The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron by Colin Shindler Reviewed by Moshe Dann

 

The purpose of this book, like several others by Colin Shindler, emeritus professor in Israel Studies at SOAS University of London, is to show how “right wing” governments have misled Israel and prevented peace with its neighbors.  Readers seeking an explanation for this on-going phenomenon, however, will be disappointed.

Shindler never explains how the “far Right” is distinguished from “the Right,” or even what “the Right” means.  Although used around the world to describe a socio-economic philosophy and agenda, Shindler’s analysis of “the Right” focuses on a single issue: the settlements.   Shindler refers only once in passing (on p.325), to “market forces,” “collectivism” (kibbutz socialism), “Labor’s anti-religious ethos and patronizing attitude,” and “Mizrachi voters” (Sephardim) – all of which are critical in understanding Israeli politics and society.

Nowhere does Shindler discuss the role of Israeli’s media, tightly controlled by the Left, including state-sponsored TV and radio, or the role of  left-wing academic and literary elites, or the Left-dominated judicial system, or its concentrated economic structure dominated by a handful of families.  Shindler misses the point: despite these obstacles, Israeli Jews support a pro-settlement, “Right-wing” government.

One problem in Israeli politics is its electoral system. Citizens do not vote for specific candidates, but for a party.   Once in power, the Prime Minister of the victorious party can do whatever he wants, regardless of what he or other party leaders have promised or voters may have intended. This means there is no way for voters to influence policy or ensure accountability.  Israeli political parties do not issue political platforms or make policy commitments.

Without an analysis of socio-economic forces driving Israel and the settlement movement Shindler fails to understand why “the Right,” or more accurately, the Likud Party continues to attract Right-wing voters – even when it does not fulfill its promises. Israel’s last election made this point clear.  Although the Left-wing Zionist Union/Labor party was predicted to win, PM Netanyahu’s last-minute appeal to voters carried Likud to an astounding victory.

Rather than provide an explanation for why Israeli Jews vote increasingly for “right-wing” parties, he opines: “There has been a drifting away from a belief in the moral norms of liberal states — a decline in the belief in democracy and an increase in the sense of particularist Jewishness.” (p.361)

Shindler does not discuss Palestinian terrorism and PA incitement and its effects on Israeli politics. Hamas “bombings” are noted in passing; Hezbollah not at all.

Shindler’s focus is on settlements which according to him represent “the emergence of redemptionist Zionism” dominated by “messianism” seeking “to colonize the West Bank.” (p.8) (He never uses the authentic names for the area, Judea and Samaria, since that would acknowledge its historical identity; “West Bank” was the term Jordan adopted after conquering and annexing the area in 1949). Describing Jews who live in their ancient homeland as “colonists” Shindler seems unable to grasp the historical connection between Aliyah, Zionism and Jewish nationalism.  According to Shindler: “In the early 1980s the desire to colonise [sic] the West Bank…found political inspiration in the IRA hunger strikers and the struggle of the Viet Cong in Vietnam” (p. 9).  This bizarre assertion–the PLO’s deputy chief and head of intelligence Aubu Iyad has acknowledged the direct support both the IRA and Viet Cong gave to the PLO—is based on a left-wing secondary source, a frequent practice in the book which calls Shindler’s scholarship into question.

Shindler passes over the hijacking of right and center by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the traumatic evacuation of Jews from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria in the so-called 2005 “disengagement” and his plan (aborted by the stroke that felled him) for further unilateral withdrawals.  He does not discuss how Sharon, having failed to win support from his Likud party, left it, formed a new party (Kadima) and retained power by inducing then-prominent Likud leaders like Ehud Olmert, Tsachi Hanegbi, Tsipy Livni and Meir Sheetrit to join him, creating an amalgam with what had been the Left opposition led by Shimon Peres.  Although political chicanery, it was legal.

The reason for the continued strength of the “right” in Israel is simple: most people don’t trust the Leftist opposition–and this despite a pro-Leftist media, the powerful Histadrut union, and entrenched institutional power in the High Court and judicial establishment.

Shindler’s inability to assess correctly public opinion is obvious when he states: “Yet opinion polls regularly indicate that a majority of Israelis did not ideologically agree with the settlers and wished for a way out of the quagmire …” (p.334) Aside from the inaccuracy of such polls compared to the results of elections, one must factor out the 20-25% Arab respondents who do not identify as Zionists and consistently vote against Israel’s interests.

A similar misunderstanding occurs when he cites Knesset approval for Sharon’s plan – again enabled by Arab support – as an indication of public support.  He does not mention that Sharon’s plan was opposed by most of the senior IDF officers, including the IDF Chief-of-Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who was forced to resign.

Shindler misunderstands Israeli politics and confuses political labels with reality. Prime Minister Netanyahu is no more “right-wing” than his Kadima/Likud predecessors Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.  Likud was called “right-wing” by the media because (in comparison to Labor) it was more open to capitalism and settlements.  But Sharon and Olmert acted similarly to their Labor predecessors and opponents.   If the distinction between “right” and “left” is based on support for settlements, Likud and Kadima leaders were the only ones that actually destroyed settlements and synagogues.

As long as the Left fails to understand that Israelis are more concerned about security and the quality of life than a fake “peace process” and a Palestinian state, Israelis will turn increasingly to the Right and the Left will continue to decline.  Israelis will not sacrifice themselves on the altar of a Palestinian state.

 

Moshe Dann is a historian, writer and journalist.

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