Australian Outlook

In this section

He Is Back: Netanyahu and the Legitimisation of the Far Right

15 Nov 2022
By Raffaella A. Del Sarto
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel addresses World Economic Forum, 2014. Source: Jolanda Flubacher/

Just like in the Terminator movies, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is back. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is likely to return to power after a year and a half in opposition.

Ever since he first became prime minister as the head of the Likud party in 1996, Netanyahu has proven to be an incredibly talented political wizard. Despite a long history of alienating political allies who then turned against him, and notwithstanding his indictment on three cases of corruption, Bibi has remained a central player in Israeli politics. The last government consisted of a disparate coalition of anti-Bibi parties whose only shared objective was to evict Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office. It did not last long. Bibi, on the other hand, has remained a power-hungry master of politicking and an expert in outsmarting his rivals.

The rabbit Netanyahu pulled from the hat in the run-up to this month’s elections—Israel’s fifth in less than four years—was the mentoring and legitimising of Israel’s extreme right. Netanyahu orchestrated the merger of three small ultranationalist-religious parties so that they could pass the electoral threshold, with the promise to include them in government should his bloc win. During the electoral campaign, he cheered the extremists and adopted some of their themes. The gamble paid off. While Bibi’s traditional ultra-Orthodox allies also increased their electoral strength, the real news of these elections is the meteoric rise of the Religious Zionism party headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. It became the third-largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power (Otzmah Yehudit) faction within the Religious Zionist party, is not just any right-wing politician. He started his career with a now defunct political party that called for the “transfer” of Israel’s Arab citizens out of the state. Ben-Gvir later joined the Kach party that was founded by US-born Rabbi Meir Kahane. Calling Arabs “dogs,” Kahane wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship, ban marriage between Jews and non-Jews, and maintain a Jewish majority in Israel at all costs, even if that meant the end of democracy. In the late 1980s, Kach was forbidden to run in Israel’s elections because of its racist and undemocratic positions. The movement was subsequently designated a Jewish terrorist organisation in Israel and the US.

Ben-Gvir was a devoted follower of Kahane, whom he still considers “a hero.” In his youth, Ben-Gvir was barred from military service for being too radical and dangerous, a fact that already deserves an exclamation mark. He was at the forefront in the incitement campaign against Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accused by the right (including Netanyahu and other Likud leaders) of being a “traitor” for signing the Oslo accords with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. A few weeks prior to Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Ben-Gvir infamously held the hood ornament ripped from Rabin’s car and announced: “Just as we could get to this ornament, we can get to Rabin.” He has been indicted dozens of times for incitement to racism and support of the Kach terrorist group and was convicted on these charges in 2007. As a lawyer, Ben-Gvir regularly defends settlers accused of violence against Palestinians and right-wing extremists suspected of terrorism and hate crimes.

Until a few years ago, a portrait of Baruch Goldstein adorned Ben-Gvir’s home. Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians during prayer in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1994. In May last year, Ben-Gvir visited East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in the context of the rising tensions between the Israeli police and Palestinians protesting the threatened eviction of six Palestinian families from their homes in favour of Jewish settlers. He even temporarily set up his office there, which was anything but a peace mission. The unrest in Jerusalem spiralled into an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas and was followed by violent clashes between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens in the country’s mixed cities, which left four people dead. Ben-Gvir did not miss an opportunity to appear on the scene during this period of extreme tensions.

Although Ben-Gvir has distanced himself from some of his previous positions—and his supporters now chant “death to terrorists” instead of the traditional “death to Arabs”—there can be no doubt about what Ben-Gvir and the party he leads stand for. Even the moderate version of Kahanism is extremist, racist, illiberal, and undemocratic. The Religious Party’s main slogan says it all: “Who is the landlord here?”

The party campaigned on a promise to strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity and reduce the power of the Israeli High Court of Justice. This includes abolishing the court’s power to overturn Knesset legislation that is unconstitutional and allowing the Knesset to elect the Supreme Court justices. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have advocated for increased funding for Jewish religious education, the observation of Jewish religious laws, and segregated maternity wards for Jewish and Arab women. They also prefer Jewish landlords and property developers not selling or renting homes to the Arab minority, which today makes up one fifth of Israel’s nine million citizens. Supporters of terrorism, which in their definition may include any critic of Jewish-exclusive rights, must be punished. And with Smotrich defining himself as a “proud homophobe,” the LGTBQ community is worried, too. As regards the territories Israel occupied in 1967, the party adamantly opposes Palestinian statehood and, unsurprisingly, calls for the acceleration of Israeli settlement construction. As a footnote, Ben-Gvir also favours granting immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians.

All of this may be shocking to outside observers of Israeli politics, but the signs were on the wall. Israeli politics and society have been shifting to the right for decades. As I have previously argued, the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000 and the numerous terrorist attacks of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, greatly accelerated Israel’s shift to the right. Many Jewish Israelis have come to believe that there is no partner for peace and that all Palestinians, including those with Israeli citizenship, are potential terrorists. Conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, coupled with Iran’s ambitions to develop a nuclear programme, have added to Israeli threat perceptions.

Israel certainly faces several security threats. Yet Israel’s political right, represented by Netanyahu and his ilk, has amplified this sense of threat and besiegement within the Israeli-Jewish collective by regularly depicting Israel’s Arab citizens as “the enemy within.” They have engaged in the politics of insecurity and benefited from it. Promising security and delegitimising dissent have proven a powerful strategy of the right to ensure its retention of power without the need to show any meaningful political results. Israel’s right-wing governments have thereby maintained control over the territories and continued Israel’s settlement project undisturbed. The far right’s political use of last year’s interethnic clashes is only a continuation of this cynical strategy.

And so right-wing extremist positions that only a few decades ago were at the fringes of Israeli politics have now been normalised. Today, being called a “lefty,” or smolani, is an insult in Israel. Israeli-Jewish society is far less attached to liberal and democratic values than it used to be.

Certainly, other factors explain the outcome of these elections. Demography is one of these, with Israel’s religious and ultra-religious populations growing faster than any other demographic group. Incompetent leadership, a lack of any shared positive vision, and hopeless in-fighting within the anti-Bibi bloc ultimately resulted in the failure of centrist-left parties to unite, and further internal disputes led the Arab parties to run on separate tickets. And yet, this election outcome is entirely consistent with a much longer trend in Israeli politics and society.

Yes, Bibi is back. But his political fortunes will depend on Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, who have already demanded the ministerial portfolios of public security (in charge of the police), defence, and education. The price Netanyahu is willing to pay for his return to power is the dismantling of Israel’s democratic foundations, the entrenchment of illiberalism and interethnic strife, and the endless perpetuation of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Raffaella A. Del Sarto is Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and Academic Director of the Master of Arts in International Affairs (MAIA) at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), SAIS Europe. She is the author of Israel under Siege: The Politics of Insecurity and the Rise of the Neo-Revisionist Right (Georgetown University Press, 2017). Her latest book is Borderlands: Europe and the Mediterranean Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2021).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.