Demographics can help explain Israel's steady march to the far-right
Those who think the rise of the far-right in Israel's recent elections is just the result of a casual development related to specific, narrow conditions, are mistaken: the opposite is true. The election results reflect the ongoing process of Israel's ratcheting towards the right and far-right, and is linked to several overlapping factors which indicate that this bloc will continue gaining strength and consolidating its hold on government.
The emerging alliance - between the Israeli right and extreme right - is expected to work tirelessly to achieve Israeli sovereignty over all of what it considers the "Land of Israel". The Palestinian question must be destroyed alongside the Palestinian presence, and Jewish supremacy between the "river and the sea" secured. The final stage may be the rebuilding of the Third Temple, which the Israeli right dreams of and considers its final goal and destination. While the religious-settler and nationalist right's plan is unlikely to happen in one fell swoop, they are definitely on track to achieving it.
"The election results reflect the ongoing process of Israel's ratcheting towards the right and far-right, and is linked to several overlapping factors which indicate that this bloc will continue gaining strength"
Rightwards march likely to continue if unopposed
Israel's right and far-right's hold on power will likely increase unless serious pressure is applied. This prediction is based on a series of demographic shifts, namely the growth of religious, Haredi, and Sephardic and Mizrahi groups, which have filled the void left by the decline of the secular Ashkenazi parties and elites i.e. the State of Israel's founders.
The secular Ashkenazi constituted 85 percent of the Jewish population immediately prior to Israel's establishment, with most ascribing to nationalist socialist politics. This percentage has plummeted: today the secularists (the majority Ashkenazi) form around 40 percent of Israel's Jewish population.
The Sephardic and Mizrahi communities
The starting point for these changes was the immigration of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East in the fifties, most of whom were conservative and religious. Today they form nearly half the Jewish population. The Mizrahi/Sephardic groups allied themselves with the Herut Party (the major conservative nationalist party from 1948 until it merged with Likud in 1988), driven by discriminatory policies adopted by the establishment elite towards them.
From pragmatic to strategic
However, what started as a pragmatic alliance and protest vote against policies enacted by the establishment Mapai party, quickly became a strategic alliance between Likud and the Mizrahi/Sephardic groups. Likud took advantage – investing in identity politics and opening its doors to the Mizrahi/Sephardim, while Mapai had effectively barred their entry. Over time, a significant number of Mizrahi/Sephardim managed to advance to top positions in the party.
In Netanyahu's era a populist discourse was adopted alongside a language of incitement against the old-guard elite and "deep state institutions", which he considered biased to the founding elite. The conservative and marginalised classes of the Mizrahi and Sephardic communities became synonymous with supporting Likud and the right-wing; as well as Shas, a Haredi, religious, political party.
The Settler bloc and the Haredim
Then there is the settler bloc, today over 750,000-strong, alongside the ultra-orthodox Haredi bloc who today exceed 1,250,000, and who have gone through a process of ultra-right nationalist indoctrination and become an inseparable component of the right-wing camp.
"In response to the question: "Do Arabs only understand force?", "Yes" was the response from 80 percent of Haredi respondents, 73 percent of religious Zionists and 72 percent of [religious] conservatives, as opposed to 49 percent of secularist respondents"
Although, historically, they weren't associated with any political bloc, the conflict between them and the secularists (predominantly in the centre and on the left), has driven them consistently rightwards. Moreover, many Haredim have moved to settlements due to overcrowding in their former neighbourhoods, and today form almost 40 percent of the settlement population - more than the national-religious (or "religious-Zionist") Jews. This means the two-state solution and dismantlement of the settlement project are no longer abstractions to them – they view the issues as linked to their homes and the settlements they reside in.
Today, settlers, the nationalist religious, the Haredim and the Mizrahi/Sephardim are the majority in Israeli society. All research indicates a clear relationship between voting for the right and the degree of religiousness. In 2020, research by one Israeli centre on the link between religiousness and political stance, showed that as religiousness increased, support for right-wing positions increased.
In response to the question: "Do Arabs only understand force?", "Yes" was the response from 80 percent of Haredi respondents, 73 percent of religious Zionists and 72 percent of [religious] conservatives, as opposed to 49 percent of secularist respondents. With 80 percent of the Mizrahi/Sephardic community seeing themselves as religiously conservative, contrasted with 29 percent of Ashkenazi Israelis, the demographics tell us something: Israel isn't just right-wing, but is continuously moving further to the far-right and the religious right.
No longer far-fetched
Another important point is that religious Zionism views the occupation of the Palestinian territories as a religious duty because the land is sacred. The religious-Zionist project is to impose sovereignty over the OPT, and to embark on rebuilding the Third Temple; previously considered either a far-fetched scenario or as the dream of extremist, fringe groups.
Until the mid-nineties, the Chief Rabbinate and main religious blocs considered entering the Al-Aqsa compound as essentially a sin because of religious prohibitions for Jews based on beliefs linked to impurity. The prohibition wasn't related to whether Jews had an absolute right to the sacred site but to conditions around purification as an entry condition.
However, this prohibition has gradually disintegrated as conflict has grown over the future of the "political process". In 1996, the Yesha Council (which claims control over the West Bank which it calls Judea and Samaria) issued a statement calling on the masses to "go to Temple Mount", alongside religious guidance on how to prepare for that.
"Until the mid-nineties, the Chief Rabbinate and main religious blocs considered entering the Al-Aqsa compound as essentially a sin because of religious prohibitions for Jews based on beliefs linked to impurity"
Moreover, the "status quo" understanding, established by the Eshkol government in 1967, was gradually eroded, notably in 1996 when the first Netanyahu government inaugurated the Western Wall Tunnel. It dissolved completely with Ariel Sharon's visit to the compound in 2000, which sparked the Second Intifada and saw the area closed again to Jews for three years.
In 2003, the space was opened to them once more, after which visits by the Temple Mount Movement escalated dramatically. The sacred site is now the symbolic arena of the conflict where all national, religious, and millenarian heritage is deployed; and has become a ticking time-bomb.
Historically, several groups have targeted the Haram al-Sharif. In 1984, an underground, terrorist organisation of religious settlers tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock. They were from deep within the religious-Zionist movement, who's descendants today form the third largest party in Israel.
Furthermore, Ben-Gvir (expected to become Minister of Internal Security) regularly storms the Al-Aqsa compound with settler groups. Ben-Gvir once appeared in a news report in his living room next to pictures of Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein, and an image of the temple. When the reporter remarked that a mosque stood there currently he responded: "Now! The stress is on the word Now!".
The fear and prohibition around entering the Al-Aqsa compound has practically disappeared among religious Zionists. In a 2014 questionnaire directed at religious-Zionist Israelis, 75.4 percent said they supported Jews entering the Al-Aqsa compound, and only 24 percent were opposed. 19.6 percent said they had entered the compound and 35.7 percent hadn’t yet but intended to.
The government on the horizon - an alliance between the right-wing, populist Likud and the religious-nationalist-neo-fascist far-right led by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, alongside nationalist, right-wing, Haredi parties - will work on implementing its nationalist projects, and will be obliged to offer achievements to its voters to continue gaining power.
"The sacred site is now the symbolic arena of the conflict where all national, religious, and millenarian heritage is deployed; and has become a ticking time-bomb"
If we consider the depth of division among Palestinians, and that the Arab region is split between states with no objection to the right's domination (even viewing it as benefitting them), and states preoccupied with their own conflicts, then the chance that the extreme right will achieve its vision appears far from unlikely.
Honaida Ghanim is a Palestinian sociologist and anthropologist, and is currently General Director of The Palestinian forum for Israeli Studies “MADAR” .
Follow her on Twitter: @GhanimHonaida
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko
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