Far Right’s Rise in Israel Driven by Anxiety and Fear

LOD, Israel — The sectarian unrest between Arabs and Jews that swept across Israeli cities in May 2021 helped end Benjamin Netanyahu’s last term in office. Seventeen months later, fallout from that same unrest has helped put him back in power — at the head of one of the most right-wing coalitions Israel has ever known.

Last year’s riots, in places like Lod, a central city with a mixed Arab and Jewish population, helped nudge Naftali Bennett — a onetime ally of Mr. Netanyahu — toward breaking ranks. Mr. Bennett ran on the promise of trying to heal Israel’s sectarian divides, and he formed a rival coalition with centrist, leftist and Arab lawmakers that ousted Mr. Netanyahu from office last June.

Right-wing Jewish voters this past week punished Mr. Bennett’s party for that decision, which they grew to see as a betrayal of Israel’s Jewish identity. His party suffered a wipeout in the general election on Monday, while support for a more extreme alliance doubled. And it is that far-right alliance, Religious Zionism, that has given back to Mr. Netanyahu his parliamentary majority.

“Nobody who voted for Bennett looked at what happened over the last year and thought, ‘Let’s do that again,’” said Noam Dreyfuss, a community organizer in Lod who voted for Mr. Bennett in 2021.

“Most of us voted this time for Religious Zionism,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. With Religious Zionism, he added, “What you vote for is what you get.”

Israel’s rightward shift began decades ago and accelerated after the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s. A wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks at the time swayed many Israelis toward the right-wing narrative that Israel had no partner for peace.

Israel’s lurch toward the far right in this election, however, was also born from more recent fears about Israel losing its Jewish identity.

The 2021 riots occurred against the backdrop of unrest in Jerusalem and the outbreak of war between Israel and Gazan militants. The unrest saw two Arabs and two Jews killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested, most of them Arabs. Among Arabs, the fallout fueled a sense of discrimination and danger. Among Jews, it fed fears of an enemy within — Israel’s Arab minority, which forms about a fifth of the population of nine million.

Ever since, the riots have become a shorthand among some Jews for wider anxiety about other kinds of threats, including deadly attacks on Israelis and unrest in southern Israel this year.

The formation of a unity government last summer that included right-wingers like Mr. Bennett as well as Arab Islamists was partly rooted in political pragmatism, but it also aimed to salve the wounds of the riots and encourage greater Jewish-Arab partnership.

Yet to many right-wing voters, it was seen as a betrayal. They perceived the coalition’s dependence on Raam, the Arab party that sealed the government’s majority, as a danger to the state’s Jewish character. The efforts by Jewish-led leftist parties in the coalition to secularize aspects of Israeli public life, like permitting public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath, also exacerbated fears that Israel’s Jewishness was under threat.

Mr. Netanyahu’s main far-right ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir, campaigned on a promise to tackle perceived lawlessness, end perceived Arab influence on government and strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s main campaign slogan asked: “Who’s the landlord here?”

Critics of Mr. Ben-Gvir focus on his history of extremism and antagonism toward Arabs.

As a young man, he was convicted of racist incitement and support for a terrorist group. He was barred from army service because Israeli officials deemed him too extremist. He was a follower of a rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship. Until 2020, he hung in his home a large photograph of a Jewish extremist who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994. Today, he still wants to deport anyone he deems disloyal to Israel.

But many of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s new supporters saw someone else: a straight-talker who recognized their anxieties and proposed a response.

“People voted for him, not necessarily because they are racists, but because they thought he might be a strong leader that could bring order to the street,” said Shuki Friedman, the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group that focuses on Jewish identity.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rise was propelled by Israel’s “general shift to the right, fears over personal security and fears for the Jewish character of the state,” Dr. Friedman said.

Among the Palestinian minority, which fears Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rise, the fallout from the riots also prompted electoral consequences in places like Lod.

If the riots briefly raised questions for Jewish Israelis about the future of a Jewish homeland, they also left Palestinian Israelis feeling terrified and discriminated against.

Nationally, the vast majority of those arrested in the riots were Arabs, leading to accusations of systemic bias.

In Lod, a group of Jews accused of killing an Arab resident were quickly released and acquitted, while several Arabs suspected of killing a Jew were detained and charged with murder.

In this past week’s election, this sense of disproportion helped bolster Balad, a small Arab party that won three times more votes in Lod than the other Arab-led parties combined. Its leader, Sami Abu Shehadeh, became known for defending the city’s Arab residents in the riots’ aftermath.

“Sami was here with the people after the events of May,” said Fida Shehada, a former Lod city councilor who voted Balad for the first time. “It’s natural for people here to support him.”

Known in Arabic as Lydda or Lydd, Lod’s recent tensions exacerbate longstanding Palestinian trauma. During the wars surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, after local Arabs and their allies refused the partition proposed by the United Nations, many Palestinian residents of the city were expelled and never allowed to return.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s new supporters say they do not necessarily agree with all of his positions.

Rinat Mazuz-Bloch, a youth group leader, voted for Mr. Bennett in 2021 and Mr. Ben-Gvir in 2022 — but not out of a desire for revenge.

“People didn’t vote Ben-Gvir because we want to hit the Arabs back,” Ms. Mazuz-Bloch said. “They’re here and we need to relate to them.”

But, she added, “We have to say out loud that this is a Jewish state.”

Mr. Dreyfuss, the community organizer, said that he was not necessarily opposed to Arab participation in government, and that he accepted that Raam, the small Arab party that formed part of the departing government, made a sincere effort to accept Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

But Mr. Dreyfuss still believes that an Arab party should not hold the balance of power in the government, as Raam did.

“The mistake is to be dependent on them,” he said. “Once you have a majority, then you can add them.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s success was rooted not only in his hard-line approach to Arabs, but also in his opposition to the departing government’s moves to secularize aspects of Israeli public life. And some simply voted for him to enlarge his party’s presence in Parliament, making it harder for Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, to form an alliance with centrists.

“The vote for Religious Zionism was a vote for a clearer and sharper position,” said Omri Saar, a city councilman for Likud in Lod.

After Mr. Bennett’s U-turn in 2021, Mr. Saar said, “There’s no doubt many chose a more extreme party than Likud to make sure that their vote would stay in the right-wing camp.”

And to Mr. Saar, that was a positive thing, even if it cost Likud a few votes itself. “It’s good that we have someone who can pull us in the right direction,” he said.

Mr. Dreyfuss, whose organization was subject to an arson attack during the riots, also denied that Mr. Ben-Gvir’s election would be so harmful to Arabs.

By cracking down on lawlessness in Arab neighborhoods, Mr. Ben-Gvir would improve the personal safety of any Arab who was not involved in crime, Mr. Dreyfuss said.

“Everyone can live here,” Mr. Dreyfuss said.

“But they need to remember that we’re the landlords here,” he added.

Reporting was contributed by Jonathan Shamir from Lod, Israel; Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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