Foreign observers have always had trouble understanding Israel's complex politics and following the twists and turns of the Jewish state's foreign policy. But nothing in Israeli political history has raised eyebrows like the ascendancy of Binyamin Netanyahu, who unexpectedly edged past Shimon Peres of Labor in the 1996 elections. Despite Netanyahu's razor-thin margin of victory, repeated diplomatic blunders, and derailment of a peace process that is overwhelmingly supported by Israelis -- nearly 60 percent, according to polls by Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmatz Institute of Peace, support the Oslo accords -- the young Likud prime minister is poised to win a second term. Netanyahu's continued popularity is the great paradox of Israeli politics today.

The key to the Netanyahu enigma is a new configuration of domestic forces that has allowed him to rule the country comfortably and commit foreign policy mistakes with electoral impunity. Netanyahu relies today on a conservative alliance comprising three major forces: Israel's nationalist right, its radical right, and its soft right. The first two groups have long been part of Israel's political landscape. What is new is the soft right, an odd melange of ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose newfound influence lets Netanyahu defy political gravity.


Since 1977, when the Labor Party lost an election for the first time ever to the Likud, Israel's political map has been split into two large and roughly equal ideological camps polarized over the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While Labor, under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, advocated moderation and territorial compromise, the Likud of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir pursued a hard-line agenda, urging the settlement and eventual annexation of the occupied territories. In the center has been a smaller ultra-Orthodox camp that cares less about the territories or the Palestinians than about government largesse. Conventional political wisdom has held that the party that comes out on top in the elections will automatically receive the support of the ultra-Orthodox, giving it the votes to form a coalition. While the Likud and its satellite parties on the far right have dominated national politics since 1977, Rabin's appeal as a security-minded pragmatist led Labor back to power in 1992. Labor's return made possible the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (plo) and a formal peace treaty with Jordan.

Israel's right was galvanized by the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel took the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Since then, the Israeli right has been composed of two major segments: the secular nationalist right, embodied in the Likud of Begin and Shamir, and the radical right, spearheaded by settlers of the occupied territories. The Likud has traditionally represented the pragmatic and parliamentary politics of Israel's territorial maximalists. Parties such as Moledet, Tsomet, and the National Religious Party (NRP), as well as Gush Emunim, the main arm of the settlers, and the anti-Arab Kach movement speak for the extremists. The radical right is far more militant than the Likud and has a penchant for extra-parliamentary politics and extralegal action, including illegal settlement-building and violence.

The great territorial debate between right and left was, for years, largely irrelevant to the third camp of Israeli politics, the ultra-Orthodox parties of Agudat Yisrael, Degel Ha'torah, and the more pragmatic Shas. The ultra-Orthodox, unlike Orthodox Zionists such as the NRP, have never accepted secular Zionism, the founding ideology of Israel, because they believe Jewish sovereignty must wait until the coming of the Messiah. Instead, the ultra-Orthodox, who do not serve in the Israeli army, have an instrumental attitude toward the state -- accepting its money but not its legitimacy -- and a pronounced disinterest in the paramount national issues of war, peace, the territories, and the Palestinians. Convinced that all these "minor" problems will be resolved in the messianic era, the ultra-Orthodox have focused exclusively on the welfare of their constituents and the prosperity of their yeshivas, or religious seminaries. By playing a shrewd game of hard-to-get with Labor and Likud, the ultra-Orthodox -- both Ashkenazim, or Jews of East European ancestry, and Sephardim, or Jews from the Middle East -- have long specialized in pushing through legislation enshrining their monopoly over religious affairs and obtaining large state subsidies for their communities and yeshivas.


Israeli politics has, however, quietly undergone a great shift. As highlighted by the 1996 elections, the ultra-Orthodox camp has moved decisively rightward and now offers virtually automatic, monolithic support for the Likud's prime ministerial candidate. This new camp may be accurately labeled a "soft right" because the ultra-Orthodox hold a special kind of right-wing attitude that is much more yielding than that of the traditional Likud right. The soft right is a loose coalition of three main components: ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim, ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, and secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Together, the soft right's political parties control 21 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

The ultra-Orthodox shift to the right has been neither ideological nor theological. Not one of the ultra-Orthodox's venerated rabbis has altered his stance on the heretical origins of the state of Israel, the idolatry of the settlers' worshipful attitude toward the land of Israel, or the dream of the Messiah's arrival. The sages, as ever, see Jewish settlements in the West Bank as meaningless. They address the question of whether to hold on to the territories or negotiate their return only in terms of "pikuakh nefesh," the principle in Jewish law that saving lives is one's paramount obligation, and thus may be willing to back a territorial compromise that would avert bloodshed. The movement of the ultra-Orthodox toward the nationalist right and the radical right has been primarily emotional, based on a mutual animosity toward the Arabs and the godless Israeli left. If the traditional right has based itself mostly on positive themes such as controlling the "Greater Land of Israel," building settlements, and expanding Israel's borders, the themes of the soft right are mostly negative. Their stock in trade is intense mistrust of and hostility toward Arabs and, just as bad, their secularized Jewish "collaborators" on the Israeli left.

The most aggressive element within the soft right is its political activists, hundreds of young men who support Netanyahu with unbridled enthusiasm. This generation of activists, now in their late twenties or thirties, has gradually come to dominate the political agenda of their respective movements, drawn ever more popular support, and, surprisingly, even made their elderly rabbis follow their political lead. As the activists moved from the center to the right, a large number of ultra-Orthodox and conservative voters followed. The activists of the soft right have access to 15 to 20 percent of Israel's voters, although they by no means control them. Groups associated with the religious soft right include the young generation of Agudat Yisrael, Degel Ha'torah, the Habad Lubavitch movement, Shas (the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party), and several Sephardic rabbis involved with ba'alei t'shuvah (newly devout "born-again" Jews).


The soft right is the product of several political and cultural processes at work over the last two decades. Since these dynamics evolved at the margins of Israeli society, their full significance has largely escaped the attention of political observers and scholars. The following, put briefly, are the key elements behind the rise of the soft right.

THE INTERACTION BETWEEN GUSH EMUNIM AND ULTRA-ORTHODOX YESHIVAS. Since the early 1980s there has been an intriguing exchange between the religious Zionist yeshivas of Gush Emunim, the main settler group, and the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox teachers the yeshivas recruited to teach halakha, or Jewish law. While few of the individuals involved have altered their fundamental theologies, both sides discovered a commonality: they viewed Arabs and the left as dire enemies. This similarity drew more ultra-Orthodox activists into right-wing politics.

THE KAHANIZATION OF ULTRA-ORTHODOX STUDENTS. Since 1977, the year the Likud first won power, ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have grown dramatically due to the increasing number of students exempted from service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) because they wish to devote their lives to the study of Jewish law. The higher enrollment produced many marginal students who were ill-prepared for rigorous halakhic studies. These restless and energetic young religious men were astutely targeted by the quasi-fascist followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extremist from Brooklyn who fomented anti-Arab violence. Many of these marginal students were attracted to the Kahanist subculture of violence "in the name of God" and aggressive radical-right politics.

THE POLITICIZATION OF HABAD. One segment of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy -- Habad, the Hasidic followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of New York -- have long been close to the Israeli right. Since Israel took the West Bank in 1967, Habad's revered spiritual leader repeatedly insisted on the holiness of the entire land of Israel, including the newly won territories. For years, however, Habad stressed its nonpartisan educational mission. But the intensification of Israel's ideological struggle over the territories gradually dragged the movement into politics, with a marked and growing right-wing bias. This politicization was consummated in 1996, when Habad money poured into Netanyahu's campaign, which was boosted by hundreds of enthusiastic activists. One notorious Habad bumper sticker made clear the movement's anti-Arab, anti-left animus by proclaiming, "Netanyahu: Good for the Jews."

THE RISE OF SHAS. Since its formation in 1984, the Sephardic religious movement known as Shas has been the most dynamic party in Israeli politics. Shas is a unique combination of ultra-Orthodox piety and earthy pragmatism -- often even corruption. Inspired by a long-simmering sense of Sephardic discrimination at the hands of Israel's founding Ashkenazic elites, the prestige of several young Sephardic rabbis, and the charisma of its founder, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the party has consistently siphoned Sephardic votes away from the Likud -- heretofore the main political address for Sephardic resentment. Shas' rabbis are well known for dovishness on the peace process, which they argue will save lives. But since the land of Israel has never been on Shas' priority list, the party's rabbis let numerous activists openly support the right. Shas' affinity for the Likud and its rightist allies has only been heightened by the anti-clerical positions of many Israeli liberals, especially from the left-leaning Meretz party. The recent indictment of several corrupt Shas leaders by Israel's secular justice system -- to say nothing of the long-running legal woes of Aryeh Deri, the party's leader -- only served to strengthen the party's sense of persecution and anti-leftist sentiment.

THE GROWTH OF THE SEPHARDIC "BORN-AGAIN" MOVEMENT. Another aspect of the anti-Ashkenazic backlash, paralleling the rise of Shas, has been the growing attraction of Sephardic Jews to Orthodoxy. Launched in the mid-1980s by a group of charismatic young rabbis, the diffuse t'shuvah ("repentance") movement now constitutes a significant cultural trend in Israel's development areas and urban slums, claiming tens of thousands of full or partial converts. Although not manifestly political, the "born-again" movement has voiced strong political undertones, including aggressive attacks on Israel's liberal Supreme Court and portrayals of Palestinians -- both the inhabitants of the occupied territories and Arab citizens of Israel proper -- as the nation's greatest enemies, with Israel's primarily Ashkenazic liberals as their fellow conspirators.

Propelled by all these factors, the soft right grew slowly for nearly two decades. But the 1992-96 Labor-Meretz government, with what appeared to be an anti-clerical political and legislative agenda, awoke this latent force. A vitriolic campaign by the radical right against the Oslo accords inflamed the situation. Shrewdly focusing on the "unholy alliance" between Rabin, Peres, and Israeli Arabs -- the alleged "secret partners" of "arch-terrorist" Yasir Arafat and the PLO -- the Israeli radical right succeeded in mobilizing the soft right. A wave of suicide terrorism by the Islamists of Hamas had a devastating effect on the Israeli psyche, cementing this emotional alliance and paving the way for Netanyahu's victory.


Without the overwhelming support of Jews from the former Soviet Union who have immigrated to Israel since 1990, Netanyahu would never have been elected. Making up over 10 percent of the Israeli electorate, Russian Jews have become a major factor in the nation's politics, and 65 percent of them voted for Netanyahu in 1996. Despite their pervasive secularism and animosity toward ultra-Orthodoxy, the Russians share rightist sentiments with the rest of the soft right. Most Russian Israelis cannot tolerate the rhetoric of the left because of their painful memories of the Soviet Union. Having been exposed to intense anti-Semitism, many of these insecure immigrants share the widespread ultra-Orthodox distrust of Arabs. While the Russians, unlike the ultra-Orthodox, do not have an echelon of young activists who dictate their political agenda, their rightist orientations are consistently nourished by several conservative daily newspapers printed in their native language. Israel's Russian press is, in fact, the unifying element of a highly diverse group.

With their secularism, heterogeneity, and large number of countries of origin, the Jews from the former Soviet Union are the softest part of the soft right. Russian electoral behavior can be quite pragmatic. Their support of Labor in 1992 and subsequent wholesale defection to the Likud in 1996 suggest a flexibility that does not square with doctrinaire conservatism. The rise of Yisrael B'aliyah, the successful new party founded by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, underscores the Russians' blend of rightist inclinations and political realism. Sharansky, a celebrated former refusenik who shares Netanyahu's political philosophy, barely addressed the major national issues -- Oslo and the Palestinians -- in his 1996 election campaign and still won seven seats. Yisrael B'aliyah was strictly business, calling on Russian voters to elect their own Knesset members to obtain a greater share of Israel's social spending. While their rhetoric remains conservative, the Russians are in nobody's pocket. Netanyahu will have to work hard to keep their loyalty.


The soft right would have become a vital element of Israeli politics even without the dramatic electoral reforms of 1996, which provided for the direct election of the prime minister. Similarly, Netanyahu would probably have defeated Peres even under the old electoral system, in which the Knesset elected the prime minister. Even so, the 1996 reforms strengthened the right in general and the soft right in particular.

Most important, the new electoral system solidified the soft right by forcing the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis to choose between two Zionist candidates for prime minister, a previously inconceivable decision. A decade ago, the sages might have been torn between Labor and Likud, but in 1996 they had surprisingly little hesitation. The threat of another anti-clerical Labor-Meretz government and the growing appeal of the right among their young activists made Netanyahu the uncontested candidate of all ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Netanyahu's victory -- the election of a prime minister who was both a nonobservant Jew and a confessed adulterer -- became, paradoxically, their victory. With the blessings of their revered rabbis, activists of the soft right became the winning card of the Likud. Campaigning day and night in every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, the young soft-right leaders produced results that would have impressed the leaders of Tammany Hall. Of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim who voted in 1996, 95 percent cast their ballots for Netanyahu.

The new prime minister was grateful to the soft right for its votes, but he has been quick to recognize the low price of its continued support. A superb communicator, Netanyahu knows that this emotional constituency is enamored of chauvinist rhetoric and attacks on Arab terrorism. When a crisis with the Palestinians, Hizballah, the Clinton administration, or alleged "Arab sympathizers" anywhere erupts, a belligerent Netanyahu rushes for the cameras. The astounding success of this media strategy was evident after the Mossad bungled an assassination attempt last year on a Hamas leader in Amman, Jordan. Under fire from Labor, the United States, and a livid King Hussein, Netanyahu told the soft right exactly what they most wished to hear: that, regardless of political risk, he would continue to hunt terrorists wherever they might be and that Israelis' security would remain his sole consideration. On another occasion, in a meeting with an elderly Sephardic kabbalistic rabbi, Netanyahu pandered again to soft-right sentiment. Not realizing that he could be heard by reporters, the prime minister whispered that Israeli leftists had forgotten how to be Jews and could not be entrusted with the nation's security because they are prepared to accept Israeli Arabs as partners in government. Despite mounting criticism in the press, Netanyahu's support remained strong in the polls.

The soft right has also become Netanyahu's safety belt against his Likud critics. Since his election, the prime minister has managed to alienate a worrisome number of his own Likud colleagues. Partly due to the unprecedented success of a younger man in seizing the party reins from veteran politicians such as Ariel Sharon, David Levy, Ehud Olmert, and Dan Meridor, and partly because of his repeated policy blunders, Netanyahu has become a target of intense Likud animosity. The vocal departures of Meridor, Levy, and Binyamin Ze'ev Begin -- the son of Menachem Begin, the Likud's founder -- from Netanyahu's cabinet further undermined his authority. Netanyahu has, in addition, failed to win the respect of the radical right and the settlers. While benefiting from the Netanyahu government's dislike of Oslo, many settlers consider its head a dishonest opportunist. With the backing of the soft right, who either disregard such criticism outright or see it merely as "Ashkenazic infighting," Netanyahu is able to maintain solid public support and convince his right-wing detractors that he is still the best game around. In an age of television and virtual politics, the soft right is a great asset for a leader of Netanyahu's style.


The most significant policy question about the soft right is not whether its growth will continue -- it will -- but whether that expansion will guarantee Netanyahu's victory in Israel's next elections and an uninterrupted Likud-led derailment of the peace process. Crucially, the soft right is not only right but also soft. This implies a weak commitment to the core values of the traditional right: the integrity of the entire land of Israel and the Revisionist Zionist obligation of settlement-building. Hence, the soft right will remain loyal Likudniks as long as the price of doing so is not exorbitant. Russian support for the Likud is particularly fragile. If the bill for backing the Likud gets too high, the majority of the soft right will not be reluctant to support a Labor candidate with Rabin-style security credentials, such as the party's current leader, former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak.

What might make the soft right switch sides? The most likely scenario is a continued deterioration in the peace process that ends in a bloody confrontation with the Palestinians or Syrians. To be sure, the ultra-Orthodox and the Russians dislike the Arabs and distrust the secular left, but they are not prepared to come to blows for these sentiments. Unlike the Israeli right's hard core, which is ready to fight for the land of Israel and to accept the concomitant sacrifices, most Israelis are opposed to spilling blood to keep the West Bank or maintain Gush Emunim's settlements. The soft right belongs to this majority. Ultra-Orthodox and Russian families of active duty and reserve soldiers are especially likely to resent any government that leads the nation into a costly military confrontation.

Temporary support for a Labor candidate is not, however, the only available option for the soft right in a time of crisis. An even more attractive proposition would be to support a Likud prime minister -- either Netanyahu or a less tainted figure like Olmert, Jerusalem's ambitious mayor -- who will preempt the upcoming disaster by accepting territorial compromise and forging a reasonable peace. The soft right may yet become the bridge between the pragmatic supporters of the prime minister from the moderate wing of the Likud and supporters of peace on the left. Such a situation may prove to be the soft right's finest hour.

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  • Ehud Sprinzak, a Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  • More By Ehud Sprinzak