Naftali Bennett, leader of the Israeli religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party (photo: EPA)
Israel's Party Landscape

Annexation not Negotiation

Israel's party landscape has undergone reorganization yet again ahead of this week's elections, with a clear shift to the right still in evidence. The predicted success of a militant religious nationalist party openly advocating the annexation of most of the West Bank serves as a clear indication of this trend – which is bad news for the peace process. Analysis by Joseph Croitoru

It has long been viewed as an unwritten rule that Israel's party landscape rearranges itself in the run-up to every parliamentary election. If this should again apply to the poll on 22 January, a constant trend is also recognizable within this dynamic of change. From a foreign policy point of view in particular, Israeli politics is moving further and further to the right, as the ultra-right parties, whether these be religious nationalist or secular, continue to gain strength.

Movements that used to represent the centre ground on Israel's party spectrum are also moving increasingly to the right, with the leftwing becoming a marginal phenomenon. Evidence of this has been provided in recent opinion polls showing the meteoric rise of the radical rightwing splinter party "Jewish Home".

Hubris and dislocation from reality

Although the party won just three seats at the last elections, under its new leader Naftali Bennett it could increase that share of the vote fivefold, or even become the nation's second-largest force. This would put it just slightly ahead of the rejuvenated Labour Party "Avoda" and behind Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud – which, following its latest merger with the ultra-nationalist "Israel Our Home" party led by Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, can hardly still be regarded as a centrist formation.

Avigdor Lieberman (l.) and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Reuters)
Israel's outspoken former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned after being charged with corruption offences, is a firebrand hardliner with a burning ambition to lead the right. His nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party is running on a joint list with the right-wing Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

​​Bennett, who has been elevated by the media to the status of rising star, does not mince his words when addressing the issue of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. For the first time in the case of a militant religious nationalist politician, the focus is no longer centred on the vague vision of a Greater Israel, a dream now only still harboured by the new and yet more extreme settler party "Power to Israel", which is expected to win just two or three parliamentary seats.

No, Bennett is no dreamer, but an annexionist possessed with a drive for action. He has avowed to officially integrate Area C, which Israel totally controls and occupies in the West Bank, into the Jewish state. That amounts to some 60 percent of the West Bank. The party leader says he would compensate the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Palestinians who live there for the loss by granting them all rights as Israeli citizens.

The occupier's arrogance is also revealed by the fact that although Bennett is prepared to allow the continued existence of the Palestinian Authority – under Israeli security control, mind – he categorically rejects the concept of a Palestinian state. He is also convinced he knows how the effects of the Arab Spring will impact future development in the Gaza Strip: The Hamas government there will in any case soon be associated with Egypt, which is governed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Bennett believes this will finally solve Israel's Gaza problem.

Radical centrists

It is this mixture of hubris and dislocation from reality that inflects the discourse of the 40-year-old millionaire and former software entrepreneur. In this vein, he declared to an astounded media conference a week before the election that "Jewish Home" was by no means a rightwing party, but a centrist one.

With this statement, which earned Bennett taunts from militant settlers as "Bibi with a kippa", Bennett has signalized his willingness to enter into a coalition with the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance: as long as there are no plans to clear Israeli settlement areas, this would be an arrangement that "Jewish Home" could live with.

Likud's stickers with Netanyahu Picture (photo: Eliran Rubin/DW)
"A strong prime minister for a strong Israel": If re-elected, Netanyahu has vowed not to remove any Jewish settlements

​​Indeed right from the outset, Netanyahu's election campaign team – which actually included the right-wing radical high flyer in 2008 – didn't really know how to best to deal with the phenomenon that is Naftali Bennett. In one of its campaign videos, Likud attempted to expose the otherwise little-known senior leadership figures within Bennett's party as particularly radical.

It is striking that in all of this, the most important question concerning efforts to annex territory was ignored. Then again in recent days, Likud leaders have been quoted as saying they could certainly imagine Bennett as a coalition partner. Bennett's response to this was prompt: His latest campaign poster shows him with Likud leader Netanyahu beneath the slogan "Together we are strong."

Despite this show of solidarity, when it comes to the issue of the Palestinians, Likud is reluctant to be pinned down. Netanyahu's party is the only list that has until the last refused to publish a manifesto. Instead, references are made to the "actions and achievements" of the Netanyahu government.

Cementing the reality of the occupation

This also includes last year's decision to recognize the public college in the settler town of Ariel as a university – a highly controversial move at home, and a further indication that Likud aims to cement the reality of the occupation by way of a stealthy assimilation of the larger settlement areas at least. If Likud closes ranks with Bennett's party this tendency, which has been evident for years, will become yet more manifest.

Shelly Yehimovich also appears to advocate the at least partial toleration of the occupation status quo. Yehimovich is leader and primary modernizer of the Labour Party, expected to become the strongest opposition force in parliament. Although the former radio and television presenter is a proponent of the two-state solution, she would like to see the retention of larger settlements in the West Bank, offering the Palestinians population transfers in return.

That the state must continue to use all means at its disposal to support the Israeli settlers and the settlement system as a whole until any potential partial clearance of Area C is just as much a matter of course for Shelly Yehimovich as the further expansion of existing larger settlements – but her leftwing opponents hold another view on the issue. They accuse the Labour Party of unhitching its enhanced social agenda from the settlement question.

Shelly Yachimovich (photo: AP)
Partial toleration of the occupation status quo: Although labour party leader Shelly Yehimovich is a proponent of the two-state solution, she would like to see the retention of larger settlements in the West Bank

​​From view from the Left is that the economically precarious situation affecting considerable sections of the Israeli populace is a direct consequence of the massive influx of public funds into the settlements.

It is not least because of such diverging opinions that Yehimovich categorically rejects the leftwing categorization of her party in Israeli public life and sees it much more as positioned in the centre; centre-right would probably be more apt, as her approach to the settler question recalls that of Netanyahu during his first term in office (1996-1999), when he initially succumbed to huge international pressure to implement the Oslo peace accords before eventually blocking them.

A political show of strength

If Netanyahu's election campaign was run at the time under the slogan "We're making a safe peace", it is hard to find any explicit message of peace today – "A strong prime minister for a strong Israel" is the authoritarian tone of his current election slogan.

In order to protect the nation from the "extreme turbulences" of the MENA region, Netanyahu has announced among other things his intention to erect a "security fence" around the entire state. He canvasses the idea in a campaign commercial showing him standing in front of a map of the region and running his finger along the border's current course into the occupied Golan Heights and the frontier with Jordan. This posturing does not indicate any readiness to allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank with Jordan as a Palestinian-controlled border to the East.

There are also no signs of any such intention from Zipi Livni's new party "The Movement", or the "There is a Future" party recently founded by former television presenter Jair Lapid. They can only imagine a future Palestinian state as a "demilitarized" one – or in other words as an enclave tightly controlled at its outer limits by the Israeli military.

If Livni and Lapid should also join Netanyahu's rightwing party alliance – something that is currently viewed as likely – then prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appear dim.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2013

Joseph Croitoru, born in Haifa in 1960, studied history, art history and Jewish studies in Jerusalem and Freiburg. He has been working as a freelance journalist since 1988, initially in Israel, and for German-language publications since 1992

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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