The Israeli Elections: Growth of Far-right Parties Could Harm Likud’s Prospects

While the opinion polls show the Labor Party to be losing a steady trickle of support to the Meretz bloc on its left, the Likud seems to be hemorrhaging heavily on its right flank.

The polls show the three established right-wing parties — Tsomet, Moledet and Tehiya — all winning three or four seats, while a new rightist list, under settlement leader Rabbi Moshe Levinger, may siphon off thousands more votes.

In terms of “bloc arithmetic,” this trend ought not to matter. For what matters more than the size of the Likud and Labor is the size of the blocs they each lead.

Nevertheless, the growth of the far-right parties at the expense of the Likud has leaders of Israel’s governing party worried.

Following is a look at each of the key parties of the Israeli right:

THE LIKUD. The polls show the Likud winning just above 30 seats — only a quarter of the Knesset. This is hardly a respectable showing for the party that has prided itself for the past decade and a half as being “the people’s party.”

Moreover, a whittled-down Likud could find itself weakened vis-a-vis Labor if, as some pundits consider most likely, the Big Two decide to set up a unity government after the elections. The relative sizes of the two parties will play some role in their jockeying over the premiership and other top Cabinet jobs should they decide to form a government together.

In the campaign, the Likud has sought, with considerable success, to stress themes which to a certain extent are contradictory:

It has directed brutal personal attacks on Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, asserting that Rabin is unfit to rule because as chief of staff in May 1967, he underwent a brief nervous breakdown during the tense waiting period before the Six-Day War.

The Likud also has reactivated rumors circulating in the political community for years that Rabin drinks too much.

Yet at the same time, the Likud has sought to argue that the politically middle-of-the-road Rabin, who is projecting a “consensus image” and remains personally popular in the polls, does not in fact represent his party; that behind his coattails hides a “dovecote full of Burgs and Beilins and Haim Ramons.”

Begin and other Likud figures brush aside Rabin’s protestations that he would not take the Communist and Arab parties into a government under his leadership. In a sense they are right: For while Rabin would indeed not wish to rely on their votes in order to govern, he certainly wants to have their backing as part of the “blocking bloc” he hopes to head.

The Likud campaign is also grappling with another set of ostensible contradictions:

On the one hand, the Likud presents itself as the guardian of Eretz Yisrael, the only serious bastion against the left at home and against Arab hostility and international pressure abroad.

But on the other hand, the party’s propaganda footage makes much play of the launching in these past months of a Middle East peace process, including both direct talks with regional protagonists and multilateral negotiations designed to harness the world community’s material support for Middle East peace.

The three far-right parties vie with each other in trying to dismantle this Likud propaganda edifice. They each argue that the peace process is replete with dangers and pitfalls for Israel, that it could well lead to the creation of a diplomatic dynamic that would inexorably produce overwhelming pressure for Palestinian independence.

But beyond these similarities, the three parties of the right each have a unique complexion:

MOLEDET. Rehavam Ze’evi’s party, which first entered the Knesset in 1988 with two seats, is the only party that openly advocates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population from the administered territories to the surrounding Arab countries.

The other two far-right parties — and indeed parts of the Likud and the National Religious Party — sympathize with this goal. But they do not openly espouse it as the central platform of their foreign policy.

Ze’evi hopes to pick up the support of those in the electorate who had hoped to vote for either Kach or Kahane Chai, the two spiritual heirs of the late Meir Kahane which both have been disqualified by the Central Elections Committee on the grounds that they are racist.

TSOMET. The unique selling proposition of this party is its leader, Rafael Eitan, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff who served as agriculture minister in the outgoing government.

Eitan is a personally attractive figure in many respects: a farmer-soldier from the moshav of Tel Adashim, he speaks his mind in clipped, simple sentences. He is a “Mr. Clean” in Israeli politics. And he makes no attempt to hide or moderate his strong antipathy toward the Orthodox establishment, especially the system of army service deferment for yeshiva students.

Eitan has a hard core of support among formerly pro-Labor circles in moshavim and even kibbutzim that feel the Labor Party is too dovish.

TEHIYA. This, the most veteran of the far-right parties, is also the one facing the most difficulty in carving out a clear identity for itself on the right of the spectrum.

Led by Professor Yuval Ne’eman, who is more of a scientist than a politician, and by polemicist firebrands Geula Cohen and Elyakim Haetzni, Tehiya has sought to present a mixed secular-religious image, with religious settlement leader Benny Katzover in the fourth slot.

But the Gush Emunim following in the territories has not, it seems, been wholly attracted to Tehiya — hence Rabbi Moshe Levinger’s decision to throw his hat into the ring by forming his own party.

NATIONAL RELIGIOUS PARTY. Because the National Religious Party has, for the first time ever, solemnly committed itself to side with Likud after the elections, it too must be considered a key component on the right of the man in this election campaign.

The NRP’s move away from its non-aligned status reflects the sentiments sweeping the younger generation of the knitted-skullcap Orthodox Zionists, both in the territories and in Israel proper. What the NRP’s pronouncement means is that if Labor finds itself in a position to try to form a narrow government, it will look to the ultra-Orthodox haredi parties first to join it, and to NRP only as a last resort.

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