The Cost of Extremism in Israeli Politics

Opinion

The Cost of Extremism in Israeli Politics

Sara Yael Hirschhorn

03 Jun 2016

Violent extremism in Israel and Palestine takes many forms. The Israeli government and the international community must work to address it if the peace process is to succeed.

"I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence, and racism in Israeli society," fulminated former Israeli Defence member and long-time Knesset member Moshe Yaalon in a speech delivered at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv following his resignation from the Netanyahu government on 20 May, "but to my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party and are shaking the foundations and threatening to hurt its residents."

Pointedly indicting the political and military leadership's "cynicism and lust for control," Yaalon ended his political career. Ironically, his decision to step-down opened the door to the appointment of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as the new Defence Minister and the promotion of Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick to a Knesset seat, ushering in the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Some might criticise Yaalon for not anticipating the consequences of his resignation or abdicating his responsibility to be a strong voice in the corridors of power, but he is not the only one speaking out. On Holocaust Memorial Day (5 May), Major General Yair Golan, the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, was roundly criticised for comparing contemporary Israel to 1930s Germany. His message about combatting extremism in Israeli society was mostly lost in the political scandal. Later, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak chimed in, charging that "the Israeli government has been infected with the shoots of fascism and sooner or later, we shall see the cost."

The cost has been high. On 1 June, Meir Ettinger, the grandson of radical American-Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane and apparent architect of an extremist network in the West Bank, was freed from prison after nine months of administrative detention following the torching of the Dawabshe family home by settler extremists, killing both parents and their infant son, and leaving a four-year-old an orphan. While high-profile attacks like this, the racially-motivated murder of teenager Muhammed Abu Kheidr by a gang in Jerusalem, the brutal bloodying of an Israeli-Arab supermarket clerk in Tel Aviv by border police and countless other incidents hit the headlines, routine forms of xenophobia and violence don't always get noticed.

Settler extremist violence has dramatically increased — targeting not only Palestinians, but also left-wing activists, military installations, and even political figures — and it's far from clear that the Shin Bet can do anything about it. Further, while it is tempting to think that these problems don't exist inside the Green Line (Israel's internationally recognised borders), it's no longer uncommon to see groups like Lehava, an organisation that opposes Jewish and Arab inter-mixing, and with links to Kahanism openly protesting in the streets of Jerusalem.

Jewish extremism is not a new phenomenon in Israel and Palestine. While the Zionist movement debated the use of force throughout the British mandate, a culture of illegalism made deep inroads in the culture of the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine. Most famously, several paramilitary groups were active during this period, including Menachem Begin's Irgun Tsvai Leumi (IZL) which blew up the King David hotel in 1946.

Since 1967, these trends have accelerated. In the 1980s, a 'Jewish Underground' led by Israeli settler extremists with strong connections to the national-religious elite was responsible for car bombings targeting Arab mayors, a thwarted plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, and a shooting at the Islamic College of Hebron. Shortly thereafter, in 1984, Rabbi Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset on a racist programme (he was later banned from the Knesset under new anti-extremism legislation and assassinated in New York in 1990). In 1994, Jewish-American settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahami mosque, killing 29. In 1995, Israeli ultra-nationalist Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, killing most remaining hope for Israeli/Palestinian peace.

In the aftermath of the Rabin assassination, there was limited soul-searching in the national-religious camp. Some would argue that the "errant weeds" of Oslo were not uprooted sufficiently, giving rise to today's settler extremism. However, one can also not ignore the cycle of violence, which has seen a second intifada, brutal Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians, and most recently, coordinated rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Extremists on both sides continue to jeopardise the future of peace between the two peoples, as well as the stability of both Israeli and Palestinian democracy.

Today's violent extremism in Israel and Palestine takes many forms including terrorism, racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, and religious/secular protest on both sides. This diversity must be explored to combat the extremism. Yet, while there will always be peace process spoilers, the international community must also work to empower conciliatory forces for the future.