The slow but steadily increasing rightward tilt of Israeli politics -- marked most notably by an increasing unwillingness to work out a long-term settlement with the Palestinians unless it's on Israel's terms -- began before the Arab Spring altered the landscape of Middle Eastern politics.
But this conservative leaning has clearly accelerated since January 2011, when widespread protests and subsequent revolutions destabilized the ruling classes of many of Israel's neighbors. The toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, whose government that was willing to coexist with Israel, and the election of his administration, which has an Islamist philosophy and a history of being less than friendly to the Jewish state, contributed greatly to the strengthening of the Israeli right-wing movement in the past year.
“The Arab Spring is not the primary cause of Israel going to the right,” said David Ottaway, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “But it may be secondary in reinforcing and consolidating that trend. I’m sure it confirms their worst suspicions and strengthens their opposition to any compromise with the Palestinians.”
Ottoway believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking advantage of the region's upheaval to push a long-standing agenda; in particular, exploiting the moment to go ahead with the building of more Jewish settlements. “They’re certainly seizing upon whatever occasion they can that favors them to push for more settlements,” Ottaway said. “I don’t think Netanyahu has ever been interested in negotiations.”
Not only have settlement plans been pushed forward over the loud protests of the U.N. and international community, but politicians and advocates pushing for Israel to "re-capture” Judea and Samaria in the West Bank have been gathering steam, followers and likely votes.
For one, there’s Naftali Bennett, the young billionaire and head of the Jewish Home (Bait Yahudi in Hebrew) party, founded in 2008. Jewish Home currently has three seats in the Israeli Knesset, the 120-seat parliament up for re-election on Jan. 22. But by managing to find room to attack Netanyahu and his Likud party from the right, Bennett has almost single-handedly dominated the narrative of the 2013 election campaign, while the center and left wings have remained fragmented. Jewish Home is now expected to take 13 to 14 seats in the elections on Tuesday, making it the second-largest right-wing party after Netanyahu’s Likud, and the third largest overall.
Instead of talking about peace deals with the Palestinians, a two-state solution or the Oslo Accords, the main platform of Bennett’s campaign message has been annexing the West Bank. Such a move would seem like a declaration of war, 45 years after another conflict, the Six-day War, which ended with the territories under Israel's control. It would also be a complete rejection of the peace process, started two decades ago by the Oslo Accords, and of countless further attempts since then to stabilize the region. Bennett contends that nothing Israel has tried so far has worked to stabilize anything, and he seems ready to pull no punches.
In an interview with Israeli National News, a right-wing media outlet, Bennett attributed his "meteoric rise" to the "natural outpouring of what Israelis are feeling in their hearts and needed an opportunity to express." Bennett called it the "Jewish Spring that is sweeping Israel." But he does not call himself a right-winger: He said that his party is the true “centrist” party.
“If you think it is insane to hand over land to our enemies, you are not extremist, you are centrist,” Bennett said in the interview.
Given Jewish Home’s current standing in the polls, it's a message that's resonating with Israelis. In a further twist, Bennett told the Israeli paper Maariv that he wanted to “take back” the Housing ministry, which is currently controlled by the religious Shas party. If this should happen and Jewish Home takes control of settlement planning in the West Bank, Israel could undertake more aggressive settlement planning than ever.
Even within the Likud party itself, the pro-annexation movement is gaining popularity, spearheaded by Knesset member Danny Danon. Once considered too radical for the spotlight and an extremist to be kept on the back benches of the party, Danon consistently and quietly continued to push his pro-annexation agenda for years. In the most recent primary election, Danon found himself rocketing from the bottom of the party's list to number nine. Danon also has many friends in the American right wing, including TV host Glen Beck, former Vice Presidential candidate and erstwhile Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee. He is also regular guest on Fox News shows such as "Hannity."
The Times of Israel declared Danon “the new face of Likud,” and it pointed out his habit, similar to that of Naftali Bennett, of attacking Netanyahu from the right. Danon supports settling the entirety of the West Bank with Israelis and leaving the Palestinians in autonomous “enclaves,” linked politically to Jordan. And, like Bennett, he wrote in his most recent book that he is “sick of hollow accords and grand ceremonies done for the camera’s sake.”
Danon is far from alone in his views within the party. Several of his colleagues at the top of the Likud list have espoused similar views: Moshe Ya’alon, ranked number 12, has referred to the Palestinians as a “cancer” and to the Israeli movement “Peace Now,” which supports two states, as "a virus."
Reuven Rivlin, ranked number 11 for Likud, told Haaretz in 2010 that he would “rather accept Palestinians as citizens [of Israel proper] … over dividing the land up.”
Gilad Erdan, ranked number five for Likud, has accused the U.S. of meddling too much in Israeli affairs, declaring that “Israel is not the 51st state,” and that it does not “take orders from Obama."
Likud is expected to take around 35 seats in the Knesset. The most likely scenario predicted for Tuesday is that not much will change: Likud will stay in power, with Netanyahu at its head. The largest left-wing party, Labor, will make up most of the opposition. But if Bennett, Danon and their ideological compatriots have their way, Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East could see many major changes in policy, and to the map, in the next four years.