How Israel's far-right became the new mainstream

Illustration - Analysis - Israel's far-right
7 min read
08 November, 2022

On 1 November 2022, Israel carried out its fifth election in three-and-half years after the coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid was dissolved in the Knesset.

After a near-constant election cycle since 2019, Israel will finally end its political deadlock by re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu as leader - this time as head of possibly the most far-right government since the state’s founding.

The Netanyahu-led Likud emerged as the largest party, securing 32 seats in the Knesset. He is expected to forge a coalition with the Religious Zionism alliance (Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam) with 14 seats, as well as the ultra-Orthodox bloc (United Torah Judaism [7] and Shas [11]) with 18 seats.

Despite the almost-four-year electoral deadlock, voter turnout increased compared to elections in March 2021, standing at 71.3% in this month’s vote.

"The biggest winner of these elections is undoubtedly the Religious Zionism alliance and particularly the Otzma Yehudit party (Jewish Power) led by far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir"

Political representation of Palestinian citizens at stake

Palestinian citizens of Israel, around 20% of the population, appear to have lost political representation in the Knesset. Even though their turnout increased compared to the March 2021 elections, it still stood at 55 percent, much lower than Jewish Israelis.

The steady fragmentation of the Joint List following Ra’am’s split in 2021 was further exacerbated after Balad, led by Sami Abou Shehadeh, also decided to run independently.

Except for Ra’am, which increased its vote share and maintained its five seats, both Hadash-Ta’al and Balad lost support at the ballot box, with the latter failing to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes.

Dr Arik Rudnitzky from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in Jerusalem, highlighted that the next Knesset will only include 10 Arab and Druze representatives, which is a significant decrease compared to recent years.

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“Against this backdrop, it is clear that the elected Arab MKs will face a difficult, challenging period. Not only will the Arab parties find themselves in the opposition - once again, after the historical representation of Ra'am in the coalition in the previous Knesset - they will also have less political power,” he told The New Arab.

The decrease in Palestinian voter turnout and fragmented political representation could have two outcomes.

Firstly, the leadership of Palestinian political representation in the Knesset, which was de facto pioneered by Ayman Odeh, will come under question. Odeh’s political charisma no longer exists in the current state of Palestinian representation in Israeli politics.

Ra’am under his leadership was open to joining a right-wing coalition under Netanyahu before joining the Lapid and Bennett alliance in 2021, which resulted in it being isolated by both sides of the Knesset. Its time in power also secured limited gains for Palestinian citizens, while its ‘integrationist’ approach was criticised.

The Israeli elections mark a dramatic shift to the far-right. [Getty]

Secondly, a continued lack of trust in the Israeli political system could lead Palestinian citizens to shift from political party struggles to the civil society sphere, as witnessed in the 2000s.

“However, this does not mean that Arab citizens will give up on the Knesset. It is expected that the Balad party, which failed to pass the electoral threshold this time, will rearrange its ranks and perhaps create new unions and allies in order to compete in the next Knesset elections,” Rudnitzky noted.

The far-right becomes the new 'mainstream'

The biggest winner of these elections is undoubtedly the Religious Zionism alliance and particularly the Otzma Yehudit party (Jewish Power) led by far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir.

With his extremist stance against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian citizens, Ben Gvir is expected to follow the pathway of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach group is outlawed in Israel.

His increasing popularity among the far-right voter base demonstrates the extent to which the Israeli political spectrum has changed. Once banned from even entering elections, Ben Gvir is currently in a kingmaker position for Netanyahu, even declaring his desire to take charge of the public security ministry.

"Ben Gvir's increasing popularity among the far-right voter base demonstrates the extent to which the Israeli political spectrum has changed"

His partner in Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, is another politician whose popularity keeps increasing. However, unlike Ben Gvir, Smotrich has a volatile relationship with Netanyahu.

His support could be based on conditions which pose problems for Netanyahu. They include an interest in the Justice and Defence ministries, which might raise eyebrows within Likud, whose members seek the same portfolios. Therefore, the far-right surge also represents a challenge for Netanyahu.

Unlike Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are his traditional allies in his previous governments, Religious Zionism and particularly Otzma Yehudit come from an activist background rooted in extremist and ultranationalist political thought.

In addition, the alliance has proven that it has rising popularity among ultranationalist and religious voters, which might create a challenge to the political authority of the traditional ultra-Orthodox bloc, including Shas.

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Dr Ferit Belder, an assistant professor from Marmara University, points to this leadership challenge and stresses that the two blocs differentiate themselves from each other on a variety of topics, such as the status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (known as the Temple Mount to Jews), army conscription, settlements, and judicial reform.

He also highlights that Haredi parties have never taken an anti-establishment stance against the judicial system in the country.

“To say it more correctly, Haredi leaders learnt how to deal with the actors of the system rather than explicitly locating themselves against the entire system,” he told TNA.

“While Haredi parties have a long pro-status quo stance in politics, Smotrich and Ben Gvir seek revisions. Still, there is no reason to think that this difference necessarily impedes cooperation between them,” Belder added.

Considering the political agenda of the far-right, Netanyahu could even promote himself in the international arena as a political actor that is trying to ‘alleviate’ and ‘balance’ the demands of the extremists, despite having cleared the path for their rise in recent years.

A Palestinian man argues with Israeli Knesset member and head of the far right Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on 10 May 2021. [Getty]

This might especially work in regaining popularity in the White House and maintaining Israel’s relations with Arab countries that signed the Abraham Accords.

In fact, while US officials hinted at the possibility of not working with Ben-Gvir and other right-wing extremists, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed also expressed concerns to Netanyahu about the possibility of ultra-right extremists being included in a new government during a recent trip to Israel last month.

Having said that, considering the key role of the far-right in securing his premiership, this balancing act would also endanger Netanyahu's political career.

What do these elections mean for Palestinians?

The latest election demonstrates once again the eroding trust of Palestinian citizens in Israel’s political system.

Despite certain achievements throughout the years, they are now facing the most right-wing government in Israeli history, with politicians seeking to implement extremist policies on both Palestinian citizens and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

And while Israeli politics is increasingly becoming a playground for right-wing and far-right parties, opposition parties are far from being a viable alternative to this new reality.

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In short, the prospective Israeli cabinet could soon host Ben-Gvir, who once hung a poster in his home of extremist settler Baruch Goldstein, responsible for the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre that killed 29 Palestinians. 

A year later, Ben-Gvir even appeared to threaten then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to television cameras, saying “we’ll get to him”. Weeks later Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.

While representing at least a possibility for change, those accords are now a hollow document as the Israeli military occupation remains entrenched and settlement expansion continues unabated.

Under such circumstances, the possibility of negotiations or any measures that could improve conditions for Palestinians following Israel’s political realignment, whether citizens of Israel or those living under Israeli military occupation, is virtually non-existent.

Fatih Şemsettin Işık works at TRT World as a researcher on Israeli politics. After completing his undergraduate studies at Bilkent University and MA studies at Istanbul Şehir University and Central European University, he worked as a journalist and researcher in local and international organisations, covering Israeli politics, EU-Middle East relations, Turkish politics, and the role of diasporas in foreign affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @semssami