Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Age of the right

The trajectory of Israeli politics remains firmly skewed against the political left, writes Emad Gad *

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My forecast for Israel in 2020 proceeds from the already existing trend towards the dominance of the religious and secular right. The resurgence of the Israeli right is clearly linked to its substantial shift from the Zionist centre right that formed the opposition to the Zionist left that governed Israel from 1949 through the 1970s to the extreme right as a consequence of waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union and the growing influence of ultra religious parties in their various hues. There has also been a steady erosion of the Israeli left in favour of the centre right, bringing the latter to the "left" of the Israeli political spectrum, a development substantiated by election results and opinion polls.

The rightward drift began soon after the 1973 War and assumed its first tangential form with the rise of the Likud Party to power for the first time in Israeli history in 1977. The process continued as a consequence of the interplay between various domestic and regional developments, notably the declining political clout of established political parties and socio-political organisations such as the kibbutz and the moshav, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian Intifada of 1987, the growing political activism of Israeli Arabs and the creation of their own political parties, the 1991 Gulf War, the inauguration of the peace process with the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Accords of 1993, and the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to an enormous influx of soviet Jews into Israel.

These developments brought substantial changes in the Israeli political map. As traditional political forces ebbed, new ones rose, some coalescing around ethnic allegiances such as with Russian Jews or oriental Jews, others shaped by the growing trend to religious conservatism, the increasing sway of religion in all facets of life, and the mounting clout of religious parties.

THE DECLINE OF THE KIBBUTZ AND MOSHAV: These two institutions have and continue to form the most important source of support for the traditional Israeli left and the Labour Party. The more they declined, therefore, the greater the attrition this wrought on the electoral base of the leftwing camp.

The emergence of kibbutzim in Palestine began with the second wave of Jewish immigration (1919-1923), which brought 35,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of these migrants had formerly been members in pioneering organisations and trained in manual occupations, especially agriculture. Most were also working class and actively espoused or were influenced by socialist thought. The kibbutz was a form of agricultural collective in which all members owned the means of production. Similarly, the moshav was a village collective in which all families owned a portion of the land and cooperated in the various means of production and in the marketing process.

The ideological underpinnings of and way of life in these communal settlements combined to produce particularly competent political leaders and a robust grassroots base for the Zionist left. Although the kibbutz and moshav settlement movement had begun to wane in the mid- 1950s, their continued functions as a mainstay for the Israeli army and their performance of various security tasks, especially after the 1967 war, revitalised the movement and inspired the government to establish manufacturing plants in the settlements.

The revival, however, was short-lived. There were a number of causes for the decline of the kibbutz and moshav movement. Younger generations born in the communes rebelled against the way of life in them, and especially against the veneration of manual labour and working the land. The dilemma was aggravated by the "economic liberalism" that began to permeate the kibbutz and moshav. However, these organisations continued to serve important functions, notably as a manpower source for the Israeli army, which regarded them as schools in "how to encourage the young to think like fighters". Thus, we find that the social and economic factors that propelled towards the wane of the kibbutz and moshav were, partially at least, offset by security considerations that worked to keep them alive. Still, the overall trend was towards decline and the consequent weakening of a major political pillar for the Israeli left.

THE GROWING POWER OF RUSSIAN- JEWISH PARTIES: Although Russians made up a major portion of the first waves of Jewish migration to Palestine, and although quite a few held political and military offices following the declaration of the Hebrew state, there was never an expressly Russian political party. Rather, Russian Jews joined existing parties. However, with the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russian Jews began to organise themselves politically, especially after the campaigns of hostility and suspicion that the existing religious parties had launched against them. Some 800,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel between 1990 and 2000. This was a time when the religious parties, which controlled the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, dominated many important aspects of religious and social life. These parties questioned the new arrivals' Jewish identity, excluded them from the benefits of various social welfare organisations and "persecuted" them in other ways.

The Russians for their part had immigrated not out of religious or Zionist ideological motives, but due to economic reasons that arose from the deterioration in economic and social conditions in the former Soviet Union. They, thus, were not in any particular haste to fuse into the Israeli "melting pot". Instead, they continued to speak in their original languages (Russian or the other native languages of the Soviet Union), they kept their original names (instead of adopting Hebrew ones) and they established their own residential communities, creating entirely Russian quarters in Israeli towns and cities. As they were not particularly inclined to learn Hebrew, Russian became the daily language in their immediate environment. Stores and companies added Russian to their signs and advertisements, and Russian language newspapers and other media emerged. By the end of the 20th century, the Russians had become a sizeable voting bloc whose support was solicited by all political parties, many of which translated their campaign publicity and programmes into Russian. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, their half-a-million-strong voting bloc succeeded in placing their own candidates in 20 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

The first political party founded by Russian Jews in Israel was Yisrael BaAliyah headed by Natan Sharansky. In the 14th Knesset elections in May 1996 it won 175,000 votes, earning it seven seats. Against the backdrop of the bitter disputes that erupted between this party and the conservative religious Shas Party, and because of Netanyahu's determination to preserve his connections to the latter, Netanyahu persuaded a Russian Jewish political figure to form an alternative party for the Russian Jews so as to sweep the rug out from under Yisrael BaAliyah and split its votes. That figure was Avigdor Lieberman who founded Yisrael Beiteinu that entered the 15th Knesset elections in May 1999. In those elections, Yisrael BaAliyah won 165,000 votes, enabling it to retain seven seats, while Yisrael Beiteinu won 82,000 votes and four seats.

As a whole, the Russian Jews now held 11 Knesset seats, making them the fourth largest parliamentary bloc after Labour, the Likud and Shas. However, the fortunes of Yisrael BaAliyah declined further. In the 16th Knesset elections in 2004, it managed to only keep two seats. But Yisrael Beiteinu did not fare much better. It had joined forces with the National Union Alliance whose list won a total of seven seats, of which Yisrael Beiteinu held only two. By the 17th Knesset elections on 28 March 2006, Yisrael BaAliyah had vanished, having merged into the Likud. Yisrael Beiteinu, on the other hand, leapt forward, winning 11 seats, making it the fourth largest Knesset bloc after Kadima, Labour and Likud. Then, in the 18th Knesset elections that were held in February 2009, Yisrael Beiteinu moved up to third place, surpassing the Labour Party. In those elections, Lieberman's party won 395,000 votes, which gave it 15 seats. Its success was the result of the growing polarisation between Kadima and Likud, combined with the fact that it was now the only party to expressly represent the interests of Russian Jews.

Some analysts have suggested that the high turnout of Russian Jews in those elections reflected this community's aspiration to assume leadership of the state. According to one, "they are no longer interested in blending into society. Instead, they have set their sights on the leadership. The sense of cultural superiority strengthened by the experience of migrants from the soviet empire, even if it dissolved, has imparted a special character to this wave of immigrants who aspire to more than assimilation."

THE GROWING POWER OF RELIGIOUS PARTIES: Israeli religious parties have taken part in government coalitions since the first Knesset was formed in 1949. There has always been a kind of understanding between the two big parties and the religious ones that guaranteed some representation of these parties in any Israeli government, whether formed by Labour (the left) or Likud (the right). Over time, the division of labour between these two large parties and the religious parties became clear. The former would secure the support of one or more of the religious parties in exchange for a place in their cabinets and the right to administer religious affairs. Then, as the political weight of the religious parties increased, they began to expand the realm of control beyond strictly religious affairs. This became apparent in education and in certain activities of the Ministry of Interior. The religious parties scored a major victory in the first Netanyahu government (1996 to 1999), in which they controlled the ministries of religious affairs and the interior.

Despite efforts from several directions to curb the growing influence of these parties, they succeeded in securing yet an even larger share of parliamentary seats in the 15th Knesset elections of May 1999. The three main religious parties won a total of 27 seats, up from 23 in the previous Knesset. Shas won 17, up from 10 in the previous parliament; Mafdal five seats, down from nine in the previous parliament; and United Torah Judaism five seats, up from four in the previous parliament. To these we can add the "moderate" religious Meimad movement, which joined Labour in the One Israel Alliance and received a single seat in the 1999 elections.

In the 16th Knesset elections in 2003 Shas won 11 seats, Mafdal six and United Torah Judaism five, giving the religious parties a total of 22 seats. They retained this number of seats in the following elections on 28 March 2006, in which Shas received 12 seats, Mafdal four and United Torah Judaism six. Finally, in the 18th Knesset elections the religious parties gained another seat, bringing their total share up to 23, with Shas holding 11, United Torah Judaism five, the Jewish Home three, and the National Union alliance four.

The foregoing trends suggest that the Israeli right will continue its upward trajectory over the next decade as the left continues its downward spiral. There are no signs to counter the prediction that the major weight in the Israeli political arena will be centred on that fulcrum between the secular right (Yisrael Beiteinu) and the conservative religious right (the National Union and Shas).

* Editor-in-chief of Mukhtarat Israelia, a periodical published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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