The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right by Ehud Sprinzak
Following the Israeli Right's mass demonstration against PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's non-visit to Jerusalem on July 2, 1994, the weekend of his initial return to Gaza, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin angrily declared that "an evil partnership has been created between the Hamas murderers and the extreme Right in Israel, who have set as their goal the destruction of the peace process." He was undoubtedly reacting to the signs "Death to Arafat" and "Rabin is a traitor", held by the demonstrators, and to the mini-pogrom which a few dozen demonstrators carried out against Palestinian property in the Old City.
Rabin was also disturbed by a personal letter sent to him a few weeks earlier by Aharon Domev, a member of the Yesha Council (The Council of the Settlements of Judea, Samaria and Gaza), who warned him about the extreme and peripheral Right's plans for "political murder". Domev said that while he had no specific knowledge about such a plan, he had heard, "too often in the recent past, works of desperation which talk about a solution based upon a political murder, aimed at the Prime Minister, at Minister Shulamit Aloni and other ministers."
A lecturer in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1972, Professor Ehud Sprinzak is considered Israel's leading academic authority on the Israeli Right. Since the Oslo Agreement was announced, he has been warning, in print and in many public forums, that the Government and the majority of the Israelis who support the peace process, do not understand the depth of the trauma and sense of despair felt by the Israeli radical Right, and particularly by the Israeli religious Right.
Professor Sprinzak's book, The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right, is an extremely timely analysis and survey of the components of the Israeli radical Right. In a sense, it serves as a road map which enables the reader to make his or her way through the labyrinth of personalities and movements on the right.
Sprinzak says he was galvanized into writing the book when the existence of an Israeli right-wing anti-Arab underground was revealed. In 1984, twenty-seven Israelis were arrested for planning to blow up five buses full of civilian Arab passengers on the West Bank. He was particularly concerned by the fact that the group had an elaborate plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the third most sacred site for Muslims. Like others he was also surprised to discover that the members of the underground were not just a bunch of paranoids from the Israeli lunatic fringe, but rather respected members of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) religious settlement movement, considered a legitimate part of the Israeli society and body politic. That key year of 1984 also introduced another unexpected event, the election of Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the notorious Kach (Thus) Party to the Knesset, voted in by nearly 26,000 Israelis including 2.5% of the Israeli soldiers.
The author states that the contemporary Israeli radical Right has roots within the ultra-nationalist camp of historic Zionism. These roots include aspects of Vladimir Jabotinsky's Revisionist Movement, the Lehy (Stern Gang) group, and the small Brit Habirionim (Covenant of the Thugs) among secular right-wing Zionists, as well as elements within the activist wing of Labor Zionism. He notes that the concept of "transfer" (of Arabs from the Land of Israel) currently advocated by General (res.) Rehavam Ze'evi's Moledet (Homeland) Party had first emerged within Labor circles. Sprinzak quotes Josef Weitz, director of the JNF (Jewish National Fund), who wrote in his diary in 1940: "it must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples ... If the Arabs leave it, the country will become wide and spacious for us ... "
Sprinzak maintains that the first religious Zionists, who rebelled against the predominant religious view that the Jews must wait for the Messiah's arrival before they return to Israel, were moderate pragmatists. However, Rabbi Avraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook, a messianic Zionist who became the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Palestine in 1921, introduced a strong maximalist component to the thinking of the Mizrachi Movement (the forerunner of today's National Religious Party). Kook considered secular Zionism to be "the beginning of redemption." Under his guidance Mizrachi became totally opposed to ideas of partition, drawing close to the maximalist ultra-nationalist circles within the yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Palestine).
Following the Holocaust and the widespread realization that "a Jewish state in part of Palestine was preferable to no safe place for the Jews at all," the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews supported Ben-Gurion's pragmatic stance in favor of partition. Sprinzak even provides an extraordinary quotation from Rabbi Fishman, one of the leaders of Mizrachi, who expressed his painful renunciation of the dream of the entire Eretz Yisrael in 1947 by saying: "if God intends to leave us without Jews, then I am ready to give up on Eretz Yisrael and the Messiah. I know this is heresy, but if this is the case then I am a heretic."

The Six-Day War

The first two decades of the State of Israel were dominated by Mapai (Labor) politics and relative political pragmatism. The old radical Zionist right was just a marginal phenomenon in Israeli politics - until 1967.
"The Six-Day War transformed the Israeli political psyche," writes Sprinzak, changing political thinking in the entire Middle East. He claims that "for nearly half of Israel's citizens the outcome of the Six-Day War created a new political psychology and new identity: Israel's territorial maximalism."
Within secular Israel, this gained expression with the creation of The Movement for a Greater Israel, whose September 1967 founding manifesto states that "the whole of Eretz Yisrael is now in the hands of the Jewish people, and just as we are not allowed to give up the State of Israel, we are not allowed to give up the land of Israel..." According to Sprinzak, "it was an unequivocal assertion that the conquest of vast Arab territories was irreversible." He notes that what made the manifesto, and the movement, of particular significance was that, along with right-wing Revisionists, many of the seventy-two signatories were identified with the Labor Movement, including some of Israel's leading writers and generals. Yet most of them also remained committed to Israel's traditional democratic values. "They truly believed," Sprinzak writes, "that there was no contradiction between the new Israel that had just been formed by the Six-Day War and the principles of the old Israel" as expressed in its Declaration of Independence.
However, it was a different story for the Zionist religious Jews, who "were especially stunned by the outcome of the Six-Day War. It did not square with the non-messianic pragmatic stance most of them had maintained for years. It could only be comprehended as a miracle," And the messengers of this miracle were the group who gathered around Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, the religious seminary in Jerusalem headed by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook, the son of the above-mentioned Chief Rabbi. I personally heard Rabbi Yochanan Fried, one of the founders of Gush Emunim, describe a key episode in the book: Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's sermon, performed three weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, in which "he bewailed the partition of historic Eretz Yisrael and the inability of the Jews to return to the holy cities of Hebron and Nablus. His faithful disciples were told that the situation was intolerable and must not last." This "prophecy" became the foundation of "a new messianic and fundamentalist ideology." The redemptive process had gained significant momentum. Among Rabbi Kook's students were (MK) Hanan Porat and (Rabbi) Israel Shtieglitz (Ariel), paratroopers, who were soon to participate in the conquest of the Western Wall, and were later to become leaders of Gush Emunim and Kach.

The Rise of Gush Emunim

While many assume that Gush Emunim and the militant radical Right emerged immediately after the Six-Day War, Sprinzak relates that it was a combination of the unease created by the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the sense of betrayal by a presumed ally, Likud leader Menahem Begin in 1978. These factors served as a catalyst for the growth of the radical Right. Gush Emunim was founded in the gloomy post-war days of 1974, while American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was helping to negotiate the first interim agreements with Egypt and Syria which involved territorial compromises. Sprinzak categorically states that "the Israeli radical Right was born on September 17, 1978, the day the Camp David Accords were signed by Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Presidents Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Jimmy Carter of the United States, stunning the new territorial maximalists." They saw Begin's autonomy plan as "a Palestinian state in the making." Thus the struggle was on for the future of the Land of Israel.
Sprinzak presents a fascinating description and analysis of the rise of Gush Emunim and the emergence of the Tehiya (Renaissance) Party as the political focal point of the radical Right. Special attention is devoted to the struggle to prevent the evacuations from Sinai, the Jewish underground, and the impact of the Intifada. The author also presents riveting portraits of key personalities on the radical Right such as Professor Yuval Ne'eman, Geula Cohen, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Benny Katzover, General (res.) Raphael Eitan, lawyer Elyakim Ha'etzni, Hanan Porat and others.
A particularly informative chapter entitled "Religious Fundamentalism and Political Quasi-Fascism" deals with "Kach and the Legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane." Here Sprinzak describes Kach as a "bitter anti-establishment" movement with "simplistic catch-all solutions." He maintains that the movement lacks both content and organization, particularly after the death of its authoritarian founder and leader. However, the single exception was the Kiryat Arba group.

Out of the Blue

This chapter should be of particular interest to IDF Chief of Staff General Ehud Barak and the members of the Shamgar Commission, who claimed that Dr. Baruch Goldstein's frenzied travesty in the Hebron Mosque came "out of the blue," with "no early warning." Sprinzak writes that "Kach activists [in Kiryat ArbaJ are capable and experienced settlers who initiate many activities on their own. They also participate in the public life of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, and take part in many extra-legal deeds and vigilante operations. About fifteen percent of the Kiryat Arba residents are Kach supporters; it is the only place in Israel where party representatives succeeded in being voted into the city council and even becoming for a time coalition partners of the mayor." Goldstein was a Kach activist and a member of the city council. And the book was published back in 1991.
Another key chapter is called "Beyond Routine Politics: The Cultural Radicals and the Struggle for the Temple Mount." Here the reader is introduced to the little known Shabtai Ben-Dov and his student, the unrepentant convicted Jewish underground leader Yehuda Etzion, who wrote that "the expurgation of the Temple Mount will prepare the hearts for the understanding and further advancing of our full redemption." The chapter also contains a renewed encounter with Rabbi Ariel, who wrote, that "the military should have used its demolitions to level the mount." He considers the rebuilding of the Temple on the mount to be the key to a worldwide Jewish renaissance. Sprinzak boldly asserts that the Temple Mount "is today the most volatile spot in the Middle East, perhaps on Earth. Both Jewish and Arab extremists must know that a single operation in the site can destroy years of slow and careful peace process." A simulated war game at Harvard University suggested that such an action could trigger a third world war.
Sprinzak completed the book in January, 1991. It is interesting to examine how well it has held up in light of the frantic pace of events since its publication, which include: the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Madrid Conference, the victory of the Labor-Meretz coalition, the Oslo Agreement, Gaza-Jericho First, and now the Israeli-Jordanian Washington Declaration.
Notwithstanding, Sprinzak describes Tehiya, an attempt to merge the secular and the religious radical Right, the third largest political party in the 1984 elections, as a parliamentary success story, claiming that it will remain a permanent presence in Israeli politics. Yet by 1992, Tehiya was wiped out of the Knesset, and by 1994 it had disbanded. As for Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who Sprinzak calls the single most influential leader of Gush Emunim, he also failed in his 1992 bid for election to the Knesset. But, if the great Pele could predict that Colombia would win the 1994 World Cup, and if most Sovietologists could fail to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sprinzak can be forgiven these lapses.
I also gained the impression that Sprinzak attributes to the radical Right a greater sense of self-confidence than it actually has. In my own experience with Gush Emunim activists and leaders, I sense that they are very much on the defensive. Yet, the truth is that there are very few encounters between secular Israeli supporters of the peace process and members of the fundamentalist religious Right who live on the West Bank and Jerusalem, except perhaps within the framework of periodic military reserve duty. Unlike the Palestinian members of Fatah who have an ongoing dialogue with Hamas members as part of the routine of their daily lives, we in Israel live in different and separate worlds. And if the radical Right is on the defensive perhaps it makes them that much more desperate and dangerous.
Sprinzak concludes that "the future of the radical Right appears uncertain… If most Israeli leaders conclude that Israel has to terminate the occupation in order to survive ... as in the period after the 1947 partition of Western Palestine, the Israeli radical Right is likely to lose its historical relevance ... " Yet, he believes the phantom of civil war will haunt Israel. He asserts that such a civil war will become possible "only if the territorial compromise is imposed by a Labor-led government representing no more than fifty to sixty percent of the Israeli voters." This is precisely the scenario we are experiencing today, but so far, the radical Right has been unable to muster significant opposition to the agreement. However Sprinzak feels that, in the final analysis, it is highly unlikely that a civil war or a sophisticated revolt will be staged against the IDE He bases this conclusion on Gush Emunim's tendency to defer to Israeli government authority when the chips are down, and their sense that the army is sacred and that it is therefore forbidden to fire on Israeli soldiers. In dozens of discussions with Gush Emunim activists he further heard the "repeated reminders of bloody Jewish civil war that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and two thousand years of Jewish exile".
The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right is highly recommended for anyone concerned with the future of the peace process. It is a must for the Israeli intelligence community, so that they won't be able to claim next time, if there is a next time, that they didn't know, and were therefore not prepared.