World Middle East Cover Story

Israel's right-wing revolutionaries

shift in thought

As Prime Minister Netanyahu prepares to meet President Trump in Washington, he is being pulled to the right by the settler movement. What it means for Israel, a Palestinian state, and US-Israeli relations. 

A Jewish man in a prayer shawl prays in the Israeli settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank.
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 As a leftist 20-something in the 1990s, Anat Roth railed against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not making peace with the Palestinians. She recruited university students and organized demonstrations day after day outside his house, his office, anywhere – armed with slogans such as “the wild right is a danger for Israel.”

“It was very noisy and it was very effective,” recalls Ms. Roth, noting that Mr. Netanyahu lost to a pro-peace candidate in 1999. “We succeeded ... to get rid of Netanyahu – big time.” 

Today, Netanyahu is back in power, and Roth is opposing him again – but for a completely different reason. She thinks he isn’t conservative enough. 

‘You start to understand that ... your maximum [position] is not even the minimum of the most moderate people among the Palestinians.’ – Anat Roth, former peace activist and Knesset candidate from a right-wing party
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Netanyahu has said in the past that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, a move that she now believes would be suicidal for Israel. She has come to that conclusion after years of Palestinian bombings, shootings, and stabbings that have killed more than 1,200 Israelis; after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that led to the rise of a terrorist regime that showered her fellow citizens with rockets; after her liberal friends failed to answer her increasingly persistent questions about how to protect the country. 

Roth has also become more religious and moved from her small Jerusalem apartment to a spacious home in Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. In the last election, she ran for parliament with a party to the right of Netanyahu. She has given up entirely on the two-state solution she once fought so hard to achieve.

“You have to fight for what you believe in,” says Roth. “But if you realize that it is not achievable, and that the theories and assumptions you believed in are not right, you need to have the guts, the strength, to confront it and look for other options and not be stuck in prior assumptions that don’t bring you anywhere.”

Roth’s transformation in many ways mirrors what has happened to Israeli society. Over the past two decades, Israel has undergone a fundamental shift that has brought to power the country’s most right-wing government in history.

And it may be about to get more conservative.

Netanyahu – whose hard-line stances taxed his relationship with former President Barack Obama and other Western leaders – is being pulled inexorably to the right by rising rivals, toughening public opinion on security issues, and by the increasingly religious tilt of the Israeli population.

Roi Peleg kisses his son Raz before heading off to preschool in Eli, a settlement with about 4,000 residents in northern West Bank.
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For years, when Netanyahu wanted to check the power of interest groups to the right of him – most notably the settler movement – he could always invoke the United States: Washington, he’d say, won’t let us build more. But now that could change. President Trump, who was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Feb. 15 in Washington, has signaled a more hands-off stance toward Israel – including a pro-
settlement pick for ambassador, David Friedman. Right-wing elements see a chance to move the country decisively against the formation of a Palestinian state and perhaps toward formal annexation of lands in the West Bank, which they refer to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

All this could fundamentally change Israel’s standing with much of the West, at the United Nations, and with other countries in the volatile Middle East – a region already seemingly in a perpetual state of war and splintering increasingly along religious lines.

“I think Israel is at a unique junction,” says Naftali Bennett, one of the most prominent politicians pulling the Israeli government to the right. “For the first time in 50 years, we need to ask ourselves, what do we really want? There’s a unique opportunity for Israel to go through quantum change.”

Roth is now the doting mother of a baby girl. She is strong in her political views but not condemnatory. She still knows her liberal friends’ phone numbers by heart.

While she has given up completely on a Palestinian state, many Israelis have shifted more conservative largely out of a loss of hope – though not a desire – for peace with the Palestinians. But there are other factors behind the hardening attitudes as well. 

Israelis have long touted the dual nature of Israel as Jewish and democratic. In the past, when asked to choose which of those foundational principles should take precedence, they would refuse. But increasingly Israelis are revealing a preference – and it’s “for the Jewish element,” says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), an independent research center in Jerusalem that does extensive polling.

The growing presence of religious Jews, both in number and influence, is challenging the secular Zionist vision that has long dominated Israel’s elite institutions: its parliament, courts, military, and media. A religious nationalist vision, one that sees Israel establishing its sovereignty over Judea and Samaria as a prelude to the Messiah’s coming, is increasingly moving from the fringes of Israeli society into politics. It is spurring right-wing parties, which now make up about half of the political spectrum, to try to outdo each other ideologically, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political scientist and pollster.

A student holds his baby as he studies at the Bnei David academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli. The academy has spearheaded a surge in the number of religious officers in the Israeli military.
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The most visible sign of this, and the one arguably of most concern to the international community and its hopes for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the rising clout of the settler movement. Ideological settlers have become a critical part of Netanyahu’s base in the Likud party, and key supporters of his chief rival, Mr. Bennett of the Jewish Home party – the party to which Roth now belongs.

Her move to Efrat, a ridge of red-roofed homes surrounded by Palestinian farmland, is part of a surge in the Israeli settler population in the West Bank, which has nearly quadrupled since the 1993 Oslo Accord. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the government has approved another 5,500 homes in the settlements.

The settlers are now “probably the most effective interest group in the country,” says Mr. Plesner.

Bennett, a software entrepreneur who made millions before going into politics, is pushing a far-reaching – and controversial – solution in the West Bank: Extend Israeli sovereignty to the 61 percent of the area that is already under full Israeli control. Allow the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers there to stay in their homes, offer Israeli citizenship or residency to the area’s estimated 80,000 Palestinians, and let the rest of the West Bank Palestinians live in autonomous areas under a government of their choice. He’d couple that with a “massive Marshall Plan” to improve infrastructure and economic opportunity.

Bennett plans to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that would extend Israeli sovereignty over Maale Adumim, a settlement of 40,000 people just outside Jerusalem. Nearly 8 in 10 Israelis support such a move, but it would set a legal precedent for implementing the rest of Bennett’s plan – which is not as widely accepted. Only 44 percent of Israelis support annexing the West Bank, according to IDI. “I feel that if we don’t make our move now, and apply Israeli law based on my plan, we’ll miss this window,” he says.

If Bennett succeeds, that would effectively kill the prospects for the two-state solution, ending the international community’s decades-long drive to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“There would be no need to talk about a two-state solution in a scenario of annexation of occup[ied] territory,” says chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a statement to the Monitor. “[It] seems that the ‘two-state solution’ that Israel is talking about is the State of Israel and the state of the settlers that this extremist government has been vigorously building. Their vision is one of ‘one state and two systems,’ – apartheid, rather than two states. Without international intervention, it will be very difficult to save the prospects of a sovereign and independent State of Palestine.”

‘I think Israel is at a unique junction.... There’s a unique opportunity for Israel to go through quantum change.’ – Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party
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While Bennett’s vision has proved attractive to Roth and many other settlers, the Israeli politician is not a settler himself. He is, in many ways, the quintessential Israeli success story – a fighter, an innovator, a leader.

He lives in a tony city just north of Tel Aviv. His parents are American immigrants, educated at the University of California, Berkeley. He grew up loving Asterix comics and the books of Beverly Cleary (of Ramona fame), according to a 2013 profile by the Haaretz newspaper.

Bennett showed leadership abilities from a young age. He served in two different elite Israeli military units – Sayeret Matkal and Maglan. He fought Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon and Palestinian militants in the West Bank. When he and his friends formed a start-up, everyone knew who would be chief executive officer. When they sold it for $145 million, it was Bennett who negotiated the deal. Netanyahu, a fellow Sayeret Matkal alum, appointed him chief of staff in 2006.

Dubbed by some “Bibi 2.0,” Bennett is now increasingly challenging the prime minister on major issues. Netanyahu – who has long been deft at balancing American pressure and settlers’ impatience – could face a crucial test if Mr. Trump relaxes the usual US positions.

“He might be surprised with an American president who says, ‘Listen, I couldn’t care less what you do with your country ... just phone me if there’s a crisis but otherwise I don’t want to
interfere,’ ” says Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat and chief foreign envoy for the YESHA Council, the settlers’ political arm.

While Netanyahu still dutifully adheres to the American stance on Palestinian statehood, Bennett has boldly and unabashedly stated what seems to him – and an increasing number of Israelis – patently obvious: The two-state solution is dead. Bennett admits that his vision for a Greater Israel is not appealing to the world, but says people respect a “coherent vision.” If there’s one thing he says he’s learned from doing business in America, it is to be honest.

If there’s a problem with your product, “Call the guy, tell him the truth, tell him what you know, tell him what you’re doing about it, bite the bullet,” he says. “They’re not going to be happy ... but they’ll respect you.”

“What I think is unacceptable is when we say, ‘Hey, we want a Palestinian state but but but – this and that,’ ” says Bennett. 

‘Cutting our roots here I believe will have a tremendous effect on who we are as a nation – not just to the Jews who live in Israel, but to the whole Jewish nation all over the world.’ – Tamar Asraf, spokeswoman for a local settler council in the West Bank
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Many analysts are skeptical that Bennett will succeed in implementing his vision, given Netanyahu’s considerable legislative power as prime minister, as well as the prospect of international opprobrium. But in a tumultuous era of populism that brought “Brexit” and now a Trump White House, it’s not inconceivable.

While some worry about Israel retreating from Western liberalism, many religious nationalists here view themselves as forging a prescient path alongside Brexit champions, Trump supporters, and others eager to avoid the pitfalls of liberal naiveté. 

“I think the whole world, including the Israelis, went through a trend of liberalism,” says Mr. Revivi. “I don’t know who woke up first.”

Palestinian activists protest near the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank.
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Even during her years as a peace activist, Roth found it painful to accept that Israel should give up the West Bank, which it conquered in the Arab-Israel conflict of 1967, to create a Palestinian state. 

“The basic thing is that you don’t want to get rid of it because it’s ... one of the limbs of your body,” she says. “When do you amputate a limb? Just when you’re forced to.”

On the one hand, given demographic trends that showed Palestinian birthrates far outpacing Israeli ones, she felt it was indeed imperative to establish a separate state in order to keep a Jewish majority in Israel. Nevertheless, as she watched three peace summits end without an agreement – at Camp David, in 2000; at Taba, Egypt, in 2001; and in Annapolis, Md., in 2007 – she found herself asking, Why aren’t Palestinians accepting Israel’s offers?

“You start to understand that ... your maximum [position] is not even the minimum of the most moderate people among the Palestinians,” she recalls thinking after working with Palestinians to develop the 2003 alternative peace plan known as the Geneva Initiative. “I started realizing that they want things I will never give them – like Jerusalem, like the Temple Mount.... It’s not like a limb; it’s the heart itself.”

When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, with no negotiations or concessions from the Palestinians, the militant Hamas movement took credit for pushing Israel out – and won elections the following year. Gaza militants showered Israel with rockets, despite periodic poundings by Israeli planes that killed thousands of Palestinians. The 2014 war, in which Hamas even targeted Tel Aviv, sending parents and children scurrying to bomb shelters, shattered the idealistic notions that many leftists had harbored. 

“Gaza is like a laboratory of what will happen in Judea and Samaria,” says Roth, who formally left the Labor Party after those attacks. “The security threat of having a Palestinian state next to us is more dangerous than the demographics.”

To be sure, there are security risks involved in denying Palestinians a state as well. “No one can control the new generation” of Palestinians, says Issa Samander, a former Palestinian activist in the West Bank, who sees the seeds of a new Palestinian uprising germinating. “[Israelis] don’t know the new generation.... They will be surprised.”

But for religious settlers, it goes beyond safety to a sense of mission. This is why Roi Harel still lives in his home on a windswept hill surrounded by Arab villages, with the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv visible in the distance.

One morning last March, while his five kids and wife were still sleeping, Mr. Harel opened his door on his way out to serve in the army reserves. Suddenly, in the predawn darkness, two Palestinian teenagers assaulted him with baseball bats and knives. They pushed him back into his home, down a corridor. Unarmed and wounded, he was all that stood between the assailants and his family. He shouted to his wife to call security. Then, somehow, he managed to push the intruders outdoors. Soon thereafter, security forces found the Palestinians and killed them.

‘We feel the nation is watching us. I think all the Israelis west of here say, “If they fall, there’s no one strong enough to hold the lines.” ’ – Roi Harel (l.), a West Bank settler who was attacked in his home in March 2015 by two Palestinians, who were later killed by Israeli security forces. He and his wife, Shira (r.), are determined to remain in their home.
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Palestinians, many of whom feel justified in defending their homeland by force, pointed out that six times as many Palestinians as Israelis had been killed in the most recent wave of violence. 

Netanyahu, for his part, called Harel to congratulate him on his bravery, while local schoolchildren made a sign for the family’s front door that celebrated “the hero.”  

For months, some kids in the Harels’ neighborhood, out of fear, refused to shower alone. One youth slept with a baseball bat; another kept a knife under his pillow. But none of the families have moved. They believe staying is important both practically and symbolically. If they leave, they feel the army will give up on defending these strategic hills overlooking Israel’s sole international airport and the belt of high-tech industries that power Israel’s economy – and contribute to its international prestige.

“We feel the nation is watching us,” says Harel, whose wife oversaw a renovation of their home, including adding a second floor, after the attack. “I think all the Israelis west of here say, ‘If they fall, there’s no one strong enough to hold the lines.’ ”

Harel’s neighbor Tamar Asraf, like Roth, grew up not knowing anything about her religious roots. In fact, she resented religious people and settlers – blaming those living in the occupied territories, in particular, for the lack of peace. Because of them, she thought, we have to serve in the army.

But while doing her military service, she met other young women who were religious. She started to connect more with her Jewish heritage and identify with the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

“Cutting our roots here I believe will have a tremendous effect on who we are as a nation – not just to the Jews who live in Israel, but to the whole Jewish nation all over the world,” says Ms. Asraf, who is now a spokeswoman for the local settler council. “And this is the main reason why we are here today, fighting in order to turn this place into a part of the state of Israel.... Because if this is not our homeland, then what are we doing here?”

But for other Israelis, formally extending the country’s sovereignty to the West Bank is fundamentally opposed to its nature as a Jewish and democratic state. For either Israel would have to absorb so many Palestinians that Arabs would become the majority in the near future, or it would have to relegate Palestinians to a different civil or legal status. 

Palestinians, for their part, already see Israel’s claim to being a democracy as a sham. Not far from the West Bank settlement of Eli, a small outpost called Amona has become a firestorm of controversy, a symbolic battle against the entire settlement enterprise and its legal underpinnings. Palestinians claiming ownership of the land celebrated when Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the outpost evacuated. The government complied earlier this month. But its offers of compensation and resettlement, as well as a new law to legalize homes built on private Palestinian land, are seen as running counter to the court decision. 

“I feel the democracy in Israel is just for their people,” says Mayor Abdulrahman Saleh in the neighboring Palestinian town of Silwad, who has been involved in the legal battle. “But for Palestinians, either in [historical Palestine] or here – it is like Bashar al-Assad,” he adds referring to the Syrian strongman. “It is dictatorial.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (l.) and Israeli Labor Party lawmaker Hilik Bar attend a 2013 meeting with a delegation of mostly Israeli university students and activists at the presidential headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
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Hilik Bar, the deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) and a friend of Roth’s since her Labor Party days, is among the shrinking minority of Israelis who haven’t given up on a Palestinian state.

As head of the lobby for the two-state solution since 2013, Mr. Bar has pitched his plan to the Knesset and the Israeli president. He’s gone to Ramallah to talk to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. He’s even consulted with leaders from the broader Arab and Muslim world, whose support he sees as crucial for such a deal.

He insists that a two-state solution can be achieved without endangering Israel’s security.

“Look, Israel is surrounded by many, many enemy states with ordinary armies, with long-range missiles, with tanks, with combat jets – and we are living. We won five [or] six wars in seven decades against almighty armies of Arab states, because we have a very strong army and the most courageous soldiers that you will meet,” Bar says. “And this is why it seems to me very defeatist to assume that ... we should be afraid to do a peace agreement because of a small, demilitarized ... state that will be in some of the areas in Judea and Samaria.”

It’s not that he’s sanguine about the Palestinian leadership. In fact, he says he has “no confidence” that Mr. Abbas can broker a deal. “He’s not strong, he’s not always reliable, he’s often closing his eyes against incitement,” says Bar. But, he adds, “We will never find a Palestinian president who will be a great Zionist and have ... an Israeli flag in his office.”

One way to revive negotiations would be to look for opportunities for incremental progress, rather than a comprehensive peace deal, says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, who was involved in the 2013-14 American-led effort to restart the peace process.

“We tried to hit a home run three times,” says Mr. Makovsky. “Maybe we should try to achieve a single – to show the public that something is succeeding.”

Before that can be done, however, Bar must garner more support from the Israeli public. For her part, Roth remains firm in her view that Israel should never give up any of the occupied territories for a Palestinian state. “I hope my friends in the Labor Party will wake up,” she says over a cappuccino at a popular cafe one block from the Knesset. Then she gets up to leave. She has a lot to do – including, maybe, winning a seat in parliament next time around.