MENAHEM BEGIN spent almost three decades astutely constructing a broad
coalition of the right based on his own Herut movement until his election in 1977, when he began to realise that the responsibilities of office differed vastly from opposition.
He was confronted with a rebellion when only 57 per cent of Herut loyalists
voted for the Camp David peace accord with Egypt in the Knesset. The dissenters mistakenly believed that Begin, having returned Sinai to the Egyptians, was about to return the West Bank as well. Many formed the core of a new party, Tehiya, to the right of Begin’s Likud.
This episode, centred around the return of territory, established the template for future schisms. Each time the centre-right made a pragmatic decision that could be construed as a concession, there was a split to the far right. This is one reason why Benjamin Netanyahu has always been reticent about putting forward any peace plan.
The core of Naftali Bennett’s former party Jewish Home was the National
Religious Party (NRP). From 1948 until the Six Day War, it remained close to the labour movement and served in successive Ben-Gurion governments. Its main task was to ensure that the religious public’s needs were met, and not ignored, by secular governments. But the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 served to promote a messianic fervour and a settlement drive that moved the party to the right. The rise of a militant “Young Guard” replaced a broad religious Zionism with a narrow Zionist religion.
By 1990 splinter parties such as Tehiya, Tsomet and Moledet were governing in coalition with the Likud. Its adherents reacted to the Oslo
Accord in 1993 with vociferous demonstrations and the vilification of Yitzhak Rabin in the period before his assassination.
Mr Netanyahu’s agreement to return 13 per cent of the West Bank at the Wye Plantation talks in 1998 led to the formation of the far right National Union. It subsequently held ministries in Ariel Sharon’s government, but left because it opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In December 2008, factions of the National Union and remnants of the moribund NRP established Jewish Home, but gained three seats at the 2009 election.
Three years later the party was taken over by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet
Shaked, former Likud members who held posts in Mr Netanyahu’s office. They coated their hardline approach with a charisma and modernity that appealed not only to the religious public, but many secularists too. A new generation of Strictly Orthodox Charedim, far more nationalist than their parents, flocked to Mr Bennett’s standard.
The new leader’s rise coincided with the emergence of identity politics in
Israel. Avigdor Lieberman formed Yisrael Beiteinu around a core of newly
arrived Russian immigrants who could not stomach the very idea of socialism in Israel, given their experience in the Soviet Union. Mr Lieberman built this into a right-wing party that opposed religious
coercion and embraced secularism.
The Mizrahi party, Shas, also moved to the right: in the 1990s its leadership was labelling foreign workers as alcoholics and drug users who were stealing jobs from Israelis.
The turmoil in the Arab world, the widening gap between “haves” and
“have-nots” and the influence of resurgent ultra-nationalism in Europe have propelled many Israelis to the far right. In the outgoing Knesset, it accounts for almost a quarter of MKs.
The periodic splits are historically an ongoing weakness. While Mr Bennett
may believe that his new party will bring him closer to the premiership, initial polls suggest his election prospects are mixed. Most continue to favour the Likud: after all, Mr Netanyahu was not labelled ‘the Magician’ for nothing.
Jewish Chronicle 4 January 2019