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The Tea Party-Ization of the Israeli Right

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to win strong backing for his Likud-Beiteinu list, which lost eleven Knesset seats in last week's elections, has been attributed to a frustrated middle class clamoring for more affordable housing and consumer goods, the widespread demand that the ultra-orthodox share the burden of army service and a lackluster campaign by Netanyahu's party. An additional factor that has received far less attention in the media but must be included in the explanation of Netanyahu's setback is the radicalization of the Israeli right.

Although the stalled Mideast peace process took a back seat in the latest election campaign, this existential issue is never far from the public's mind. While a majority in Israel does not believe that there is a Palestinian partner for peace, most Israelis -- including rightists -- favor the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution to the conflict. The public has watched from the sidelines the tea party-ization of the right, and it is uncomfortable with what it has seen.

Reminiscent of the hard right turn of the Republican party, which scared off many independent voters, the tea party-ization of the Israeli right frightened centrist and even many right-leaning voters in Israel, directing their votes to Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party as well as to the other centrist parties. The similarities between the leverage of the American tea party movement on the Republican party and the growing influence of the religious nationalist ideologues in Israel is striking.

Just as tea party candidates ousted longtime moderates like Senators Richard Lugar, Robert Bennett and Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primaries, so did the Likud party banish the few moderates left in the party in its recent primary, enabling far-right candidates to dominate the party's Knesset slate. Just as the tea party has resorted to rhetoric and supported measures that have had racist undertones, so have right-wing legislators in Israel sponsored a series of discriminatory bills against Arabs in recent years. Just as tea party candidates had alarmed voters with offensive comments about rape, rightist candidates in Israel made a number of comments that shocked the mainstream public. One Likud candidate proposed paying Palestinian families in the West Bank $500,000 each to emigrate. Another candidate from a rival right-wing party was revealed to have talked about blowing up the Dome of the Rock to a group of Christian Zionists a little over a year ago.

Just as the Republican party's platform shifted farther to the right due to the influence of the tea party, so has the Likud party's platform been shaped by rightists opposed to a peace deal with the Palestinians. (Likud has failed to make public its latest platform.) Netanyahu's colleagues have not hidden their opposition to a Palestinian state, openly contradicting his public endorsement of such a state in July 2009. Naftali Bennett, who is expected to land a major portfolio in the new government, has reportedly told the American Ambassador to Israel that "there is no chance that the Netanyahu government will go for any sort of agreement with the Palestinians."

Israelis have grown wary of Netanyahu's constant acquiescence to the settlers' unbridled demands at the expense of other, more pressing budget priorities, his antagonistic relationship with President Obama, his belligerent tone towards Iran and his foot-dragging on the peace process.

The Netanyahu government has begun construction on nearly 7,000 new units in settlements, many of which are located nowhere near the major blocs of Jewish settlements Israel would likely keep in a future peace deal. Moreover, Netanyahu's announcement in December that he planned to build 3,000 additional housing units in East Jerusalem and develop the highly contentious area known as E1 was seen not only as a provocative move, but also as a potentially serious blow to the two-state solution. In response, President Obama reportedly remarked that Netanyahu was pursuing self-defeating policies, jeopardizing Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Relations between the United States and Israel have been more strained under Netanyahu than at any time in the past two decades. By aggressively expanding settlements and threatening to go it alone on striking Iran, and all but endorsing Mitt Romney in the recent presidential elections, Netanyahu has done little to endear himself to the White House -- this despite the unprecedented levels of security assistance Israel has received under Obama. Netanyahu's associates regularly disparage President Obama. Close relations with the U.S. is highly valued in Israel, and the strident anti-Obama tone has only served to erode people's confidence in Netanyahu.

The tea party-ization of the Israeli right has led to a truncated Likud party headed by a weakened Netanyahu, leaving him with little choice but to form a more moderate government.