Amid Renewed Violence, Secular Israelis Move to the Political Right

by | Sep 6, 2016

Misgav-Am, Northern Israel — From his home at Kibbutz Misgav-Am on the Israeli border with Lebanon, Ayea Ben Yaakov looks through the fence at the houses on the neighboring hill in the stronghold of the Iran-funded military group Hezbollah. Yaakov represents the mentality that has taken hold among Israel’s secular Jews. Long the mainstay of the political left, represented by the Labor Party, more and more secular Jews like Yaakov are moving to the right. They see in the increasingly hard right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu a leadership that may not deliver a peace deal with its hostile neighbors but will at least bring some security.

“One thing I can assure you is that Israel and the Jewish people will not sit by passively and wait to get wiped out, that is not going to happen,” Yaakov said. With his long beard, big belly and a pistol in his holster, he looks like a Jewish Yosemite Sam.

Yaakov and his gun help protect this border outpost surrounded by verdant vineyards and farmland of wheat, sunflower seeds and avocados. Having moved to Israel from Cleveland, Ohio in 1963, he has participated in four wars as a paratrooper for the Israel Defense Forces.

Attacks by Palestinian militants

Even though Yaakov sees Hezbollah as his most direct enemy, for most Israelis it is the Palestinians who present the most obvious threat. Israel has been experiencing a new wave of violence including shootings and stabbings of randomly chosen victims that started in October last year and that has left more than 30 people dead. The most recent of these attacks was on June 8, when two Palestinian gunmen from Hebron stormed the central food market of Tel Aviv killing four and injuring six.

Sometimes in solo attacks, but often in pairs or more, young Palestinian militants have targeted Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities throughout Israel. In political terms, the result of this wave of violence has been decisive according to Eli Hazan, a spokesman for Netanhyau’s Likud Party.

Eli Hazan, spokesman for Netanyahu’s Likud Party explains why israel is moving to the political right. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J

“Israel is moving to the right because of the Palestinians, no doubt about it,” he said during an interview in Likud’s Knesset party room. “They have decided to use violence against us and we need to protect ourselves. The Palestinians can tell you whatever they want about rights, but what about our rights? What about our security?”

Hazan said that Israelis have realized that they need to defend their homeland because when they pulled out of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank in 2005 “all they got were rockets.”

A few months after the Israeli withdrawal, militants from the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, which had recently won legislative elections in the Palestinian territory, kidnapped an Israeli soldier who was stationed on the Gaza border. Israel then responded with a military assault and the Gazan militants retaliated with rounds of rockets into Israel.

In 2007, Hamas won an armed conflict against the rival Fatah Party and obtained full control of Gaza. Since then, there have been continuous rounds of rockets, two wars against Israel (in 2009 and 2012) and an Israeli military operation (Protective Edge) in 2014 that have killed more than 3,400 Palestinians and more than 90 Israelis.

Because of this escalation of violence, right-leaning parties have been able to gain more and more power in recent years, said political analyst and CUNY Professor Peter Beinart.

“The public was supportive of the withdrawal from Gaza, but Hamas rocket fire made it easier for the right-wing parties to attack after the fact,” he said.

Bombs are not the solution

But in kibbutz Nirim on the border with Gaza, where scores of rockets have been landing on and off in the last decade, some secular Jews have continued to support efforts for a peace settlement and the left-leaning politicians who are advocating that, in spite of the terror that they have faced. Two people died in Nirim during the Operation Protective Edge. Since then, they feel under permanent threat as Israeli surveillance has uncovered tunnels dug by Hamas under the security barrier between Gaza and Israel. Militants from the extremist group have emerged from the tunnels in order to attack Nirim.

Adele Raemer is an English teacher here in Nirim, an agricultural community of about 600 people that extends over 5,000 acres of various field crops. The bucolic setting belies the violence here. In the near distance the hazy high rises of the Gaza strip loom over the farmland. Raemer has been in Nirim since 1975, where she has raised four children, one of whom now lives here with her one-year-old child. Raemer says they are always ready for a new round of rockets or for a militant with a machine gun crossing the tunnel into Nirim.

She says that, despite the community’s suffering, they have decided to stay and defend their territories.

The teacher who is originally from the Bronx, firmly believes that an agreement is the only path to peace, which is why she was shocked when the people in the nearby city of Sderot voted for Netanyahu in the 2015 elections.

“Guns and bombs are not going to solve this conflict, we tried that, we tried that many times,” she said. “They (people in Gaza) have to have something to live for, because right now they only have something to die for.”

Raemer was making reference to the fact that, according to the United Nations, more than 50 percent of Gazans are unemployed and less than a third of the population has access to reliable sources of food.

The members of the Labor Party think that, instead of using violence to respond to violence, Israel needs to solve one of the major sticking points in the conflict — the more than 200 Jewish settlements in the West Bank territory that Palestinians plan as part of their future state.

Nachman Shai, member of the Labor Party says that in order to end the conflict, both sides need to make compromises. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J

“I believe that if we want this country to have a stable Jewish majority and if we want it to preserve the democratic values that are the most important for us, we must separate from the Palestinians. If we continue the occupation, our state wouldn’t be Jewish and it wouldn’t be democratic,” said Nachman Shai, a member of the party. “The difference between us and the Likud is that they are not ready to make those painful concessions. It will be painful, it will be very painful.”

According to Shai, many members of the Likud still agree with the idea of one state for two people, even though they are not willing to recognize it.

Lost hope

But in spite of the proposals of the Labor Party, the majority of Israelis have lost hope on the peace process, according to a 2016 poll by the Jewish Virtually Library. Repeated allegations of corruption against the Palestinian Authority — the governmental body that controls the West Bank — and Hamas’ control over the Gaza Strip are the main reasons why more and more Israelis distrust the Palestinian government as a reliable partner in the peace negotiation and think that the use of force is the only way to end the conflict.

Other factors like the high cost of living, the more active involvement of Ultra Orthodox Jews in politics, and the immigration in the past two decades of more than a million Jews from Eastern Europe — who tend to support strong leaders and oppose any government that leans to the left — have also contributed to the shift towards the right, said Uri Dromi, director of the Jerusalem Press Club and former spokesperson for assassinated Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The move to the right is affecting Israeli Millennials in particular, who tend to be far more conservative than their parents, according to a 2015 survey by the Macro Center for Political Economics in Tel Aviv. Their main finding was that even though young Israelis are in favor of the peace process, they are not willing to make compromises with the Palestinians.

However, making compromises is crucial in order to achieve peace, said Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Haaretz newspaper.

“Simply supporting a two-state solution is not enough, it is also necessary to create more and better personal connections between the Israeli and Palestinian communities, a process that will be painful and hard to accept for both sides,” Benn added.

Top Photo: Ayea Ben Yaakov stands in front of the border with Lebanon. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J