OPINION: Friends of Israel now face a twin challenge

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OPINION: Friends of Israel now face a twin challenge

Michael Rubin, director Labour Friends of Israel, on why progressive Israelis must be supported in defending the country's liberal democratic character from a pernicious threat.

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90
Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90

For many of us, the result of Israel’s election brought back unhappy memories of Donald Trump’s upset defeat of Hillary Clinton six years ago.

That’s unsurprising: both contests were fought to a virtual draw with the eventual winners enmeshed in a swirl of charges of corruption and racism.

For the vast majority of friends of Israel in this country, the possibility of the far right entering government has come as a crushing development.

Our attachment to Israel is rooted in our recognition of it as the homeland of the Jewish people and a safe haven for Jews everywhere. But we admire Israel too for being a beacon of liberal democracy in a region awash in authoritarian regimes and theocratic tyrannies. The Israel of joyous Pride parades, a rumbustious media and independent judiciary and strong and proud trade unions.

Michael Rubin

The racists, fascists and homophobes in the Religious Zionist party are the antithesis not simply of the qualities which make Israel so special and unique in the Middle East – but also of the Jewish state’s founding principles.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s cynical courtship of this unseemly fringe – one conducted purely to save himself from the dock in which he rightly belongs – will forever define his legacy. It stands in stark contrast to the principled manner in which the former Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, would lead his party from the Knesset whenever Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ideological forebearer, Rabbi Meir Kahane, approached the podium.

For the vast majority of friends of Israel in this country, the possibility of the far right entering government has come as a crushing development.

While the coalition negotiations begin, it’s not too late for Netanyahu to consider the damage that would be inflicted to Israel’s social cohesion, international reputation and relationship with the United States by offering Ben-Gvir a ministerial portfolio and instead seek to form a more broad-based government which excludes the far right.

Some have claimed that only Israelis can have a view on their domestic politics. But this is a bizarre assertion given the support that we as diaspora Jews give to Israel – and the support we also ask of non-Jewish Zionists . Having a say and having a view are, of course, rather different.

At the same time, it’s also important to understand and place in perspective what Israelis actually did say last week.

There was, for instance, no dramatic lurch to the right in a country which has always liked its politics with a strong dose of centrism. Thanks to the failure of Meretz and Balad to clear the electoral threshold, Yair Lapid’s centre-left bloc may have trailed Netanyahu’s religious-right alliance in terms of seats, but the popular vote was a 50/50 split.

Moreover, as the Times of Israel’s senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur noted, support for the far-right was, perhaps, not as dramatic as it first appears. In the 2021 election, the two religious-Zionist factions, Yamina and Religious Zionism, won a combined 499,477 votes.

In 2022, with competition from a much-diminished Yamina effectively removed, Religious Zionism, won 516,146 votes, despite a three-point jump in turnout. Overall, the far right’s total share of the vote thus dropped from just over, to just under, 11 percent.

Divisions on the centre-left, rather than a far-right wave, are thus the best explanation for the outcome of the election. Nor should it be forgotten that Israel is sadly not immune from the wider trends which we have seen in other western democracies.

That said, the 10.8 percent of the vote won by the far right in Israel is dwarfed by the 20.5 percent achieved by the Sweden Democrats or the 26 percent racked by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in September.

Friends of Israel now face a twin challenge. We must continue to help defend the Jewish state against the many dangers it faces: murderous terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah; their benefactor, the antisemitic regime in Tehran; and the effort to demonise and delegitimise Israel at home and abroad led by the BDS movement.

At the same time, we should stand with the millions of Israelis who will rightly oppose any attempt by Netanyahu’s allies to nobble the judiciary and police, diminish the rights of women, the LGBT community and Israeli-Arabs, and attack the country’s vibrant civic society.

As friends of Israel, we must work with progressive Israelis to defend its liberal democratic character from this pernicious threat.

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