The Right Wing is not Winning, it is Withering, by Nadav Eyal

Nadav Eyal is senior columnist for Ma’ariv daily and Chief editor of international news for Channel 10 tv.

The fog of argument shrouds the country. Law after law, decision after decision, the right wing is realizing its absolute parliamentary control. Last week the rift was apparent again, when the Knesset passed the boycott law. From now on the right wing’s goals will be more ambitious. It will try to pass laws to supervise and investigate human rights organizations affiliated with the left wing. It will try to deny citizenship. It will want to limit the power and change the composition of the Supreme Court.  All together, these steps could accumulate into a critical mass of dramatic change in the nature of Israel’s government. Ostensibly, this is the picture of the situation, and the right wing can rejoice in its victory, which is being realized through Knesset legislation.

But the right wing is not winning, it is withering. We are witnessing the convulsive actions of a dead idea. These are true convulsions. Dangerous, perhaps, but they do not mark a victory, but rather a defeat. The prime minister, who was absent from the vote on the boycott law, and is trying to prevent, with his own hands, the bill for investigating human rights organizations, as well as the bill to limit the High Court of Justice, knows this. He feels ashamed.

This is a path that has lost its way, what we have is a political camp seeking a direction. It is customary to say that the Israeli left fell into a trap, sunk and crashed. Electorally, that’s true. But in essence, politically, the crash is solely that of the right wing. And what a glorious crash. The flames are visible from a distance.

The story is simple. If a foreigner had landed in Israel 20 years ago and gone to Metzudat Zeev [Likud headquarters] and asked an activist standing in the doorway what the right wing is, the Likudnik would have  immediately replied what was known to all. That the Likud and the right wing means safeguarding the Land of Israel. That it means opposition to a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and Gaza.  That it means support for settlements and negating any talk with terrorists. That furthermore, the right wing is the movement of the weaker sectors in Israel, those who were removed from ruling positions and from influence, and who won in 1977.

This reply would have been completely coherent. It encompassed a clear political platform and an orderly plan of action. To the question, “what is the Israeli right wing,” an answer of half a sentence could be given. And this was also true of the left wing back then. A stranger arriving in Israel and going to 110 Hayarkon Street [Labor Party headquarters] would have heard that the Israeli Center-Left supports a territorial compromise in the territories. That it believes in giving autonomy, perhaps a state, to the Palestinians, but that it insists on Israel’s security. That negotiators on Israel’s behalf must talk to its bitter enemies, and if necessary, to terrorists. This stranger would have heard that the socio-economic world view of the left winger might be more socialist, but in fact, relied on the strongest sectors of Israeli society.

The divide was sharp and clear.

What happened to their platforms? The left wing is at a nadir of parliamentary power, but its world view hasn’t changed. The failure of the Oslo Accords and the second Intifada did not crack its world view.

Regrettably, it also did not succeed in expanding it to encompass Israel’s weaker sectors. Politically, it still advocates a territorial compromise, painful concessions, the evacuation of settlements, negotiations with bitter enemies. In contrast, the Right, as an idea, has lost its way. Since the Oslo Accords and thanks to one Binyamin Netanyahu, the right wing platform has gradually beaten a retreat among the Israeli public. Netanyahu accepted Oslo, Sharon announced that he accepted the idea of the Palestinian state (he was the first prime minister to declare this publicly), the Likud government evacuated Gush Katif, Netanyahu announced at Bar Ilan University that he accepts the idea of a Palestinian state, and recently explained that there will be settlements that Israel will not be able to keep.

The change in the right wing’s approach is the practical outcome of various developments-a change in the approach of the international community, the reality on the ground that was created, the demographic threat and perhaps also the increasing awareness on the Israeli street of the need to separate the Israelis and the Palestinians. These reasons are important, but the conclusion is no less important: the right wing has lost its key phrases. The right wing can no longer define itself in a coherent fashion. To the central question on Israel’s agenda, the question that the world is demanding a clear answer to, the Likud replies with a stammer, and that is in the best case. In the worst case, it sounds like the Labor Party back in 1991. The Likud supports a territorial compromise. The Likud supports a Palestinian state. Even worse, the Likud is no longer a movement that authentically represents the weaker sectors. It has left this for the sectarian parties.

The Israeli right wing, as an orderly political idea, is no longer, but that doesn’t mean that there is no right wing. Just the opposite. A political party is not just its rationale. There is more to a party than a platform of action that is offered to the public. A party, particularly in Israel, is emotion. A political camp, and certainly a bloc, is emotion. It is emotion that paints the Left in its colors, world over, and it is emotion that defines that profound essence of the right wing. And let there be no doubt: both poles are vital to a democratic society.

The emotion of the right wing has expanded in the last decade. The Oslo failure, the Intifada, the Lebanon War, the rise of Hamas, the campaign of delegitimization, all these have created very powerful emotions in the right wing. This emotion says: we were right. In contrast, the Israeli left wing, idle and beaten, opted to withdraw. It feels that all the rivers flow to the sea, and the sea means a partition of the land.

And the right wing was left without an ideology but with enormous emotion. With broad public support, but completely perplexed about what needs to be done. The person who proves this in an outstanding way is Binyamin Netanyahu himself, the eternal equivocator. And this is where we come to the legislation passion sweeping the Knesset. This is a passion whose origins come from hunger. In the 1980s, the right wing sentiment was opposed to a partition of the land, and worked tirelessly to realize its world view. Today, this sentiment has no practical, actual means of expression. It is a large and raging river seeking an outlet, but which encounters an ideological dam whose name is nothing. The retreat of the right wing from its fundamental ideas has left an entire large camp without a platform. There is no plan, no platform, and they ask what will there be in ten years, and they have no answer. All that remains is emotions, sentiment, pure feeling. These have to find a venue for expression somewhere. The MKs and the minister have to please their voters. And they are doing this by a series of legislative initiatives that give Israel a bad name. And more than anything-they upset the rules of the game, after all, can the right wing be certain that if the left wing comes into power, that it will not establish investigative committees to investigate the right wing, and that it will ban support for the Gush Katif settlers and various other nefarious bills? What the right wing is doing lacks political logic, what we are seeing are the emotional outbursts of a political camp that feels itself injured.

There is a lot of talk about the need of the Israeli left wing to rehabilitate itself. That’s true. No less important is that the Israeli right wing find itself. The heart of the right wing is still pounding strongly, but its brain has still not found a persuasive ideology. In the case of the left wing, incidentally, the situation is the other way around and much worse: the heart has stopped beating but the brain knows full well what needs to be done. In the left wing, the outcome is political failure.

In the right wing, the outcome is parliamentary running amok.

Pure political emotion, without an orderly and realistic and persuasive ideology, is a dangerous thing. Such a right wing can easily change from conservatism to nationalism. Its patriotism can turn into racism. In Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the right wing lost the kingdom as the supreme symbol of the right wing and conservatism. In its distress, it went to graze in the poisoned pastures of populism and sometimes fascism.

Is all that is left to the right wing, insofar as the action it proposes for Israeli society, the surreal bill of Faina Kirshenbaum, or a law that limits freedom of speech sponsored by Zeev Elkin?

Those who say that Israeli democracy is in danger, are right, but those who think that this is a result of the right wing’s victory are wrong. Our democracy is in danger, because the emotions of the right wing are so strong, but the right wing itself is very weak. The retreat of its ideas, juxtaposed with the great support it has, has visited on us terrible ideas and bad laws and a difficult spirit of division. The right wing can say powerfully: no to a partition, at any price. Or it can develop other various and interesting ideas for itself, let’s say ideas that battle-as the real right wing does-the rule of the various monopolies and the cartels. It needs a platform. Israel needs a strong right wing. But the strength of political sentiment is not enough, what it needs is an idea.

Translated from Ma’ariv, July 15, 2011.