Israel hostage to its own right wing
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia hosted a talk entitled The Threat from Within: Israel’s Extremist Dilemma by Barak Mendelsohn, FPRI senior fellow and associate professor of political science at Haverford College. Mendelsohn is an Israeli expert on radical Islam, who also served in the Israeli Defense Force for five years. Alan Luxenberg moderated. Audio of the conference can be found here.
Mendelsohn explained that most of his work focuses on jihadism, but his research on how actors interpret religion led him to probe similarities between jihadism and Jewish extremism. A few years ago, he was an isolated voice but sadly now finds himself vindicated, with the two recent attacks at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem and at Duma in the West Bank.
Religious Jewish terrorism is not new in Israel. There have been several attacks and attempted attacks since the 1980s. Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 and Rabin’s assassination in 1995 are among them. Jewish terrorism cannot be separated from the settlement project of Israel’s messianic right-wing. It incubates Jewish extremism.
Every monotheistic religion can clash with the state because of the conflict between divine authority and temporal authority. But many religious people have found ways to reconcile God and the state. Religious Zionism saw the emergence of Israel as part of God’s redemptive process. Religious Zionists tolerated state action that conflicted with their preferences because the will of God was represented in the state’s authority.
Many Religious Zionists looked at the victory of 1967 as God’s plan for Israel. They were excited to return to lost Jewish lands, especially Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The costly 1973 war led to gloom. Religious Jews began to sanctify land over other Jewish values, including the sanctity of life. If the state went against this value, the state was to be opposed.
All Israeli governments since have pandered to Jewish extremists, not just Likud governments. The messianic right built settlements without state authorization. State institutions provided aid to unauthorized settlements. Many were retroactively recognized, even when built on private Palestinian land. The IDF role in the West Bank was was to protect settlers from Palestinians, not protecting Palestinians. When members of the messianic right took illegal actions, few were prosecuted. The courts handed down mild sentences to those who were. Politicians granted amnesty.
In the 1990s, the view that a two-state solution was necessary became dominant among Israel’s political establishment. But the state was unable to act according to its strategic interests and dissociate itself from the messianic right. The state found itself tied to interests that clashed with its own. The messianic movement’s settlements built close to Palestinian cities prevented their expansion and led to increased friction and hostility. This created a self-fulfilling prophecy that made finding a solution to the conflict more difficult.
Unauthorized settlements weakened state primacy. When there is a movement that challenges the state and the state supports this movement, rather than challenging it, the state weakens and is unable to act in its own interests. Israel is less democratic than it was 20 years ago and the rise of the messianic right has a lot to do with this. The idea that Israel can dominate millions of Palestinians for decades after the 1967 war harms Israeli democracy.
Israel was sheltered from the true cost of the Occupation for a long time, but the cost has been increasing. The rift between the US and Israel is terrible for Israel, largely due to Israel’s moving away from the shared values that made the alliance possible.
Mendelsohn distinguished between unauthorized settlements and settlements built by the state. Governments have the right to do stupid things. The state’s settlement enterprise is disastrous, but the state follows procedures. Most settlers in the West Bank are there because it’s cheaper.
The real issue is when non-state actors undermine the state’s authority. Some have argued that the unauthorized settlements provided the state with deniability about settlements, but the
state built many settlements itself. Others have argued that the settlements contribute to security, but this too is false. The Jordan Valley settlements were built to provide a buffer, but warfare and strategy has changed since the 1970s. Protecting unauthorized settlements strains IDF resources. The settlements are targets, as are the stationary IDF forces that protect them. The settlements also create friction, harm Israel’s ability to find a settlement with the Palestinians, and damage Israel’s relationship with the US. Not all settlements are the same, however. A small, extremist settlement near Nablus is a strategic liability for Israel in a way that a settlement in Gush Etzion is not.
The messianic right lobby did not start off strong but played with identity symbols to make it harder for the government to act:
- They spoke of the West Bank as biblical Judea and Samaria.
- They equated themselves to the Zionist pioneers.
- They equated their refusal to accept the state’s limitations on settlements with the early Zionists’ refusal to accept Britain’s limitations on Jewish immigration.
When positive symbolism didn’t work, the messianic right threatened the state. Over time, they penetrated the state’s bureaucracy and the IDF, making the state more likely to support the actions of West Bank settlers.
Likud epitomizes this penetration. Previously Likud’s default position was that Israel had to keep the West Bank temporarily due to security concerns. Today, the position that Israel must keep the West Bank because it is Jewish land is more prevalent. Likud is unlikely to abandon the messianic right before a true disaster occurs, because support for the messianic right is in its DNA. Labor should stop being timid, state clearly that settlements damage the country, and not join a unity government.
There is a growing tendency within the messianic right to adopt extreme positions towards the state. If the state doesn’t establish its authority over building in the West Bank, it also gives a nod of approval for other acts, such as torching mosques and churches. There have been many revenge “price-tag” attacks in the past 5 years. The state has done little.
Israeli society is becoming more right-wing and nationalistic;
Israelis fit in well in the Middle East. The Second Intifada is probably the main reason for this rightward shift. Israel should act as a democracy regardless of what the Palestinians are doing. But the Palestinians are not making it easier for the Israelis to shift to a more liberal direction. It is tough for Israel to take actions that could be seen as helping the Palestinians, but this doesn’t mean that Israel shouldn’t take actions to control its own people.
There is little Israel can do to establish a two-state solution right now. The Palestinians don’t have the institutions or the strength to withstand the challenges that they will face. But Israel could do more. Some will cite the failed Gaza disengagement as evidence that it’s wrong to dismantle settlements. But the failure of the Gaza disengagement had nothing to do with dismantling settlements. The government can keep the West Bank for a while, with the understanding that this is temporary for security reasons. At the same time, it should dismantle settlements to make Palestinian lives easier and build confidence. Settlements are illegal under international law because an occupying power is prohibited from transferring population to occupied territories. There are many countries who are far worse offenders, but Israel’s actions shouldn’t be tolerated those who believe in the rule of law.
Mendelsohn suggested that the government is trying half solutions because addressing the root causes of Jewish terror would force a confrontation with the people this government represents. The main objective is to silence criticism that could endanger the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. President Rivlin’s critique of the government’s inaction against Jewish extremism is significant because it shows that at least someone in the Likud remembers humanistic values. But Rivlin’s status as a champion of the left demonstrates how pathetic the left has become. As a result, Israel and Likud are hostage to their own messianic right wing.