The Israeli Right Must Unite Before History Repeats Itself
JNS.org – Many people attribute what Republicans call “The Eleventh Commandment” to the late US President Ronald Reagan. During his campaign for the governorship of California in 1966, seeking to unify the party ranks, he said: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”
Two years prior to that statement, Reagan, who would go on to serve as the 40th president of the United States, saw the party’s moderate faction lend a hand to the conservative camp’s downfall, culminating in Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater losing soundly to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
The Republican crash that year also gave the Democrats a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. Reagan, who had already set his sights on the White House at the time, followed that election closely and concluded that friendly fire within the party was a primary culprit in Goldwater’s trouncing.
During the gubernatorial race, Reagan himself was widely criticized by moderate Republicans in California but he chose, per his custom, to respond with a smile. Beyond his economic and diplomatic legacies, Reagan also left behind a bevy of clever and humorous quotes; among them, as stated, the Eleventh Commandment.
But why go all the way back to the US of the 1960s to see what political infighting can cause. The Israeli lesson from 1992 should be enough. The splinter on the Right that year triggered a seismic political shift and ushered the Oslo Accords into the Middle East. It’s safe to assume that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin would have said “Never Again” about this as well.
I was reminded of Reagan and his Eleventh Commandment on Saturday night last week when the two stars of Habayit Hayehudi, ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, announced the formation of their new party, the New Right. Some believed their press conference was the end of Habayit Hayehudi, while others saw it as a clear expression of intent from the Bennett-Shaked duo about the day after Netanyahu. Still others, meanwhile, were left even more confused by these elections, in which apparently there’s more than meets the eye; in just the first week since they were declared, two new parties have been established and two others have disintegrated. And this is just the beginning. We must also consider, of course, the attorney general’s impending decision on whether to indict the prime minister. Beyond our interest in the timing of his decision and whether he makes it before or after the elections, there is the decision itself. And the decision itself — one way or another — is extremely significant. Does the attorney general believe the judicial system should be an active player in a people’s democratic elections? I doubt it.
I, on the other hand, saw in the Bennett-Shaked press conference the potential damage to the conservative-right camp, which represents the majority of Israelis. (Those who disagree with me can look at the election results in Israel since 1977, and how four years ago the two-state paradigm was no longer part of the elections to the 20th Knesset. You can also read a report published by the Israel Democracy Institute determining that in 2018 people who defined themselves as right-wing accounted for 52 percent of the voting population. Centrist voters comprised 22 percent and left-leaning citizens accounted for just 20 percent.)
The last thing right-wing voters want today is division. Bennett sounds like someone who wants a joining of forces on the Right.
Without question, the 2019 election season is off to a confused and confusing start. Existing factions have already fallen apart and others will come together by February 22, when the parties officially submit their lists of candidates. Some things, however, we can already say for certain: The majority of the Israeli public has adopted the conservative, right-leaning ideology. For precisely this reason, the various leaders on the Right must not allow their fight for seats to foment a crisis of ideology. Similar to 1992, history will not forgive us.
Benjamin Netanyahu, like many other Likudniks, wasn’t a fan of the move by Bennett and Shaked. He justifiably voiced his concern from Brazil that the New Right would hurt the entire right-wing camp by possibly preventing the national-religious party (Habayit Hayehudi) from reaching the Knesset threshold — effectively flushing good votes down the drain.
Either way, every poll indicates that Israeli citizens see Netanyahu as the most experienced and preferred candidate. Most Israelis also agree with the positions of the right-wing parties, which not only consider Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel but also refuse to view the two-state solution as a magical remedy to the ills of the Middle East. Polls also indicate that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is the most popular among Israelis, and we can assume the reforms she has pushed forward in her ministry have greatly contributed to her approval ratings. What this tells us is that right-leaning voters want to shift the scales of national sovereignty from the judicial branch to the legislative branch.
While the Left today seems more reliant on archaeology than ideology as it seeks to forge something out of nothing, it’s imperative for the Right to present a united, common front. Bennett and Shaked’s proper place is in the Likud. Likud ministers lambasted them, wondering why they didn’t want early elections. Is it possible that someone blocked them from joining the Likud? Regardless, this shouldn’t legitimize their attacks on it. Quite the opposite. As Israel Hayom columnist Dror Eydar wrote last week: “The evil spirit of 1992 is seeing a resurgence … which led to a loss of tens of thousands of votes and put the government that passed the Oslo Accords into power.” A poll conducted by Israel Hayom last Friday shows that up to 15 mandates on the Right (which also applies to former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party) are up in the air because of this split.
We have a very heated and unclear election campaign ahead of us. (Almost) nothing should surprise us. Let’s hope for a pleasant surprise, such as a merger between the old Right (Likud) and the New Right. And let’s also hope to see Habayit Hayehudi accept into its ranks the deep, radical Right.
What Reagan identified in the 1960s, Israel experienced first-hand in the 1990s. If Netanyahu, Bennett, and Shaked decide to unite, there’s a good chance the bloc will benefit. This isn’t a sure thing. But even if they choose otherwise, please do right by right-wing voters and remember the Eleventh Commandment: “Don’t speak ill of your brothers and sisters on the Right.”
Boaz Bismuth is a correspondent and columnist for Israel Hayom.