How powerful is the Israeli settler community? Certainly, it is a testament to the extreme right’s prowess that it has been able to dot the West Bank landscape with its building lots. But it never really flaunted its power. Until now, that is, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forms a new coalition with one of the most extreme right-wing parties in the history of Zionism. And this says a great deal about the topography of Israeli politics.
When I worked in the West Bank in the six years to 2012, I regularly visited West Bank settlements. On one visit in 2010 to a settler outpost called Hilltop 26, just outside Hebron, a group of settlers began throwing stones at the unarmed Palestinians protesters who had been forced off their land. As fully armed soldiers watched, the settlers screamed racial epitaphs at the Palestinians, threatened their families with expulsion and attacked them with stones and wooden planks. The ringleader was Itamar Ben Gvir, a fixture of the extreme-right settler movement.
Today, far from the windswept hills of Hebron, Ben Gvir might find himself in the Israeli parliament as part of a last-ditch effort by Netanyahu to hold on to power.
Ben Gvir and his political party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), are the ideological heirs of the Kahane movement. Meir Kahane, an American-born Israeli settler, founded the openly racist Kach party in the early 1980s. He served one term in parliament before his party was declared a terrorist group by the United States and other nations. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 by an Egyptian-born US citizen in New York, but left a lasting legacy for Israel’s extreme right.
Otzma Yehudit proudly identifies with the Kahane movement and builds on its platform of violence toward Palestinians and the expulsion of Arab communities from Israel and the West Bank. In recent years, the party has become active in battling intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. Ben Gvir also leads Lehava, which describes itself as an enemy of Arab-Jewish integration. The group was implicated in a 2014 arson attack on a school for Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem. Two years earlier, Ben Gvir was denied a visa to the US due to his membership in a terrorist organization.
Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit’s ideas represent the far-right of the political spectrum. Yet that hasn’t stopped the majority of Israelis from sending their children to the army, where more often than not they end up defending settlers like Ben Gvir in the West Bank. This raises a question: Should this far-right ideology be so repugnant to the mainstream, why do so many liberals still send their children to defend them?
With the horrors of the Holocaust in mind, Israel makes a point to say that it has a “noble military,” and that its soldiers can refuse orders they deem unethical – thus, no one can plead that they had to follow orders, as the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann did in his trial. Despite the fact that the majority of soldiers serve in the West Bank, the “refusal movement” has been limited to a few hundred people over the past five decades. If Israelis truly are fed up with the violence and radicalism of settlers such as Ben Gvir, they can do their national service somewhere other than the West Bank. But this hasn’t happened. Mainstream Israelis simply aren’t pushing back on West Bank military service – or maybe are afflicted by the banality of apathy. Either way, they are enabling the right and its agenda. And there is a reason for this.
This gulf between rhetoric and reality is coming into sharp focus as Otzma Yehudit enters the political mainstream. Ahead of general election in April, Netanyahu’s primary challengers, former Israeli general Benny Gantz and television-star-turned-politician Yair Lapid, joined forces to form a coalition that could stymie the prime minister’s ability to win a majority.
In response, Netanyahu arranged for Otzma Yehudit to join a mainstream party on the right called Jewish Home. The arrangement was immediately denounced by Jewish groups around the world, including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which normally steers clear of Israeli internal politics. AIPAC said Otzma Yehudit’s ideas are “reprehensible” and vowed not to have any contact with its politicians if it gains power in the election.
While it may seem like a principled stand by the likes of AIPAC, the fact is that Otzma Yehudit’s ideas resonate in many ways with the mainstream than most outside the country might credit. Though many Israelis may not subscribe to the party’s outright racism, their actions in effect support the party’s broad mission. For while they might not like the optics of the occupation, they understand that it has become part of Israel’s permanent reality. The occupation is seen as an intrinsic component of Israel’s general security. To that end, the mainstream continues to support the occupation with their taxes and through the military. Indeed, without the military to defend settlements in the West Bank, Otzma Yehudit would dissolve into irrelevancy. That it has not is most telling.
This, then, is the status quo. It is one that Israelis have come to appreciate. But maintaining it requires a hefty dose of nationalist rhetoric, and parties like Otzma Yehudit to inject it into the mainstream.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.