On the Israeli right and far right. Or, Why is war breaking out – just now?

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Often, when supporters of the Palestinian cause talk about Israel, we have a tendency to focus on the Israeli far right, making it seems as if settlers, and street gangs stand at the centre of Israeli politics and public life, without explaining how they play that key role.

An example of that risk would be the footage, shared originally by Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, which showed supporters of the far-right Jewish supremacist movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane, dancing in the vicinity of the Al Aqsa Mosque, and singing, “O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes”:

The reason the clip was compelling was because it appeared to show a crowd of several hundred people cheering at the prospect that Palestinians would be dispersed (which could not be done without killing people), and their land giving to Israelis. It fitted in with the many other reports we have had in recent weeks of ordinary supporters of Israel beating Palestinians in improvised acts of violence originating from within society, not the state.

But how representative was that crowd? Are the Kahanists as (most commentary in Britain would like you to believe) a minority within an otherwise healthy political system?

Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli who supported terrorism in the US against Palestinians. He emigrated to Israel in 1971 where he pioneered a provocateur racism which led to him being arrested by Israeli police 62 times in a decade (the number of his arrests are a sign of the way he irritated the major Israeli parties). He served one term in the Israeli Knesset, where he attempted to introduce legislation stripping non-Jews of Israeli citizenship and demanded the violent expulsion of Palestinians. Kahane pushed at the boundaries of what was then acceptable within Israel. In response, a law was passed in 1984 banning parties which incited racism from the Knesset. He lost his seat and did not stand again.

In 1994, (four years after Kahane’s death) one of his followers Baruch Goldstein carried out a massacre at Hebron, shooting 29 Muslims as they prayed. Kahane’s party was then banned.

If in the 1980s, Israeli politics was embarrassed by the presence of figures such as Kahane, that however no longer remains the case. Indeed, the present round of violence can be attributed to the activities of Kahane supporters.

In March, Itamar Ben-Gvir (pictured), the former head of Kahane’s youth movement, and now leader of a party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), was elected to the Knesset. Ben-Gvir has a photograph of Goldstein on display in his home. This month, he briefly established an office in Sheikh Jarrah to call for the expulsion of Palestinians who live there. He then visited the Temple Mount, starting off the cycle of right-wingers harassing Palestinians.

Ben-Gvir has been widely criticised within governing circles for his role in the present clashes, with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir.”

In the 1980s, Israeli politicians united to expelled Ben-Gvir’s mentor Kahane; but in 2021, the reaction has been different. Although Ben-Gvir holds just a single seat in the Knesset, for weeks, he has been negotiating in public for a role in Netanyahu’s government. A month ago, it was reported that Likud had offered Ben-Gvir a ministerial post.

Indeed, Ben-Gvir is only the most prominent example of what is a general phenomenon of co-operation between the Israeli state (dominated as it is the Israeli centre right) and the far right (meaning those calling for the immediate killing of Palestinians).

I have referred, just above, to Sheikh Jarrah – eight Palestinian families living in this district have been involved in a longstanding legal struggle to keep hold of the homes they have occupied for more than fifty years. Despite their long possession of the land, formal ownership has been claimed by a settler campaign Nahalat Shimon International.

The politics of that campaign belong to the “centre right” not the “far right”. It exists to facilitate land transfer from Palestinians to Israeli and speed up the ethnic cleaning of Jerusalem. However, the identities of the people who fund the campaign have been kept secret, and in contrast to Ben-Gvir it prefers to operate within the bounds of the law, fighting

a 25-year legal battle to evict a relatively small number of families. (If the families are evicted, it is estimated 70 others could follow).

The state has given Nahalat Shimon its backing; so far, the appeal courts have all approved eviction. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has simultaneously welcomed the settlers’ victory and sought to depoliticise it, insisting that nothing more is going on than a landowner asserting their rights: “a real-estate dispute between private parties”.

It would not be totally wrong to see this strategy as one in which the energy comes from the extremes, arrives at the centre-ground and is partially dissipated there: a hearing of the Sheikh Jarrah case that was due to take place before the Supreme Court on 10 May was adjourned, presumably to discourage the crowds gathering on the streets.

From the perspective of the Israeli centre-right, the ideal would be a slow exhaustion of the Palestinians, in contrast to the immediate annexation desired by the likes of Ben-Gvir. But despite these differences of tactical approach, in practice, the two wings of the right have been allies. That alliance is why Ben-Gvir set up Sheikh Jarrah.

Indeed, the Kahane movement has sought to make itself central to the dispute, with Ben-Gvir abusing Palestinians demonstrating in support of the families, and radical settlers blocking roads and preventing access to the area. The alliance also explains why, for all of the criticism coming from the Netanyahu camp of Ben-Gvir, the latter remains an ally of the Prime Minister, and a candidate for a ministry in his government.

In a number of other writing projects I’ve talked about “convergence” between the centre-right and far-right in Britain, America, France, and over much of Europe anf the world since 2015. One of the core dynamics I’ve talked about is a breakdown of right-wing gatekeeping: so in the 80s, leading Republicans sought to detroy the career of David Duke, in the last five years by contrast they’ve gone along with Trump. The Tories used to try to break the likes of Mosley or even Powell; now they exert every effort to find a plave for their followers inside the tent. The shift in Israeli, between taking on Kahane in the 80s and trying to absorn Ben-Gvir today is an instance of the same process.

And, of course, that’s without getting into all the ways that even before the present crisis, the Israeli centre-right was already doing its best impression of far-right politics: the Jewish Nation-State Law, the patron role that Israell plays in relation to antisemites and far-rightists outside Israel, expanding the settlements, cooperating with Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” with its plans for population transfer, etc etc etc.

Given a choice between unleashing war on the Palestinian, killing hundreds of people, or rebuking an extremist further to his right – Netanyahu has chosen war. Where the Israeli far-right leads, the centre follows never more than a step behind.

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