JERUSALEM – Dalya Steinberger’s journey across Israel’s political landscape began more than 20 years ago when she cast a vote for Labor, one of almost a million people who helped propel Yitzhak Rabin to the leadership of the Jewish state. A year later, in 1993, Rabin signed the historic Oslo Accords, shaking hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the lawns of the White House. A little more than two years later, the prime minister died at the hands of a rightwing assassin who objected to the Rabin-backed prospect of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
In the two decades since that vote, Steinberger’s optimism and belief in an attainable and lasting peace with the Palestinians have evaporated. Her disillusion has led her steadily rightward: in 2006 she voted for the centrist Kadima party; in 2009 for the rightwing Likud; and in a little over a week, she expects to vote for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, a party that flatly opposes a Palestinian state and advocates the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank.
“To vote for the left now would feel like committing suicide,” says Steinberger, a civil servant who lives on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “We have to protect ourselves and our future and we have to be strong.”
Steinberger’s rightward trajectory has not been performed in isolation. Many of her friends and associates have made similar shifts in their political views. As the general election of Jan. 22 approaches, polls predict a clear majority for the Israeli right. According to pollster Rafi Smith, 41 percent of Israeli voters now define themselves on the right, up from 34 percent three years ago. The country, he says, “has become more hawkish over the past five to 10 years.”
Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, whose momentum in opinion polls has shaken up the campaign, likens this to a rightwing nationalist uprising. With a nod to regional revolutions, he told a foreign policy debate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University last week: “A Jewish Spring is sweeping Israel these days. What you are seeing with Habayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home] is a dormant desire to restore Jewish values to Israel being uncovered, exploding.”
Danny Danon, another extreme rightwinger rising in the political firmament, in his case within the ruling Likud party, describes it is an “awakening.” His elevation from 24th place on Likud’s list of candidates to fifth “reflects the will of the people,” he says.
It is not only politicians and analysts who say Israel’s political centre of gravity is shifting to the right. “Something revolutionary is happening,” says Nerya Avitan, a 21-year-old campaign volunteer for Jewish Home at an election rally in Rishon Lezion. “People are not ashamed to say the whole of Israel [including the West Bank] belongs to the Jews. The two-state solution is a beautiful idea, but in reality there’s no way to get there. Bennett is telling us the truth, and bringing Jewish heritage back to politics. He’s telling us to stop living in a movie.”
The early scenes of that “movie” told an epic tale of early socialist-Zionists building a new democratic Jewish state. Its stars were the backbone of the kibbutz movement — secular and leftwing European Jews, many of whom gave up professional careers for manual and agricultural labour. These pioneers were committed to equality, inclusiveness and tolerance — at least, among fellow Jews — and some also believed it would be possible to coexist with the Arab population.
A strong nationalist strain was always present, says veteran peace activist and former MP Uri Avnery, who will be 90 this year. “But at the start, most Israelis were sincere in wanting a democratic state. The Zionist movement was idealistic, and it was unbearable to think that we were displacing another people. So it was simply denied.”
“Israel was established on a foundation of communal solidarity, a socialist and secular paradigm,” says Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Parliament and chairman of Molad, a leftwing think tank. “Now, in 2013, Israel is capitalist and religious. The change has been over a long period, and it’s not just the paradigm that’s changed but also the population. In 1948 Israel’s Jewish population was 650,000. Each and every decade of Israel’s history has added a different demographic layer, which has shifted Israel to a different place.”
The “watershed” moment, says Burg, was the 1967 war, when Israel swiftly defeated its Arab neighbors. The resulting occupation and colonization of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza changed the course of Israeli politics. “The old socialist movement ended its historic rule and redemptive messianic religious Zionism took its place.”
Avnery agrees on the significance of 1967. “It was a revolution as well as a military victory. The Labor movement was over in practice and a new elite of settlers, who would never dream of giving back the West Bank, took over. Now, if you ask an Israeli taxi driver, he will say, ‘I want peace, but there’s no chance of it in this or the next generation.’ That is now the opinion of 90 percent of the public. And when people feel there’s no chance of peace, the rightwing is more creditable than the left. Today the competition is between the rightwing, the extreme rightwing and the fascist rightwing. They have a solid majority.”
The twin factors of demographic change and the failure of the “peace process” aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside a democratic Israel over the last 20 years underlie the rightward shift, say analysts. Among Israel’s 7.9 million people, only 14-15 percent now describe themselves as secular Jews, whereas about 50 percent identify themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox, according to Smith’s polling figures. As a proportion of the population, the ultra-Orthodox are growing rapidly as a result of their large families. Jerusalem has become a bastion for those communities.
The vast majority of such traditional and religious Israeli Jews are on the political right — 79 percent of the ultra-Orthodox, compared to only 17 percent of secular Israelis. “The religious are clearly to the right — that’s how they define themselves,” says Smith. “The demography does not look good for the center-left. Secular people are becoming a small minority.”
The second significant demographic factor is the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who now make up nearly 15 percent of the electorate. In the last election, around half voted for former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, now in a rightwing electoral alliance with Likud, the party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many are instinctively on the political right after enduring years of repression in the former Soviet bloc. Their politics combined with their numbers have helped tip Israel’s political balance, leading former U.S. President Bill Clinton to describe Israel’s Russian-speaking community in 2010 as “an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.”
On the political front, the moribund peace process is the main factor behind changes in public opinion, say many analysts. The Oslo Accords created a surge of optimism dashed by a wave of violence during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was followed by Hamas rule, rocket fire and two conflicts. Regional upheavals in the last two years have added to Israel’s sense of insecurity. There is a siege mentality, says Smith. “People believe the missiles are coming. So, as a whole, society is becoming very hawkish.”
Carlo Strenger, a psychologist and commentator, says: “The bottom line is that Israelis have become so mistrustful of the prospects of peace that they are moving to the right because quite simply they are scared. And they prefer parties that they feel will safeguard their security. Most have not moved to the right in a deep ideological sense. The truth is that, for most Israelis, security is the primordial and primary issue.”
Some analysts dispute the premise that Israeli public opinion has moved to the right, pointing to polls predicting that more than a third of parliamentary seats will go to centrist or left-of-center parties. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says the notion of a fundamental rightward shift is “completely wrong. In the current election campaign, we see a small shift to the right, but this is minor compared to the convergence on the center.”
But with the Israeli political spectrum moving rightward the center is much further to the right than in most Western democracies. “The right has become the far right,” wrote commentator David Horovitz on the Times of Israel website last week. “On the Israeli right in 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu, rhetorically at least, is a discordant relative moderate.”
There is little doubt that Netanyahu will still be prime minister after the election. A series of opinion polls on Jan. 11 predicted that the Likud-Beiteinu alliance would win between 33 and 38 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, way ahead of Labor, the next biggest party, which is forecast to get between 16 and 18 seats. Bennett’s Jewish Home is expected to come third, with 13 or 14.
But Netanyahu’s parliamentary group will be markedly more rightwing after Jan. 22. Several relatively moderate voices in Likud will not be members of the next parliament, replaced with hardliners such as Danon — whose top priority is “loyalty to the land of Israel” and who says “it is a fatal mistake to try to appease Europe or America” — and Moshe Feiglin, a radical national-religious settler.
Among Jewish Home’s members of Parliament are likely to be two hardline settlers from Hebron, a Palestinian city fraught with tension because of the extremist Jewish settlement at its heart. And, while the settler presence in the Parliament grows, the next Knesset is likely to be the first without a single member from a kibbutz.
Meanwhile, Labor, led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, has abandoned its traditional platform of seeking a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues. The “alternative voice” is silent, wrote Horovitz. “The party of … Yitzhak Rabin, the one-time party of government, has offered no leadership in these elections on shaping our relations with the Palestinians.”
That ground appears to have been ceded to the right. The compromises necessary for peace seem even less likely in the next government than the present one. Many liberal Israelis and foreign diplomats fear that the chances of a two-state solution will finally be snuffed out.
Amos Oz, a celebrated author and a supporter of the leftist Meretz party, expected to win about five seats, warned last week that without a two-state solution Israel was heading towards apartheid. The rightwing, he told a meeting, “believes that Jews can rule over an Arab majority for a long time.” The inevitable collapse of an apartheid state would mean the end of the Jewish state.
But for Dalya Steinberger, the opposite is true: the move to the right is essential for Israel’s survival, she says. “This is our country. We are here to stay. We can’t afford to be soft or generous, or do what the world wants us to do. There is only one Jewish homeland and we cannot risk losing it.”