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A Turn for the Right

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In one week, the Israeli electorate will go to the ballot stations to elect a new government. In the past few months, political pundits and public opinion surveys have been pointing to a clear-cut victory for the right-wing. This foregone conclusion demands an explanation. How did Israel segue from having a large political center in the 1990s to what appears to be a right-wing majority? Or in simpler terms, why has the entire Israeli polity shifted right? Before attempting to answer these questions, it might be useful to clarify terminology.

In Israeli political parlance, right-wing and left-wing have little to do with economic or social policies. The terms "left" and "right" in Israel relate to one issue only: peace and security with our neighbors. More precisely, left and right are defined by how one thinks that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be resolved. Specifically regarding the Palestinians, sitting on the left of the political fence generally denotes a greater willingness to make (territorial) concessions in order to attain peace. The further right you are, the less (territorial) concessions you are willing to make. Declaratively, at least, everyone has the same goal -- peace with our neighbors -- and the argument is about how to get there.

In the 1990s, known in Israel as the Oslo years, the Israeli-Jewish electorate was more or less split down the middle, with the left holding a slight advantage. Several major events in the course of the past 12 years have caused a seismic shift of the entire Jewish electorate in Israel to the right. The most important of these events was the failure of the Camp David peace talks held in the summer of 2000 under the auspices of President Clinton with the participation of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. From the Israeli perspective, Barak had made considerable concessions to the Palestinians -- even showing a willingness to divide Jerusalem, Israel's capital (something he certainly was not mandated to do). He offered to relinquish over 90 percent of the territory (in Gaza and the West Bank). After rejecting the Israeli offer, the Palestinians proceeded to launch a violent uprising which primarily targeted Israeli civilians through the use of terror (a euphemism for homicidal bombings in cafes, restaurants, buses, malls, etc). For decades, the Israeli left's mantra was "land for peace," and the failure of Camp David, circa 2000, spelled the collapse of the left in Israel.

In the same year, in the beginning of the summer, Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon after maintaining a military presence there for 18 years. Israel accepted the UN delineation of the Israeli-Lebanese border as the guiding line for the redeployment. The Lebanese response was not long in coming. Hezbollah fired rockets across the border at an Israeli military patrol, killing three soldiers and dragging their bodies into Lebanon. In the final analysis, Israel ended up trading 430 Palestinian and Lebanese militants for 3 bodies and one live Israeli reserve officer. By 2006, Hezbollah was ready to go for a repeat. Israel's response was to embark on the Second Lebanon War.

In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally pull-up stakes from the Gaza Strip. This entailed the evacuation of 9,000 Israeli civilian settlers, as well as IDF troops and bases. At the time, the Palestinian Authority -- the Fatah -- was in charge of Gaza. Days after the Israeli withdrawal Palestinians shot Kassam rockets into southern Israeli towns and villages. In 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority, by force. Israel now found itself neighbors with an enemy government whose main declared goal was to destroy the "Zionist Entity."

The average Israeli citizen understood the aforementioned events the following way: that there was no partner for peace on the other side; that each time Israel acted unilaterally, attacks increased and security was undermined; and the only way to deal with the conflict was by managing it.

Four years ago, in 2009, the election results reflected the shift. Although the largest single party was centrist, overall, the right-wing had won. Netanyahu, at the time the head of the second largest party, formed the government. Polls over the past few weeks indicate that the right will win an even greater victory. The Likud (Netanyahu's party) held an internal primary several weeks ago. As a result, the more moderate veteran members of the upper echelons of the party were ousted, replaced by more extremist candidates. A new party -- "The Jewish Home"-- has emerged as a right-wing religious alternative to the more secular Likud, rapidly taking third place in the pre-election polls. Naftali Bennett, the head of the party, has clearly stated his opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian State. According to a recent interview, Bennett expressed the view that once there were over one million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, it would be a fait accompli. The implementation of a "two state" solution would become an impossibility.

The great irony behind Israel's shift rightward is reflected in a recent poll showing that there was a clear majority of Israeli Jews who actually believed that the Two State solution was the only option for the future...