foreign interests

Israel’s Illiberal Rightward Turn Is a Warning

Photo: Ariel Schalit/AFP via Getty Images

The American left’s relationship with Israel has inevitably deteriorated. Many decades ago, there was a liberal — even socialist — strain to Zionism. The Labor Party, the Establishment left of Israel, was dominant in the late 1960s and ’70s, elevating multiple prime ministers and controlling the country’s parliament. Even as Israel’s conservative forces gained in the late 20th century, Labor was an inarguable counterweight; if the two-state solution was flawed and Palestinian suffering would never be fully accounted for, there was an effort at least to seek a future that would be tenable in some form for both peoples.

Now, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the post of prime minister, the influence of the left — in both the United States and Israel — will only diminish further. Netanyahu, who has been prime minister twice before, has lorded over Israeli politics like a mad fusion of Donald Trump and Franklin Roosevelt, embodying a rightward swerve that appears permanent. Netanyahu’s new government is the most right wing in Israeli history, a coalition of Likud, the conservative power center, and a variety of far-right and ultra-Orthodox factions. There is no moderating presence, no illusion of an opposition. For American liberals, it’s the equivalent of the Republicans governing with more than 60 senators and an enormous House majority, many of them either Trumpian or hard-line Evangelicals.

Netanyahu’s comeback is the outcome of five elections in four years and the collapse of a more centrist coalition that included, for a time, an Arab political party. The new government is far more ideologically cohesive and seems to promise, for defenders of liberal democracy and the oppressed Palestinians, a darker future. In part, Netanyahu himself has less leverage over his most radical governing partners. He remains on trial for corruption and does not currently enjoy the degree of immunity an American president would. The far-right politicians require a political figure of Netanyahu’s stature to impose their will on government — they would have no clear path to power otherwise — but Netanyahu could not have another turn as prime minister without doing what they say.

Already, there have been proposals that would allow the parliament to override Supreme Court decisions and give more weight to politicians in the selection of judges. One legal amendment would allow Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism Party, to serve as a second minister in the Ministry of Defense. Smotrich’s party ultimately seeks to annex the occupied West Bank; he has been promised authority over the agencies dealing with Jewish settlements and Palestinian and Israeli civilian life in the occupied West Bank.

Another amendment would enormously expand the powers of the incoming minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who oversees the police. Ben-Gvir leads the ultranationalist Jewish Power Party and would have the authority to set policy for the police, politicizing the force’s operations. Israel’s Arab minority could face much more police harassment as a result.

Yet another amendment may ultimately save Netanyahu, should he ever be convicted. Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, could serve as a minister despite a recent conviction and a suspended prison sentence for tax fraud. That amendment could apply to Netanyahu if he doesn’t have to serve a prison sentence.

Even if all of these amendments don’t become law, it’s readily apparent that the illiberal right is set to dominate Israel for the foreseeable future. It’s the kind of outcome that is an equal rebuke to the mainstream liberals in the Democratic Party who offer repeated paeans to the two-state solution and U.S. leftists, many of them members of the Democratic Socialists of America, who either embrace the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement or support the creation of a single multinational state that grants equal citizenship to Israelis and Palestinians. The latter ambition was always viewed as the more far-fetched because it could lead to Arabs outvoting Jews, ending the very idea of a Jewish nation that took shape in 1948. This was one of the fundamental and enduring contradictions of Israel’s founding — could the nation simultaneously be a parliamentary democracy and an enforced ethno-state? The two-state solution offered one tentative answer, granting Palestinians their own territory to live in and govern. Over the decades, ultra-Orthodox factions have gained tremendous ground, aiming to seize as much land as possible that was supposed to be allocated for the theoretical Palestinian nation.

Now the two-state proposition, under the new Netanyahu government, seems as impossible as the goals of BDS. Leftists in the foreign-policy arena lack tangible power in the United States — Rashida Tlaib may support BDS, but almost all 435 members of Congress outright reject it as antisemitic — yet it’s unclear the nonviolent boycott movement, popular among young progressives, will ever work. Israel merely turns inward.

More mainstream center-left Democrats have attempted to alter the American government’s posture toward Israel, only to be beaten down by wealthy Israel hawks on the right. Andy Levin, a liberal Jewish congressman from Michigan, proposed legislation that would bar U.S. military aid from being used in the occupied territories. Forced into a redistricting fight against another Democrat this year, Levin was defeated, facing an onslaught of cash from bundlers affiliated with the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Along with Democratic Majority for Israel, which was launched to crush progressives in Democratic primaries and shove conventional liberals rightward on the question, AIPAC has been able to keep most Democrats from leaning too far left. The Republican Party, largely, parrots AIPAC talking points. Even the Trumpian wing, isolationist on other matters, remains deeply hawkish because Donald Trump himself was so close to Netanyahu.

If Israel is ever going to guarantee any further rights to the Palestinians, let alone honor the two-state solution, the U.S. will have to be the outside actor that forces change. American military aid and soft power guarantee Israel’s survival. No administration, Democratic or Republican, has so far been willing to exercise any of this leverage over Israel. Now the far right is on the march there, unafraid of any resistance from the American government. When Trump was president, Netanyahu knew he could take advantage, and Joe Biden has not proved to be any kind of deterrent. The notion of democracy in Israel, if Netanyahu’s coalition has its way, may soon prove to be theoretical at best.

Israel’s Illiberal Rightward Turn Is a Warning