With the result of its election this week, Israel has joined other Western countries in a notable current trend: A revolt by the public against the political establishment.
The Religious Zionist Party has now become the third-largest party in the Knesset. This is likely to mean cabinet posts for the rabble-rouser Itamar Ben-Gvir and the ultra-conservative Bezalel Smotrich in a new government led by the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
While their likely inclusion is due to Israel’s baroque political structure—some 90% of voters didn’t vote for them—the increase in support they received is significant.
Just as happened in Hungary, Italy, the U.S. and Sweden, the once-fringe Religious Zionist Party has come to power because a significant proportion of the public has become profoundly disillusioned with a political establishment that it felt was ignoring and betraying its interests and values.
Before the election, a number of mainstream conservative-minded Israeli voters said they would be voting for Ben-Gvir. So too did a surprising number of the secular young in Tel Aviv. For the latter, Ben-Gvir’s authenticity and directness made him an unlikely political rock star. In addition, among some conservatives, there was a weariness with Netanyahu.
Others who had previously voted for the Yamina Party’s Naftali Bennett felt a deep sense of betrayal when he tore up his previous promises and principles and formed a governing coalition with the left-of-center Yair Lapid that depended upon the Islamist Ra’am Party.
As this coalition staggered along, there was further disillusionment. Bennett and Lapid seemed to be groveling to the Biden administration, only for Israel to get kicked in the teeth in response.
The government failed to tackle rapidly increasing domestic threats. Illegal Arab settlements in the Negev and the Galilee expanded exponentially, posing a potential threat to Israel’s territorial integrity. Islamist radicalization took increasingly widespread hold. Terrorism and violence rose. Many areas that had been safe for Israeli Jews became unsafe.
On election day, a Jewish woman in Tiberias narrowly escaped an attempted kidnapping by an Arab man. Last weekend, five Israeli soldiers were wounded in a terror attack in the Jordan Valley. Last week, an Israeli was murdered in Kiryat Arba.
Ben-Gvir’s pitch was restoring public security. “We shall act against those who throw Molotov cocktails or stones and put at risk prison guards, women and do everything to jeopardize the system,” he said. “It’s about time that the soldiers of the IDF and the policemen get support and backing.”
This resonated. But it doesn’t mean Israelis have become extreme. It means they were angry at a political and security establishment that appeared sluggish, incompetent and in thrall to liberal activist judges.
In different contexts, similar “populist” insurgencies have taken place in other Western countries. They have all been based on defending the integrity of the nation and upholding its culture against threats to destroy it from left-wing ideologues, Islamist radicals or a combination of the two.
In the United States, former President Donald Trump was brought to power as a pushback against the attempt by the liberal elite—aided by fellow-travelling “Republicans in Name Only”—to destroy America’s national identity and core values.
In Britain, a similar insurgency delivered Brexit, though the continued failure to uphold the country’s integrity as a nation and defend its borders against illegal immigration still threatens to destroy the ruling Conservative Party.
The Western left’s principal bogeyman, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, proclaims that he runs an “illiberal democracy” that upholds socially conservative values and keeps the country safe from Islamist entryism.
Last month, Sweden formed a new government dependent on support from the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats after the public finally revolted against increasing Islamist violence.
Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has pledged to fight illegal immigration and Islamization, says the political philosophy of her Brothers of Italy Party is: “Yes to universal Christian values, no to Islamist violence. Yes to safe borders, no to mass migration. Yes to our civilization and no to those who want to destroy it.”
The Brothers of Italy Party was founded in 2012 by Meloni and others who had previously belonged to a party with roots in Mussolini-style fascism. Meloni insists she disavows fascism completely.
But to Western liberals, every part of her “center-right” platform of defending Western civilization is fascism. For such people, the West’s historic culture and values are themselves extremist, cruel, oppressive, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and neo-Nazi.
It is precisely that demonization that has driven so many mainstream voters into supporting leaders whose agenda may indeed be authoritarian or illiberal.
But the left has shifted the needle on the ideological compass. What was previously regarded as a left-wing threat to a civilized and self-disciplined social order is now deemed the center ground, while what was previously considered the center is now denounced as right-wing or far-right.
The hypocrisy from those now having a fit of the vapors over the rise of Ben-Gvir is truly epic. They shout that he is a threat to democracy. Yet they made no complaint when Bennett and Lapid governed courtesy of Arabs whose agenda is to destroy Israel.
Despite the careful declaration by Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas that Israel would always be a Jewish state, his party remains avowedly anti-Zionist and committed to replacing the State of Israel with a Muslim theocracy.
Ra’am, like Israel’s other Arab parties, is also implacably hostile to the LGBTQ agenda. Yet no Western liberals ever accused it of “homophobia,” a slur they now hurl at Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
Those screaming about the threat to Israeli democracy are the same people who utter not a peep of protest when the despotic Palestinian Authority cancels elections, forces journalists under pain of death to write only the approved line and routinely jails and even kills dissidents.
They are the same people who have remained utterly silent over the supremely anti-democratic, two-year attempt to lever Trump out of office through dirty tricks involving elements in the FBI, the administrative class and the Democratic Party.
Above all, these liberals fail to acknowledge their own profound illiberalism. They try to coerce acceptance of their ideological dogma through intimidation, character assassination and suppression of dissent.
A graphic example of a society that has passed through the moral and political looking-glass arose in Britain a few years back, when under the administration of a Conservative government, the education regulator tried to force ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools to teach homosexuality.
Ignoring its own reports that these schools were exemplary in instilling tolerant values, the regulator refused to acknowledge that they never taught sexuality of any kind because of their religious beliefs.
The ultra-Orthodox said privately that if they lost this battle, they would leave Britain for a country that would grant them religious freedom. The country they had in mind, where they believed they would be safe because it was defending biblical values, was Orban’s Hungary.
The mainstream cultural and political establishment has long been warned that, if it fails to uphold core cultural values, the resulting vacuum may be filled by objectionable characters. The “populist” leaders who have duly arisen are the creation of the liberals who are now clutching their pearls.
We have yet to see from Ben-Gvir’s actions whether he has indeed renounced his youthful support for Kahanist extremism. But even if he has, Western liberals will cut him no slack whatsoever. Anything that departs in any way from any part of left-wing dogma will be resisted with everything they can throw at it.
In addition to the physical threats to its existence, Israel has now joined the West’s culture wars.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir Guardian Angel has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy. Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.