January 23, 2013: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. Reuters/Nir Elias
The story of the Israeli elections is not, as was expected, the dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud-Beiteinu coalition with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Instead, it is the unlikely triumph of Yair Lapid, a media celebrity who managed to secure nineteen seats in the next Knesset, making his newly formed Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, the second-largest party in Israel. In the coming days, Lapid will play a pivotal role in the formation of the next governing coalition, and he is certain to receive a ministerial role in any future administration.
The results were a stinging rebuke to Netanyahu, who had expected over forty seats and wound up with only thirty-one. But what do they mean for the status quo of the Israeli occupation and the slow-motion dispossession of the Palestinians? Lapid has been cast in mainstream US media accounts as a “centrist,” a label that carries moderate connotations. According to the Washington Post, his success could “signal more flexibility in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.” But Lapid is, in fact, a politically vague media celebrity presiding over a party comprising random figures he personally selected—“as much a mystery as the future the party claims to be fighting for,” as the Times of Israel described him. As a potential coalition partner, the vapid broadcast personality seems like a perfect tool for Netanyahu; he is far more refined than Lieberman, who has consistently verged on bellicose incitement, but has no clear ideological core.
What’s more, Lapid has offered scant evidence that he views the Palestinian issue any differently than Netanyahu does. When he unveiled his foreign policy platform last year, Lapid chose to do so at a university inside the illegal mega-settlement of Ariel. Israel “must at last get rid of the Palestinians and put a fence between us,” he declared, explaining that he chose to launch his campaign at the settlement because “there is no map on which Ariel isn’t a part of the state of Israel.” Like Netanyahu, he says he strongly opposes the division of Jerusalem, an implicit rejection of the international consensus for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. (The Labor Party, which won fifteen seats and is generally labeled center-left, also supports annexing the major settlement blocs.)
In a 2007 column for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonoth, Lapid insisted that ending the occupation would mean certain death for himself and fellow Israeli Jews. He wrote, “It may be true that the humane thing is to remove the roadblocks and checkpoints, to stop the occupation immediately, to enable the Palestinians freedom of movement in the territories, to tear down the bloody inhumane wall, to promise them the basic rights ensured to every individual. It’s just that I will end up paying for this with my life.… Call me a weakling; call me thickheaded—I don’t want to die.”
With Lapid as the lead partner in a Netanyahu-led coalition, there is no indication that occupation will not deepen, or that settlement expansion will cease. The most concerted challenge to the status quo will not emerge from “centrist” parties like Lapid’s Yesh Atid, but from another element that is certain to play a decisive role in the next government and that is the most politically dynamic force in Israeli society today: the pro-settler camp. The settlement movement has captured the heart of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, replacing moderate old-timers with a cadre of younger zealots. Then there is Naftali Bennett, a committed religious nationalist and savvy high-tech entrepreneur who has transformed a marginal far-right party, Jewish Home, into a force to be reckoned with.
In the next government, religious nationalists like Bennett are determined to consolidate the right-wing consensus, ending the peace process once and for all and making the empire of West Bank settlements an official part of Israel proper.
An Imperfect Solution
Since the dawn of the peace process, the Israeli government has moved hundreds of thousands of settlers into the West Bank while engaged in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that always seemed to lead nowhere. As long as they avoided drastic moves like annexation and paid lip service to a two-state solution, Israeli governments have been able to expand settlements without fear of concerted international pressure. Netanyahu has been the most aggressive proponent of this approach. In a 2009 address at Bar Ilan University that he reaffirmed late last year, Netanyahu pledged his support for a two state solution. And like his predecessors from both Labor and Likud, he authorized thousands of new settlement units, including in the E1 corridor, which would complete the encirclement of occupied East Jerusalem, severing it permanently from the West Bank.
Israel’s diversionary strategy has succeeded thanks to the near-total absence of pressure from its patron in Washington. However, the status quo has become so entrenched, and the perpetual conflict seems so manageable—Netanyahu celebrated the one-way peace he presides over as “The Big Quiet”—that the next generation of rightists no longer feels compelled to mask their agenda with disingenuous appeals to Western opinion. Bennett’s rise is the best evidence of the trend. According to current polls, his Jewish Home party stands to receive eleven seats in the next Knesset, a major surge for a small party that commanded little influence in the previous government. Though his party did not perform as well as it hoped, it is likely to play an influential role in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, and well into the future.
The 40-year-old son of American immigrants from California, Bennett took the reins of the far-right Jewish Home after leading the Yesha Council, the political lobby of the settlement movement. With the millions he earned from running a start-up technology firm, Bennett purchased a home in Ra’anana, a bedroom community near Tel Aviv populated by the denizens of Israel’s knowledge economy. In an election that proved to be a personality contest, Bennett campaigned as the start-up success, the savvy impresario reaping the fruits of the modern Israeli dream.
Since emerging in the media spotlight, he has done his best to cultivate an image of moderation. Bennett was the star of a January 8 debate in Jerusalem sponsored by The Israel Project, a major pro-Israel advocacy group, and the Israeli Government Press Office. Before an audience comprising what seemed like the entire foreign press corps, Bennett sported a button-down shirt and khaki pants, with a knit kippa balanced on the dome of his nearly bald skull. It was much smaller and less colorful than those typically worn by the Jewish zealots who rampage through the hills south of occupied Hebron. A former IDF commando, Bennett regaled his audience with war stories in fluent English and punctuated right-wing talking points with references to Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough and fractured Bob Dylan—“How many missiles do we have to endure before we think about our situation?”
Before the campaign, Bennett was given to messianic, bigoted outbursts, like the one he delivered during a 2010 debate against the Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi: “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here,” he bellowed at Tibi. “We were here long before you!” But now, with a chance to serve as a key partner in Netanyahu’s coalition, Bennett is toning it down. “You would not find a more ardent supporter of integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli society [than me]…” he declared at The Israel Project’s debate. “I’m very much opposed to those foolish provocations that some parties do to Israeli Arabs. I think it’s foolish and immoral.”
Even as he pivoted to the center-right, Bennett did not miss an opportunity to promote his so-called “Stability Plan.” Intended to supplant the various proposals for establishing a Palestinian state that have emerged throughout the peace process, Bennett’s blueprint calls for Israel to annex Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where most of the Jewish settlements lie. The area’s Palestinian population would be placed under full Israeli control, but would be granted national rights only in Jordan. The major Palestinian population centers would enjoy the status of bantustans under direct Israeli police control, while the Gaza Strip would somehow be forced into a confederation with Egypt.
“It’s less than a state, I acknowledge that,” Bennett declared to reporters at The Israel Project debate who inquired about his plan for the Palestinians. “Israel would retain the security umbrella on 100 percent of the area. But if we vacate our responsibility, they’re just gonna shoot missiles at us!”
Later in The Israel Project debate, a reporter asked Bennett if was concerned that annexing the West Bank would turn Israel into a pariah state. “I am concerned about the potential international isolation,” Bennett responded. “But we’re sending mixed messages. You can’t support a Palestinian state like the Likud does, and then be surprised when the world is mad at you when you don’t in fact materialize it. I assert that founding a Palestinian state would make Israel a feeble, weak country. I assert it would create eternal strife here, and I don’t think we’re making a good enough case.”
He continued in a pleading tone, “There is no perfect solution for living here, but there are imperfect ways to live together on the ground. When you bash your head against the wall a hundred times trying to make a solution and don’t get it, it’s time to take a fresh look.”
The Kids Are All Right
With his constant refrain of taking a “fresh look,” or “thinking outside the box,” Bennett’s message is resonating with a new generation of Jewish Israeli voters who are increasingly dictating the direction of their society. Most were weaned during the Oslo era, the days of hope, only to be told after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks by then–Prime Minister Ehud Barak that there was no Palestinian partner. Some wound up in the Israeli army, laying siege to the West Bank and Gaza during the darkest days of the Second Intifada, when suicide bombers targeted bars in the heart of Tel Aviv. Others fought in the failed assault on southern Lebanon in 2006, as Bennett did, sharing his sense of abandonment at the hands of an inept and reckless government led by Labor and Kadima.
“There are still base constituencies here, but the rest of [the deciding voters] are young people under 35,” Bernard Avishai, a business professor at Hebrew University and longtime analyst of Israeli politics, told me. “Bennett is a perfect example of the trend. He’s born into a forty-five-year-old occupation. He doesn’t know anything else.… You have a whole generation in this country…who feel that all they’re doing is calling the grass green. To them, it’s just common sense.”
The hard-line views of young Israeli Jews also reflect what Hebrew University professor of language and education Nurit Peled-Elhanan described to me as the outcome of “a clear socialization process” guided by a “racist education system.” The author of Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks, the most comprehensive study to date of the portrayal of Palestinians and the Israel-Palestine conflict in Israel’s high school history and geography textbooks, Peled-Elhanan explained, “By the time Israeli kids go to the army, they have learned nothing about their Arab neighbors. Young Israelis are not even taught where the borders of their country are, so it is only natural that they think that the Palestinians are intruders on their land.”
“You begin with a Zionist narrative and it goes on and on and on through the ceremonies, through the media, and then through the army, with intense indoctrination,” Daniel Bar-Tal, an internationally renowned professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University, remarked to me. “Think about an American kid who is taught from a very young age that America is great and then add to this context where the Israeli kids live, that they have to serve in the army, and you can see why they need so much preparation, legitimization and justification for the acts they have to participate in. How do you go to the checkpoints? How do you go to Gaza? You have to form a particular framework or prism of thought. That’s why the army goes into the high schools. So when you take into account all this information, it’s not surprising that there is a right-wing consensus in Israel today.”
The New Likud
The factors propelling Bennett’s meteoric rise are also driving a transformation in the Likud Party. The party has its roots in the aggressively expansionist Herut Party, with its terrorist and fascist-admiring elements, but it also contained a liberal strain that made it the home of relatively tolerant figures like Reuven Rivlin, an eighth-generation sabra and the current Knesset Speaker, whose father translated the Quran into Hebrew. In the next Knesset, however, Likud will be guided by zealots like Tzipi Hotovely, who embody the political sensibility of Israel’s post-Oslo generation. Pretty, carefully coiffed and prone to comparing left-wing opponents to Joseph Stalin, the 34-year-old self-styled “religious right-winger” might be the Israeli answer to Sarah Palin.
Hotovely gained her first taste of politics as part of one of the “Orange Cells” that organized opposition on campuses around Israel to Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip. Four years later, Hotovely became one of the youngest ever to serve in the Knesset. To honor “Jewish Identity Day” in 2011, she convened hearings on the supposed scourge of Jewish women marrying Arab men, inviting members of Israel’s far-right anti-miscegenation movement to testify. “We must confront the fact that the country has not valued education, which is the only way to prevent Jewish women from forging life connections with non-Jews,” she declared, urging a nationwide “struggle against assimilation.”
Alongside a crowd of far-right rebels—from Ze’ev Elkin, the author of recent laws scrutinizing the political activities of human rights NGOs and authorizing lawsuits against Israeli advocates of a boycott against settlement goods, to Danny Danon, a proud friend of Glenn Beck who has said that to Israel, Obama “tried to dictate; he was a dictator”—Hotovely has emerged as the new face of her party. Members of the old guard, who have been forced to the bottom of Likud’s election list when they haven’t been pushed out of the party altogether, have sunk into a state of utter despair. “The new Likud is not committed to the ethic of liberty, to the values of [Revisionist Zionist ideologue Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and [Former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin,” Rivlin grumbled.
I met Hotovely in Tel Aviv on January 15, before she was scheduled to debate Merav Michaeli, a prominent feminist and widely published columnist who represents the left edge of the Labor Party’s largely centrist ticket. Hotovely told me her views were identical to those of Bennett and the ideologues running on his party’s list. When I asked why she was running on the Likud ticket, she insisted that being a part of Israel’s largest party guaranteed the most possible influence in the next Knesset, where she was guaranteed a seat. She was flanked by several young Likud activists handing out fliers warning Israelis against throwing their votes away to smaller rightist parties like Bennett’s Jewish Home.
On stage before an audience of several hundred young Anglo immigrants to Israel, Michaeli issued a tepid call for a two-state solution along the lines of the twelve-year-old Clinton Parameters. “Hopefully we can evacuate as few settlers as possible,” she reassured the crowd, which did not seem terribly enthusiastic about the proposal.
Hotovely rose from her seat and lashed into her opponent, casting her as hopelessly naïve. “You need to look at the facts,” she scolded Michaeli. “You can have your ideology, that’s fine, but it’s a religious ideology. You present yourself as a secular person, but you are so religious and you stick to [two states] as if it is a religious ideology. What I’m saying is very pragmatic and that there’s no possibility for peace in the coming future.”
Taking Tel Aviv
Though settlers are only about 7 percent of Israel’s voting population, the percentage of settlers who will hold seats in the next Knesset is almost twice that number. Then there are many more, like Hotovely and Bennett, who live inside the Green Line but push the settlers’ agenda. As Noam Sheizaf wrote in this magazine, the settlement movement is no longer a fringe phenomenon engaged in a series of pitched battles with the state; it increasingly is the state.
In the past four years, Israel’s major institutions have begun to fall under the control of the settlement movement and its allies, from the Supreme Court, now headed by Asher Grunis, a right-winger installed as Chief Justice thanks to special legislation introduced by the Knesset’s pro-settler bloc, to the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security agency, which is directed by a religious nationalist named Yoram Cohen. In 2010, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh became the first knit-kippa-wearing religious nationalist to rise to deputy chief of staff of the IDF, the second most powerful position in the armed forces. At least half of the soldiers in Israel’s officer training colleges identify as religious nationalist, while around 30 percent of the officer corps adheres to Orthodox Jewish ideology.
“Settlers don’t have to be in confrontation anymore,” Avishai said. “The map of Israeli weather that is shown every night on the news shows Ariel, but Ramallah is not there. So all [Naftali Bennett] is doing is ratifying the weather map.”
As the settlers complete their march through the institutions, they have begun establishing a physical presence in the heart of the country’s mixed cities, where Israeli Jews and Arabs enjoy an uneasy and unequal form of coexistence. In the heart of Ajami, an impoverished Arab neighborhood in Jaffa just ten minutes south of Tel Aviv, an organization of West Bank settlers recently established a yeshiva as a garrison for expanding their influence in the area. “Our ideology is not to enter an Arab neighborhood,” said Israel Zeira, the director of the construction firm behind the yeshiva, “but to go to Jaffa in order to bolster Jewish identity.”
The settler presence has served as a base for provocative “Jaffa For Jews” marches and violent attacks on local Arab property. In October 2011, a group of religious nationalist youths vandalized an ancient Muslim graveyard in Jaffa, then firebombed my favorite fish restaurant in the area, Abu el-Abed. A week later, they vandalized Tel Aviv’s memorial to Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a far-right ideologue in 1995. “For years we had enjoyed good relations with the local Jewish community,” Sheikh Sliman Satel, the imam of a Jaffa mosque vandalized by religious nationalists, told me. “But now I’m afraid about the future because these [settler] groups have the backing of the government. The government gives them the ability to come here and hurt people at will. If we did the same thing in Tel Aviv they would surely stop us.”
A bearded settler named Michael Ben-Ari has been at the forefront of virtually every right-wing march in the Tel Aviv area. In 2009, Ben-Ari won a seat in the Knesset by campaigning as a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the murdered founder of the violent extremist group Kach, who advocated the establishment of a theocratic fascist state in the West Bank and the forced “transfer” of Palestinians to Jordan.
In 2010, I met Ben-Ari in his Knesset office with my colleague, David Sheen. Seated at a desk flanked by a framed portrait of Kahane, Ben-Ari launched into a bizarre diatribe that seemed more extreme than anything I had ever heard from a member of Israel’s radical right. “I would never allow these words to leave my lips: Jordan is Palestine,” he told us. “God forbid! Jordan is part of the land of Israel, it belongs to the people of Israel. It’s not Palestine, it was never Palestine.”
Ahead of the current election cycle, Ben-Ari founded a new party, Otzma LeYisrael, or Strong Israel, joining forces with Aryeh Eldad, a virulently anti-Arab Knesset member who has vowed to “end the Muslim occupation of Judea and Samaria” (biblical names for the West Bank) by enacting an annexation program remarkably similar to the kind promoted by Bennett.
Though Strong Israel banners decorated the highways beneath the ideological settlements of the northern West Bank—“Let The IDF Kick Ass,” one read—Ben-Ari focused his campaign primarily inside the Green Line. His party office was strategically located on a busy street in south Tel Aviv, in a neighborhood inhabited by thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, and where tensions exploded last year with a series of race riots that he had no small part in inciting. On New Year’s Eve 2013, Ben-Ari headlined a protest against the presence of non-Jewish Africans in Tel Aviv that doubled as a rally for his newly founded party.
After the demonstration, Sheen and I followed closely behind a group of Strong Israel supporters as they marched through the neighborhood, chanting “Sudanese to Sudan!” and hectoring every African they met along the way (watch video of the incident here). “Criminals! Sudanese, go home, you whores!” they shouted at a pregnant African woman huddled inside a corner market. By the time the marchers reached Strong Israel’s campaign headquarters, the small police detail that had been following them, and that restrained them from physical violence, had disappeared. That’s when they began to attack Sheen, slapping him and threatening to break his camera. The tactics that settlers employed to intimidate human rights activists and journalists documenting their abuses in the occupied Hebron Hills had finally found their way into the streets of Tel Aviv.
Ben-Ari has boasted that the once-radical ideas introduced by his mentor, Kahane, now influence the mainstream of Israeli politics. “I’m not the only one who represents Kahane,” he has said. “He’s represented by a great many people today, within the Knesset and outside it.”
But Ben-Ari might be a victim of his own success. His party did not cross the electoral threshold, meaning he will not retain his seat in the Knesset. However, the next government will be filled with fanatics who have co-opted his language and political agenda. They include Miri Regev, a notoriously unhinged former spokesperson for the Israeli army now emerging as one of Likud’s rising stars, who called non-Jewish Africans “a cancer in the nation’s body” during an anti-migrant rally in south Tel Aviv. Moshe Feiglin, a settler banned from entering Britain for inciting racial hatred, has also earned a seat in the Knesset on the Likud list. Recent polls of Jewish Israeli attitudes have exposed a disturbing consensus in favor of the far right’s politics of ethnic resentment. In a poll taken last year, 52 percent of Israeli Jews agreed with Regev that African asylum seekers are “a cancer,” and a full one-third said they support violent attacks on them. Then there are fresh-faced fanatics like Jewish Home’s Jeremy Gimpel, who ran for the Knesset with an apparent determination to summon the spirit of Kahane.
Israel Against The West
On January 16, in the middle of a multi-party debate sponsored by the right-wing Jerusalem Post at the Great Synagogue in central Jerusalem, Bennett quietly excused himself from the panel and slipped out of the building. Moments later, a young man named Jeremy Gimpel seated himself in Bennett’s chair. When an old woman rose from the audience to ask the Likud Party’s Yuli Edelstein why Netanyahu had not translated into English the Levy Report, which recommended major annexations of West Bank settlements built on Palestinian land (the Levy Committee, a panel of judges, had been established by Netanyahu to explore the legality of settlement building), Gimpel seized the moment.
“The question isn’t why wasn’t [the Levy Report] published in English,” Gimpel boomed. “The question is, why didn’t Netanyahu adopt it? He called for a two-state solution; he froze construction in Judea and Samaria. We elect a right-wing government and they always break left! There is only one party that is saying, ‘We are the right.’ We are not for a two-state solution; we will build in Judea and Samaria. There is only one party that supports that, and it’s Jewish Home.”
Gimpel, listed as fourteenth on the Jewish Home list, narrowly missed out on a seat in the Knesset. But his candidacy generated headlines both inside Israel and abroad, upsetting Bennett’s attempts to streamline the image of his party. The 32-year-old moved to Israel from Atlanta with his family when he was 11, becoming an ordained rabbi after a stint in the army’s Givati Brigade. Gimpel’s preppy appearance reminded me of one of the frat boys I met when I studied at the University of Pennsylvania. However, his histrionic, off-the-wall personality and messianic rhetoric seemed better suited for the rapture-ready mega-churches of Middle America than any part of the Jewish Diaspora I had ever experienced.
Through TheLandOfIsrael.com, an online, English-language media outlet he co-founded, Gimpel has in fact cultivated close political and financial ties with Christian Zionist groups in the United States. Before an audience of evangelical End Timers at a Florida church in 2011, Gimpel openly fantasized about blowing up Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. “It would be incredible!” he exclaimed. When controversy exploded in Israel over Gimpel’s comments, with competing candidates demanding his disqualification, he dismissed his apparent call for religious violence as a tasteless attempt at humor. However, the “joke” was not an isolated episode. During a Torah lesson he delivered for a group of self-proclaimed “Hebrew roots” Christians, he repeated his call about destroying the Al Aqsa Mosque, then attributed the American economic crisis to insufficient US support for Israel. “Every single nation ever that has turned their backs on the Jews is no longer,” Gimpel warned. “So America has a choice.”
After the Jerusalem Post debate, I found Gimpel in deep conversation with an old woman from the United States. “When was Palestine called Palestine? We’re from Judea…we are the indigenous people of the land of Israel!” I heard him proclaim in a suburban American accent. “How dare they try to kick us out of our homeland!”
I managed to secure Gimpel’s undivided attention with a question about Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the extremist settlement of Kiryat Arba, who had endorsed Bennett before throwing his support to Ben-Ari’s Strong Israel. Gimpel was visibly nervous, and with good reason. After all, Lior had publicly praised Baruch Goldstein, the fanatic who in 1994 had murdered twenty-nine Palestinian worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, declaring, “His hands are innocent, and his heart is pure.”
“He’s not my rabbi, man,” Gimpel said of Lior. “And I don’t know his teachings.”
There was only one rabbi Gimpel truly admired. He was Avichai Rontzki, the former chief rabbi of the Israeli army who helped convince Bennett to enter politics. A close ally of Lior, Rontzki has in recent years spent his free time teaching Torah to Jewish extremists convicted of attempting to carry out terrorist attacks against Palestinians. During the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in December 2008–January 2009, Rontzki provided troops with a pamphlet stating, “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers.”
“Oh, Rontzki is brilliant,” Gimpel exclaimed. “He’s amazing. He’s a revolutionary.… [He] transformed the Jewish flavor of the spirituality within the Israeli army so that the rabbinate is not seen as a spiritual thing above the army but as something that is an integral part of the army. And that is authentic Jewish life.”
Though Gimpel spoke with scorn of the Palestinians who had launched rockets at Israeli cities, during our twenty-five-minute conversation, he reserved the bulk of his resentment not for Arabs but for “the West,” and especially for Washington. “The West and the Obama administration and the European Union—they’re trying to shrink our country to the point that we will have indefensible borders and always be at the mercy of those Western countries. And we want to be independent and free in our homeland!”
The son of Atlanta who routinely toured Southern mega-churches in search of donations from Christian evangelicals was adamant that America get out of Israel’s backyard. Only “if the West would get out of the Middle East and let us deal with our Middle Eastern problem,” Gimpel said, could Israeli Jews begin to peacefully co-exist with their Palestinian neighbors. And only then would Israel truly be free.
“We may have to try to stop this political, Western dialogue that doesn’t relate to their culture, doesn’t relate to our culture. It doesn’t work in the Middle East,” Gimpel proclaimed. “It’s time to realize that the right wing are the only ones who can bring any stability to the area.”