter sentiment. The lines are again drawn between those who favor former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power and those who are horrified by the prospect. Polls consistently show the voters delivering yet another deadlock.

However, there is one exception to this reenactment of the last few elections, and that is the rise of the far right. The polls show that the alliance known as Religious Zionism—a grouping of the Religious Zionist, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam parties—is set to double the number of seats it controls in the 120-member Knesset to as many as 14 in this week’s election. That would make this alliance the third-largest bloc in the Knesset and ensure it gets a pick of plum cabinet portfolios in the event Netanyahu forms a religious-right government.

The ideas and attitudes that comprise Religious Zionism’s platform have hovered on the margins of Israeli politics for a long time, but they had been rejected by the respectable right, represented by people like Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Its platform includes things like annexation of West Bank settlements, expulsion of asylum-seekers, and political control of the judicial system. Its leaders have spoken about deporting Arab (but not Jewish) Israelis who attack soldiers and politicians deemed disloyal to the state.

Religious Zionism’s roots lie in even more extreme politics than it is peddling to voters today.

Religious Zionism’s roots lie in even more extreme politics than it is peddling to voters today. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the alliance’s No. 1 vote-getter, began his career as a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and for years adorned his living room with a picture of Baruch Goldstein, a Kahane follower who massacred 29 Palestinians in a 1994 shooting spree. The Noam party is openly homophobic. As the alliance has grown in strength, it has tried to smooth its roughest edges but has never quite disowned them.

Thus, politicizing the judicial system and rescuing Netanyahu from the criminal charges he now faces are presented as reforms to prevent judicial overreach. Preservation of “family values” is a friendly way of signaling hostility to LGBT people, a problematic position for Netanyahu and the more moderate right that likes to burnish Israel’s democratic credentials by pointing out how socially progressive the country is. The stress on strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity, mainly by imposing religious law, is to a large extent a cover for ensuring the second-class status of Arab citizens. Its interest in defendants’ rights and stopping police abuse is really about protecting Jewish extremists from the law.

It’s tempting to compare Religion Zionism’s rise in Israel to similar trends in Europe and the United States, but that would be wrong.

What has driven the rise of the far and populist right in the West is subject to much debate, but most would agree that immigration, rising crime, and fading economic opportunity—together with soaring inflation and distrust of traditional establishment leaders—have all played a role.

Israel isn’t contending with those issues. It hosts relatively few asylum-seekers because the government’s draconian policies deter them from trying to enter the country. Crime has risen, but only in Arab communities, which has little impact on the Jews supporting the far right. The economy has enjoyed unusually strong growth for nearly all of the last two decades. Unemployment is close to record lows, the tech sector is booming, and inflation is restrained compared to the United States and Europe.

Like elsewhere in the West, distrust in institutions such as the media, the Knesset, and the military (but less so the courts, oddly enough) has grown in Israel. Political discourse has become cruder and less compromising, in part due to Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred strategy of delegitimizing the center and left, and in part due to the rise of social media and the declining power of mass media.

That said, however, none of this has disrupted Israeli politics to the extent that it has elsewhere. Thus, even though Israel’s system of proportional representation gives it ample opportunity to capitalize on the votes of the angry and marginalized, the Israeli far right has come nowhere near to amassing the kind of power its peers in Europe have. Assuming the polls are correct, Religious Zionism will take 12 percent of the Knesset, an unprecedented share but small in comparison to the 20.6 percent captured by the Sweden Democrats or the 35 percent that Brothers of Italy and the League won in Italian elections in September.

There is a crisis of the establishment in Israel, but it’s one confined to the political right.

The outcome of the last election, in March 2021, traumatized right-wing voters. Desperate to return to power after a deadlocked vote, Netanyahu quietly entered into talks to form a coalition government with United Arab List, also known as Ra’am, an Israeli-Arab party. He failed only because Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich rejected the idea. But Bennett did form a government with Ra’am’s backing, thereby committing the double sin in the eyes of the right of partnering with an Arab party and with the left.

Netanyahu has always been regarded with a degree of suspicion by the right. He’s viewed as a pragmatist driven by national security considerations rather than religious faith. His willingness to consider partnering with Ra’am to form a government was too much. Indeed, Netanyahu may have made things worse for himself by attacking Bennett so vehemently over the following year for enlisting “terror supporters” to form a government—exactly as Netanyahu himself had sought to do. For the right, Bennett was an even bigger disappointment.

He had long positioned himself as a true rightist who would ensure that the unreliable Netanyahu didn’t betray the settlers; for instance, by promising to annex a region of the West Bank as part of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” only to quietly drop the plan as a quid pro quo for establishing formal relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Both men have since paid dearly for flirting with an Arab party. Bennett has dropped out of politics, and his Yamina political alliance has disappeared. Ayelet Shaked, Israeli interior minister and Bennett’s No. 2, hasn’t been able to shake off the association with Ra’am, even though she was a reluctant partner from the start. Netanyahu has survived, but he has failed to lure Yamina voters. His Likud party has been losing support since the Bennett government fell in June, while Religious Zionism has gained.

Many right-wing voters, especially religious ones, have been left without a political home and have drifted to Religious Zionism, even if they don’t necessarily approve of the entirety of its extremist agenda. As they see it, Religious Zionism will act as a safeguard against the risk of Netanyahu compromising on settlements or making deals with Ra’am.

There is a racist component to Religious Zionism’s rise. Its core constituency of believers is intolerant, not only of Arabs but Jews of the left, LGBT people, and the nonobservant.

Without a doubt, there is a racist component to Religious Zionism’s rise. Its core constituency of believers—which is probably half of its current voting power—is intolerant, not only of Arabs but Jews of the left, LGBT people, and the nonobservant.

But the rest of the alliance’s supporters—the ones who drifted to it for lack of a better choice—can’t claim to be free of racist attitudes, either. The Bennett government’s year in power, during which Ra’am remained a loyal and constructive member of the coalition, should have started to change attitudes about the role of Israel’s Arab minority in government and society. The fact that it didn’t speaks of a fundamental distrust of Arabs on the part of many Jewish Israelis, who aren’t quite prepared to accept them as full members of Israeli society.

Many will point to the intercommunal violence that swept across Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021 for the continued distrust. For Israeli Jews, the sudden surge of violence came as a shock. Israeli Arabs still suffer severe discrimination, but recent years have seen them integrating into Israeli society, as Ra’am’s willingness to join the government demonstrated. The government has pledged billions of dollars to upgrade housing, infrastructure, and services in Arab communities.

But today, more Israeli Jews tell pollsters that they believe Jews and Arabs should live in separate communities than before the violence; fewer say an Arab who identifies as a Palestinian can be a loyal Israeli citizen. Those attitudes make it easier to live with Religious Zionism’s more extreme racism—or, more precisely, its Jewish supremacy—or to shrug it off as nothing more than a tactical move.

Ironically, those voters who have drifted to Religious Zionism may be counting on Netanyahu’s pragmatism and legendary political cunning to keep Smotrich and Ben-Gvir on a short leash, but they shouldn’t bet on it. In a tight election, the far-right factions will become kingmakers, and it is they who will have leverage over Netanyahu, not the other way around.

David E. Rosenberg is the economics editor and a columnist for the English edition of Haaretz and the author of Israel’s Technology Economy.

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