Israel’s far-right voters are not who you think
Voters chose Itamar Ben-Gvir for security, not ideology.
This op-ed was originally published on January 19 by the Forward. Get the latest stories from the Forward delivered to you each morning at forward.com/newsletters.
To say I’m not a fan of Itamar Ben-Gvir would be an understatement.
When the far-right politician entered the Knesset in 2021, I called him a “monster”. Last October, I warned that his destructive vision for Israel, if realised, could destroy the Jewish State as we know it.
He worshipped Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 and injured 125 Muslims praying in Hebron. He praised the American-Israeli terrorist Meir Kahane. Israel’s National Security Minister is perhaps the most detestable politician in recent memory to wield such power in the Jewish State.
It may be tempting to dismiss the 500,000 Israelis who voted for his slate as bigots of the same ilk. But after spending several weeks in Israel speaking to many who voted for Ben-Gvir’s party, or other far-right parties whose leaders have a history of anti-Arab and homophobic rhetoric, it became apparent that most are ordinary Israelis responding to genuine, profound anxieties. It behoves those of us distressed by the election results to understand them.
“I’m also disgusted by some things Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir say,” a friend who lives in the West Bank told me. “But they’re the only ones who I feel can bring us security.”
Many Israelis who voted for far-right parties do not share the extremist beliefs of their leaders. But after years of rising domestic terrorism and violence, many also do not trust more centrist parties to keep them safe.
A friend recently out of the army shared a disturbing video from the West Bank. In it, a Palestinian exits his vehicle, approaches an IDF soldier and speaks to him for a short while before producing a Molotov cocktail, lighting it and throwing it at the soldier. He then returns to his car and drives off.
The soldier – who dodged the firebomb – did not fire a single bullet. A second friend currently in the army put it bluntly: “Soldiers are afraid to shoot” out of fear of consequences from the military. Even in potentially life-threatening situations. Almost every friend I have in the army has raised this concern over the IDF’s strict rules of engagement; it’s also a concern Ben-Gvir pledged to solve.
Israelis historically vote on security as their top issue, and waves of terrorism tend to correlate with a shift rightward. Over the past two years, there have been unrelenting attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as lone wolves. According to Shin Bet data, there were 2613 terror attacks in Israel last year. That’s seven attacks every day. 2022 saw 20 per cent more attacks than 2021, and 80 per cent more than the yearly average from 2016-2020.
Between March and May of last year, Israel’s deadliest terror wave since the Second Intifada left 20 dead. Last month, a terrorist killed seven people outside a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Neve Yaakov. For months, Israel’s security establishment has been bracing for even bigger eruptions of violence.
The fear that Israel and the Palestinians will become embroiled “in another long period of escalation – a third intifada or a slightly more restrained version of it – comes up in every conversation with senior security officials”, Haaretz’s Amos Harel, hardly a right-winger, wrote in September. All this followed the May 2021 riots. As Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched over 4000 rockets towards Israel, Arab mobs in mixed Jewish-Arab cities targeted their Jewish neighbours. As one right-wing voter wrote for the Forward: “Israelis watching the news looked in horror at images of synagogues going up in flames in the State of Israel. Those images accompanied many of us into the voting booth this November.”
It’s not just the violence, however, that pushed Israelis towards extremists, but the feeling that mainstream Israeli leadership neglected its most basic duty: protecting Israeli citizens.
“Voters are responding to real issues and authentic fears” that they feel previous governments ignored, Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi – himself a staunch opponent of what he calls the “most morally corrupt” government in Israel’s history – told me. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich made them feel heard.
A crucial part of Ben-Gvir’s campaign was also his insistence that he had moderated his previously extreme views. The 500,000 “Israelis who voted for Ben-Gvir and Smotrich weren’t voting for Meir Kahane, at least not in their minds,” Halevi explained. “The Israeli public thought that they were voting for a tougher version of Netanyahu rather than a more moderate version of Kahane.”
That’s exactly what another friend who voted for Ben-Gvir told me. “I want a proper right-wing government,” he said, hinting at Netanyahu’s habit of including parties to Likud’s left in his coalitions, often to the chagrin of many on the right (Smotrich has previously remarked that “Netanyahu is not right-wing.”)
That’s what many Israelis want: a fully right-wing government, not an extremist one. Now that Ben-Gvir is in power, many of his voters believe “he has to moderate” – as a cousin of mine said – and that he will.
None of this should diminish the terrifying trends on the Israeli right, the embarrassing news coming from the Knesset on a near-daily basis, or that Ben-Gvir’s base includes open racists. But while Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are abhorred by many Diaspora Jews, most of their Israeli supporters were not motivated by bigotry when they went to vote. They just wanted to feel safe.
Despite the dire circumstances, Halevi also sees a silver lining. “Any society in our place, judging by what’s happened in Europe in the last 10 years, would have given in to the far-right long ago,” he suggested.
“As anguished and worried as I am about the situation, I also think it says a lot about Israel that we managed to withstand the temptation for quick solutions for as long as we did.”
Josh Feldman is a Melbourne-based writer.
A version of this column originally appeared at forward.com.
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