Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was once seen as a right-wing figure. Now he's widely considered to be a moderate. But it's not Netanyahu who has changed; Israel has. His governing coalition will certainly win the largest number of seats in the Knesset (parliament) again in the election Tuesday, but his new government will contain lots of people who make him look very moderate indeed.
Consider, for example, Moshe Feiglin, one of the ultra-right-wingers who recently displaced the remaining moderates in internal elections in Netanyahu's own Likud Party. "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic," Feiglin told The New York Times recently. "You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers....The Arab destroys everything he touches."
Last October, when Likud merged with its hard-right coalition partner, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), it was hailed as Netanyahu's political masterstroke. Opinion polls predicted that the new alliance would win 47 seats in the new Knesset, compared to the 42 seats they won separately in the last election. But even with Likud-Beitenu's lurch to the right, it's still not right-wing enough for many Israeli voters.
Just in the past month, a new party that is even further to the right, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), has surged in the polls, and now Netanyahu's alliance is predicted to drop to only 34 seats, while the upstart party gets 15. And what is Bayit Yehudi's leader like?
Naftali Bennett is the 40-year-old son of American immigrants to Israel, a religiously observant man who made a small fortune in software development before going into politics. And he has no intention of wasting his time "babbling about Israel and the Palestinians." His solution to the problem is for Israel to annex about 60 percent of the West Bank, including almost all the land occupied by Jewish settlers, and to rule the rest forever.
Most of the issues being debated in this Israeli election are domestic questions about the economy and the social welfare net, as in any other country, but there is no doubt that the rise of the right has been fuelled primarily by its hard line on security and territory. What needs to be explained is why so many more Israelis are attracted by those policies nowadays than they were 20 years ago.
The founding generation of Zionists in Israel in 1948 were mostly secular and socialist, and most of them voted for the Labor Party, which dominated Israeli politics until the 1980s. But the Israel of 1948 contained only two-thirds of a million Jews. Today's Israel has 6 million Jews, and most of them are neither secular nor socialist in their outlook. Nor, in most cases, are they descended from that founding generation.
The early post-independence waves of immigrants were mostly "oriental" Jews, primarily refugees from Arab countries, who were religious and conservative in their outlook. They were numerous, and had much higher birthrates than secular Jews. Then, from the 1980s onward, came the Russians and other post-Soviet Jews, who had no sympathy at all for socialism. Together, they have transformed Israeli politics.
About 50 percent of Israeli Jews now identify themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox. Only 15 percent describe themselves as secular. The new Israel is capitalist, religious and, in many cases, ultra-nationalist.
Together, Netanyahu's Likud Beitenu alliance and Bennett's Bayit Yehudi will win around 50 seats in this election, which puts them within easy range of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Just bring in a couple of the minor parties (some of which are also quite far over on the right), and they will have a strong right-wing coalition. Netanyahu will still be prime minister, but he will have to bring Naftali Bennet and other hard-right leaders into the cabinet.
And then life in the Middle East will get even more interesting than it is already.