Who's “Right” in Israel, and Who Isn't

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Last month, two dozen followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane marched on the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, stronghold of the extremist Islamic Movement. They were making the point that Jews have the right to go anywhere in Israel. In the predictable mayhem that ensued, a dozen police were injured and ten Arab rioters were arrested. Sympathetic reports about the "mounting anger of Israel's Arab minority" made the world press, as did portrayals of the Kahanists as Israeli "right-wing activists" and "nationalists." But is that what they are?

To this day, the Zionist Right carries the ideological mantle of Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). For decades, this meant loyalty to the idea of "Greater Israel": the land, on both sides of the River Jordan, that was promised to the Jewish people under the post-World War I British Mandate. Incrementally, though, the Right has abandoned the notion of implementing this idea even as it has remained unenthusiastic about ceding additional parts of the Jewish heartland to the Arabs.

In 1982, Jabotinsky's disciple Menachem Begin withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula (never part of Greater Israel) in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt. In 2005 Ariel Sharon, who helped Begin create the Likud party, unilaterally pulled back from Gaza. And in a seminal speech in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up in a home imbued with Jabotinsky's values, followed Sharon in declaring that Israel did not want to rule over the Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria.   

In short, once handed the responsibility of managing the Zionist enterprise, the Right was forced to abandon ideological purity. As Sharon put it to intimates, there are "things you see from here that you don't see from there." He might have been thinking about the troubling demographic balance of Arabs and Jews west of the Jordan; about Israel's deepening diplomatic isolation; about the requirement for foreign support in overcoming the existential threat posed by Iran; and, not least, about the need to heal the cleavages within Israel over the settlement enterprise.

As the followers of Jabotinsky found themselves pulled toward pragmatism, a political vacuum was created—and it was filled, largely, by the politically radical and fervently Orthodox supporters of the U.S.-born Kahane. His overtures to Begin having been rejected when he moved to Israel in the early 1970s, Kahane formed the Kach party—whose platform called for the expulsion of the Arabs from Israel—and ultimately won a single seat in the 1984 Knesset elections.

Kahane's parliamentary aide was Baruch Marzel, who would become the leader of the party after his mentor was slain by a Palestinian terrorist while on a visit to New York in 2000. Marzel's original portfolio was to draw into the movement ultra-Orthodox elements who had no affinity for modern Zionism. Over time, his efforts spawned a toxic political concoction. Where left-wing, right-wing, and national-religious Zionists all viewed the state as an instrument of Jewish self-determination, Kahanists came to think of it as an obstacle to the establishment of a theocratic and anti-modern Jewish commonwealth.

What places Kahanists outside the framework of the Zionist Right, and off the Zionist spectrum altogether, is thus not the vehemence with which they oppose this or that government policy but their radical commitment to regime change—and the ease with which they turn to violence. Not only the Likud but other right-wing parties have no use for the Kahanists. Habayit Hayehudi, a small national-religious grouping, has condemned Marzel for "desecrating religious Zionism." Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, the third biggest party in the Knesset, has nothing but disdain for Marzel. Indeed, the settler elder Elyakim Haetzni has condemned the Kahanists' actions.

The Kahanists are best not ignored; they are indefatigable, they are headline-grabbers, and they have shown a certain acumen at infiltrating supporters into the Likud. But there is no place for them in the evolving and in itself quite fascinating constellation of Israel's right wing. Today that right wing remains hawkish on security issues, steadfastly opposes a return to the 1949 armistice lines, and is dubious about Palestinian intentions. By contrast, Kahanists are opposed on biblical grounds to any territorial compromise and seek to replace the modern Zionist enterprise with a theocracy. Jabotinsky, a classical liberal in a 19th-century mold, would emphatically not have approved.

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