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How Israel’s Ultranationalist Religious Far-Right Benefited from the Country’s Divide

Image via Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty

What if Marjorie Taylor Greene was appointed US Vice President and Alex Jones Secretary of State? This would almost be unthinkable at the moment, not to mention a nightmare for many Americans. However, the recent election in Israel has proven that such nightmares can turn into reality. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently faces corruption, fraud, and bribery charges, is Israel’s prime minister once again. After his party, Likud, gained the most votes in Israel’s November 1 legislative elections, Netanyahu arranged an alliance between ultranationalist parties to form the “Religious Zionism” coalition. His partners include Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group. As the new Minister of National Security, Ben-Gvir may be one of the most powerful men in Israel.

Just a few years ago, it seemed that such a radical man could never have assumed power in Israel. When the Arab-Israeli Ra’am party agreed to be part of the coalition government last summer, there was a glimmer of hope that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians would gain more rights, and that Israel and Palestine would renew peace talks. However, lawmakers voted to dissolve the parliament after Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet’s fragile coalition increasingly faced political gridlock. Under a rotation agreement, Bennet and Lapid served as prime ministers of the eight-party coalition government, which included the far right, the liberal left, labor, and, for the first time, an independent Arab party. However, lawmakers voted to dissolve the parliament after Lapid and Bennet’s fragile and increasingly strained coalition faced gridlock. These parties, united only by their shared opposition to Netanyahu, have been replaced by the most far-right, ultranationalist coalition the country has ever seen–led, once again, by Netanyahu. This sudden shift towards Israel’s radical, religious right can be traced back to its fragmented political parties, recent surges of violence between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, and the political failures of the previous government.

First and foremost, Israel’s politics are deeply polarized and divided: The country has held five elections in the past four years. Israel’s parliamentary system is composed of many different parties with opposing ideologies, none of which have individually won the necessary majority of 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in recent years. As a result, several different parties typically form a coalition government. In this election, 10 political parties managed to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold to secure at least one seat in parliament. These parties reflect a broad range of ideological perspectives across the political spectrum, ranging from the ultraorthodox right and the secular right to the center, to the Labor party, and, finally, to the Islamic Arab party. 

The Religious Zionism ticket became the third-largest party in Israel after winning just 14 seats out of 120 in the Knesset. The party of Benjamin Netanyahu won 32 seats, and his right-wing nationalist bloc gained a total of 64 seats. Yair Lapid’s eight-party bloc, ranging from left-wing to right-wing parties, secured a total of 51 seats, of which his center Yesh Atid party won 24, and Arab-led parties won a total of 10 seats. No single party came close to a majority of 61 seats. Moreover, Netanyahu remains a deeply polarizing figure as a result of his ongoing corruption trial. Many of his right-wing partners, including the leaders of the outgoing coalition government, refused to work with him, and he now relies on the ultraorthodox, extreme right leaders of Religious Zionism. 

Until recently, Ben-Gvir was a political outcast. In 2019, his party was not included in a right-wing alliance and did not garner enough votes to obtain a seat in the Knesset. However, since 2020, the right-wing Yamina alliance led by Naftali Bennet now faces collapse, as Bennet has decided to leave politics and many voters no longer back the alliance after it formed a coalition with the Arab party, Ra’am, the United Arab List and the progressive left. While Bennet was prime minister, he was only able to govern by majority government by a very slim margin. Furthermore, he did not succeed in reconciling his coalition partners’ contrasting ideological positions. The government was forced to disband amid disputes over the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, the relationship between religion and state, and settlement policy in the occupied West Bank. While the unity government’s coalition with Ra’am was necessary to attain a majority, it also promoted Jewish-Arab cooperation after the 2021 riots and months of unrest. 

Violence between Palestinians and Israelis reached another peak in November after the major surge of violence in May 2021, which appeared to radicalize right-wing voters. A police intervention at the Al-Aqsa Mosque provoked the riots, which led to arson, arrests, and violent—sometimes fatal—clashes between Jews and Arabs across Israel. In the West Bank, the Israeli army conducts raids almost every day, while the number of assaults by Arabs on Israeli soldiers has risen. Among far-right Israelis, Ben-Gvir is perceived as a forceful leader capable of maintaining order in the country. As a result, Ben-Gvir was able to use the violent unrest to his advantage and gain support from voters who believed Bennet and Lapid’s government relied too much on the Arab party.

Many right-wing Israelis felt betrayed and feared that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state was in jeopardy. The attempts of the left-wing parties of the coalition to further secularize aspects of Israeli life increased these fears. Netanyahu’s policies seem to be driven more by pragmatic considerations rather than by his religion. Religious voters fear that Netanyahu will join forces with Arabs as he has been willing to do in the past. As a result, the absence of any slightly more moderate right-wing, religious alternatives has left many traditionally center-right voters now supporting Religious Zionism, despite not necessarily endorsing the full radical and racist ultranationalist agenda. The Israel Democracy Institute reported that the percentage of Jewish Israelis who believe Jews should have greater rights in Israel than non-Jews rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2021. This trend was particularly strong for ultrareligious and nationalist Jews.

The consequences of Israel’s shift to the right could be severe. Ben-Gvir’s new position will increase tensions between Palestianians and Jews and change the way Israel is viewed on the international stage. Ben-Gvir’s party Yehudit Otzma, translating to “Jewish power,” endorses a racist ideology developed by an extremist rabbi for the now-defunct, far-right Kach party. The Kach party was banned in 1994 after follower Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians; until 2020, Ben-Gvir had a picture of Goldstein displayed in his living room. Ben-Gvir’s party advocates for strict Jewish Orthodox values; the annexation of the West Bank in its entirety; granting immunity for Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians; removing “disloyal” Arab citizens from Israel; and limiting the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to Jews born abroad.

Moreover, Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir’s government plans to weaken the judicial system by passing the “override clause,” which would allow a majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Netanyahu is in favor of the direct appointment of Supreme Court judges by the government, which is currently done by a panel of legislators, sitting judges and lawyers. Ultraorthodox parties have made the override clause a condition to joining Netanyahu’s government and emphasize Jewish values over democratic values. Consequently, the Israeli constitution’s promise for religious freedom and equality would be threatened, reinforcing the status of Arabs as second-class citizens. Ultraorthodox Israelis would benefit from the override clause in particular, as it may overturn court decisions regarding, for example, orthodox exemption from conscription, funding of orthodox schools without a core curriculum, gender equality, and the Western Wall. As a result, religion in Israel would play an increasingly significant role, eliminating the separation between religion and state.

Though Netanyahu is now the leader of Israel once again, he is not necessarily the biggest winner of the election. Despite having supported secular policies on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, Netanyahu must now rely on radical, ultraorthodox and racist lawmakers to stay in power. The blame partly falls on Netanyahu himself, who played a decisive role in orchestrating the alliance between extreme right parties and gave Yehudit Otzma legitimacy and influence. Israel remains fiercely divided, as the secular left, the nationalist religious right and Arab parties fail to see eye to eye. As polarization becomes more deeply entrenched in the Israeli political culture, ultranationalist policies could become increasingly mainstream. Moderate and left-wing parties will be forced to make compromises to combat this rise of racist ultranationalism.