It has long been a mystery to many outside observers why in opinion polls a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution yet continue to vote directly, or indirectly, for right-wing political parties set against peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Due to its electoral code, the Israeli political system is doomed to be governed by coalitions, originally with the historic Labour party, and now the Likud party, at the centre of negotiating deals with smaller (and increasingly extreme) parties that dominate subsequent political agendas. In principle, and as declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his oft-cited Bar-Ilan speech of 2009, the Likud party does (or did then) support a negotiated two-state solution. The problem is that Likud's coalition partners of the secular and religious, New and Far, right do not. These books go a long way towards explaining why this is so. Colin Shindler analyses the historical trajectory of the people and ideas which gave rise to the ascendancy of the modern right wing in Israel. Since its publication in 2015, the book is already seen as a reference in the field, even though its consideration of the modern era is limited to an overview of how the Likud party—under Menachem Begin from 1977 and Netanyahu since 2009—has come to dominate the centre ground of Israeli politics at the expense of the Israeli Labour party and the political left. The book's main achievement is to reposition the figure of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, claimed as the ‘father of the right’, as a more conflicted and progessively nationalist Zionist figure than a number of his successors (and critics) have asserted him to be. In Shindler's early chapters, the young Jabotinsky comes across as a sympathetic character, a Russian and Italian—rather than Yiddish—speaking liberal intellectual, passionately engaged in the ferment of debates that transformed nineteenth-century European liberalism into the less palatable, and often violent, nationalisms of the twentieth century. His own ‘conversion’ to Zionism comes tinged with the regret that the originator of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, died almost as soon as Jabotinsky had discovered him. Jabotinsky himself died in 1940, ahead of the foundation of modern Israel, but in time for the right-wing revisionist Zionist ideology and movement he created and led to fragment—dispersing into the ‘Maximalist’ tendencies of the movement's youth section and the violence of the Irgun and Stern Gang opposed to British Mandate rule in Palestine. Raffaella A. Del Sarto's book on the neo-revisionist right of Israel focuses more closely on why and how the Israeli public has become so tied to voting for Likud and its allies, leaving behind the optimism of Israel's early years and the risk-taking of the 1990s Oslo peace-making era. Del Sarto approaches her subject-matter through the prism of a foreign policy consensus which—hardened with victimhood dating back to the Shoah (Holocaust)—is based on a fear of terrorism and of a hostile regional environment, above all in the form of Iran, and the shared belief that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. The net effect has been to favour a domestic discourse, or hegemony, based on security above all, which has effectively replaced any ideological debate about what kind of state Israel could and should be. The story is a gloomy one, as Del Sarto concludes: ‘without the occurrence of an internal or external shock to the system, Israel's new hegemony will be very difficult to reverse’ (p. 226). The centrality of security, fear and victimhood also creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: the more Israel is criticized internationally, the more this reinforces public belief in the veracity of Israel's self-image as beleaguered, alone and misunderstood. The answer is more self-reliance and heightened security—both reductionist themes astutely instrumentalized by Netanyahu and his coalition colleagues to paste over the all-too-frequent political cracks among them. Del Sarto explores, in more depth than Shindler, the social and demographic changes in Israel over the past 25 years and the manner in which these have reinforced the neo-revisionist worldview and the hard-line political parties—like Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu—that were born from new waves of inward migration from the former Soviet Union. Del Sarto registers some dissent to these attitudes from both the senior military establishment, for example over the conduct of the 2014 war against Gaza, and in the cultural sphere, where, since Del Sarto's book was published, the Israeli film industry has put up a fight against the Likud Minister of Culture Miri Regev's threat of censoring ‘anti-Israeli’ productions. However, the majority of religious and ethnic minority opinion—the Sephardic and recent migrant Jewry, not the 20 per cent of Israel's population of Palestinian origin—remains on the side of the prevailing consensus. The majority's support of the two-state solution can be explained by a choice between lesser evils: despite popular disillusionment with the left's insistence on a negotiated peace agreement, the consequences of drifting towards a de facto one-state outcome that would threaten the Jewish majority within Israel itself is feared more. This is where political centrists, such as Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) party, are attempting to step into the breach if Netanyahu's premiership becomes untenable due to corruption investigations in 2018. Lapid's vision is one of partition with the buy-in of the Sunni Arab states which proposed a regional peace plan back in 2002, but he is also uncompromising about the unity of Jerusalem and sees walls and robust security measures as solutions to keeping Israeli and Palestinian populations apart. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. 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International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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