Azmi Bishara warns against new forms of Israeli extremism after Netanyahu's election victory, stresses opportunity for Palestinian unity

Azmi Bishara warns against new forms of Israeli extremism after Netanyahu's election victory, stresses opportunity for Palestinian unity
Palestinian academic Azmi Bishara has warned that the Religious Zionist Party, which will be part of the far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, represents a new form of extremism in Israel.
8 min read
09 November, 2022
Israel's extremist Religious Zionism coaltion made sweeping gains in recent elections [Supplied]

The rise of the Religious Zionism Party represents the most significant and dangerous development following recent Israeli elections, the director of the Arab Institute for Research and Policy Studies, Dr. Azmi Bishara has said. The further rise of the Israeli right in the elections at the beginning of this month, he explained, was caused by shifts within the right-wing extremist blocs

The extreme-right Religious Zionist party won 14 seats in the Israeli Knesset and 20% of votes from serving Israeli soldiers. They are likely to take part in the next Israeli government, led by the right-wing Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Ever since the religious movement was founded [in Israel] there was a religious and Zionist trend, but there was no religious-Zionist trend, in the sense that there was no unification between the two ideas, unlike what this party has done," Bishara said.

"There were [previously] politicians, represented by the National Religious Party (NRP), who were both Zionist and religious on a personal level. But what distinguishes Religious Zionism, which grew out of the settler movement in the territories occupied in 1967, is the unification of the concepts of religion, Zionism, and the State of Israel; as well as the concepts of the Land of Israel, national salvation, and religious salvation," Bishara said.

Miracle, wonder, and extremism

Speaking at a lecture entitled "Israeli elections 2022: A continuing rachet to the right and the rise of Religious Zionism," the Palestinian academic traced the rise of the Religious Zionism trend to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israel defeated the Arab states and occupied the whole of historic Palestine.

"A sense of miraculous achievement developed among many religious [Israelis] when Israel occupied new territories which coincided with the Land of Israel as mentioned in the Torah. Based on this they saw Zionism as divinely inspired. They called this new geography they took control of Judea and Samaria – referring to the south and north of the West Bank respectively. More important than this however, was Jerusalem. Here the national and religious fervour peaked and all the religious Zionist movements sprung from it."

Prior to and immediately after the establishment of Israel in 1948, many religious Jews had an ambivalent or even hostile relationship to Zionism, which was a secular movement.

Bishara noted that it was the Zionist 'left 'which had established Israel but said that it began to use right-wing language after the 1967 capture of the West Bank and Gaza.

"It had right-wing policies and used a religious narrative to justify annexation [of the West Bank and Gaza], including passages from the Torah to advocate not giving up Jerusalem and the West Bank, which was named Judea and Samaria. This Zionist 'left', which was always preoccupied with security, after 1967 first used the term 'administered territories' [to refer to areas occupied after 1967] but later on religious language began making its way into the political narrative."

Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after occupying it in 1967, but has not annexed the West Bank due to its high Palestinian population. However, there have been consistent proposals to annex some or all of the territory, with many far-right Israeli politicians advocating forced removal of the Palestinian Arab population.

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Bishara has written several works on the rise of religious Zionism. In 2005 he authored the book, "From the Jewishness of the State to Sharon: A Study in the Contradictions of Israeli Democracy"

In his latest lecture he focused on the intentions of Israel, the last settler-colonial state in the world, noting that questions regarding the relationship of religion to Zionism inevitably lead to questions about the situation of Arabs, including the Palestinian citizens of Israel living in territory captured in 1948, who form over 20% of Israel's population, the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or Arabs as a whole, living throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Bishara said that Israel now believes it has economic and military security and therefore "does not need now to make a choice" between moderating extremism and risking a conflict that would force it to make concessions.

He said that Israel had been encouraged by normalisation agreements with Arab states, saying that "normalisation" was the wrong word.

"What we are seeing is a political, security, and economic alliance" between Israel and Arab governments which had ceased to care about the Palestinian issue, Bishara said.

"Israel, whether ruled by 'left' or right Zionist parties has to look for compromises when it is put under pressure. This happened in previous situations in Algeria and Vietnam, where the stronger party had to make concessions".

Bishara drew attention to a great decrease in investment in Israel which happened when the first intifada began in 1987, saying this forced it to the negotiating table. He also noted its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 without any agreement.

The Palestinian academic also looked at the low turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel in the latest election, noting that there were three factions competing for their votes while only 53-54% of Palestinian citizens of Israel voted, as compared to a 70.5% turnout among Israeli Jews.

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He said that even though the Arab states' normalisation agreements with Israel had largely no effect on popular views of Israel among Arabs, the normalisation agreements did play a role in the elections.

"Some political forces [representing Palestinian citizens of Israel] found it in their interest to enter into a coalition with one or another Zionist party, using a narrative saying that the Arabs had normalised relations while they were not citizens of Israel, and that it's best if we do the same, we as citizens, with the aim of achieving gains which won't happen if we're not part of a governing coalition," Bishara said.

In 2021, the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas, controversially became the first Palestinian party ever to take part in an Israeli government when it entered into a coalition agreement with Israeli parties opposed to Netanyahu, led by Naftali Bennett's Yamina and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid.

"This is unprecedented," Bishara said. "The Arab parties throughout their history have abstained from participating in government and fought for their rights through struggle without losing their [Palestinian] national identity."

Palestinians allying with Israeli parties – Ethics are not luxuries

He strongly criticised Palestinian parties prepared to ally with Zionist ones in the Israeli government and parliament.

"It's a big mistake even on a pragmatic level, let alone on an ethical one. Ethics are not luxuries, they are an existential matter directly related to your Palestinian identity if you decide to ally with a settler colonial entity looting your land," Bishara said, saying that Israel would not allow any concession affecting its Jewish identity.

He said there were two forms of citizenship in the Basic Law of the State of Israel.

"The first is an essential citizenship saying that every Jew, as a Jew, can become a citizen at the moment he lands in Israel. The second is accidental citizenship relating to the people who happened to be in Israel at a certain time, and these were the Palestinians who stayed in their homes and were given citizenship after their fellow Palestinians were uprooted and forced to become refugees" in the Nakba.

He noted that even though the Oslo Accords had been approved very narrowly by the Israeli Knesset, with votes by Palestinian members crucial to the vote, this had not stopped Benjamin Netanyahu's rise to power in 1996 and the subsequent derailing of the agreement.

A 'worthwhile' split of the Arab vote

In the latest Israeli election, the Balad party, also known as the National Democratic Assembly, had decided to split from the Joint List of Palestinian parties and take part in the elections alone. This was after the other parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel had declined to sign an agreement prohibiting cooperation with any Zionist group in the Knesset.

Bishara approved of this. "This is why they split, and this was worthy of a split."

He said that there were Palestinian parties who were prepared to enter into any coalition, such as The United Arab List (Ra'am), and those only willing to enter into a secular-liberal one, such as The Democratic Front for Peace And Equality (Hadash) and its allies.

"Leaving the [Joint List] agreement and election cooperation in a short space of time was a huge achievement for al-Tajammo," Bishara said, using the Arabic name for the National Democratic Assembly/Balad, saying it got 140,000 votes mostly from Palestinian youth and people who usually boycott elections.

"This leaves room to build a national movement in the future," Bishara said.

"We got our rights through struggle, in the framework of a state of institutions which provides individual rights on the margins of a Jewish democracy. It wasn't made for Palestinians but they benefited from it without giving concessions and entering into coalitions with Zionists," he added.

In an earlier commentary (Arabic) on the elections, Bishara stressed "the necessity of national unity" among Palestinian citizens of Israel, but noted that "for this, there are several conditions".

The first of these is "self-construction, because there will be no unity unless there is a strong national movement with social support bases, a membership system and real power on the scene".

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"The circumstances are available and appropriate for them to organise themselves because their start was good in this battle," Bishara said.

Despite going it alone, they secured around 140,000 votes. Nevertheless, it did not cross the minimum threshold required to enter the Knesset, which had been increased by Israel from previous times, some say in a deliberate move to limit the political representation of Palestinian Arabs in Israel.

Bishara hailed Balad's vote count, saying it "restored life to the (Palestinian) national movement in the interior [1948 territories 'Israel proper']" and won people's sympathies despite campaigning in difficult circumstances.