Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman

Fellowship Title:

The Fateful Choice

Robert Friedman
March 3, 1988

Fellowship Year

The Palestinian riots that have rocked the Jewish state in recent months are a major political victory for Israel’s, radical right–a powerful religious-nationalist movement whose goal is to annex the occupied territories and to expel Israel’s Arabs. Fueled by a blend of biblical prophecy and politics, the radical right contends that God gave the Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, to the Jewish people. It characterizes the Arabs of Israel as “resident strangers” or descendants of Amalek, the Biblical tribe destroyed by the ancient Hebrews.

These hard-line views are gaining ground, according to a recent Israeli poll that found that the Arab riots have strengthened the radical right at the expense of Likud. the large right wing party that is part of the ruling coalition with the Labor Party. Prominent Israeli pollster Hanoch Smith says the small ultra-nationalist parties on the far right now control about 12% of the votes, up sharply from last year. Smith’s latest poll, which was conducted during the second week of the Arab riots in December, revealed that support for the violently anti-Arab Kach Party, headed by Rabbi Meir Kahane increased from 1 percent to 3 percent, which represents about four Knesset seats, while support for the ultra-right Tehiya Party rose from 4 percent to 7 percent.

The radical right is no longer a voice in the wilderness, isolated on the fringes of Israeli politics. The dark, fundamentalist views of the mystical-messianic movement Gush Emunim, which has spearheaded Israel’s West Bank settlement drive and which is close to both Tehiya and the Likud Parties, and Kahane’s violently anti-Arab Kach Party, which has a seat in the Knesset, have seeped into mainstream public debate in Israel. According to pollster Smith, more than one-third of the public supports the concept of expelling Israel’s Arabs.

“It’s becoming much more legitimate to talk about deporting the Arabs,” as a consequence of the December riots, agrees Danny Rubinstein, veteran West Bank correspondent for Davar, a Hebrew-language daily affiliated with the Labor Party. It is not surprising then that last July, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Michael Dekel, a Likud senior member, called for the expulsion of Arabs living in the occupied territories. Last November, Yosef Shapira, a minister-without-portfolio in the Israeli cabinet, proposed that the government pay $20,000 to any Arab willing to emigrate from the occupied territories. Shapira said the S20,000 grant is based on the amount that the government spends on each new Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union.

Leading the effort to expel Israel’s Arabs are Jewish settlers affiliated with Kahane and Gush Emunim. They have repeatedly harassed local Arabs, hoping that an Arab counter-response would bring a harsh crackdown from the army that would ultimately result in the Arab’s forced exodus from the occupied territories. According to a 1983 report by a blue-ribbon commission headed by Israel’s Deputy Attorney General Yehudit Karp, Jewish vigilante attacks against West Bank Arabs had become a fact of life in the early 1980s. The Karp Commission found that few indictments had been brought against Jewish vigilantes because right-wing Knesset members were intervening with the police and army to stop investigations. More ominously, in an imitation of Latin American right-wing death squads, settlers also have unleashed several anti-Arab terrorist undergrounds, which have been responsible for a wave of bombings and shootings, including the June 1980 maiming of two Palestinian mayors in car bomb attacks.

The Palestinian disturbances this winter, in which at least 30 protesters were shot to death by the Israeli army, started soon after a Jewish settler shot and killed a young Arab school girl in Gaza whom he suspected of throwing stones at passing cars. When Israeli troops used live ammunition to quell the spreading Arab riots–forever putting an end to the myth of Israel’s liberal occupation–the Israeli public rallied around the government’s heavy-handed measures. Israel’s radical right applauded the government’s methods, repeating the axiom that the only thing the Arabs understand is force, and that the Bible says to kill Amalek.

Though extremists like Kahane, Dekel and Shapira have been criticized by some on the right for being too candid about their desire to expel Arabs, there is broad agreement among right-wingers that Israel will become an apartheid-like state unless the Arabs are removed. Since the right has no intention of relinquishing any part of the occupied territories, they are debating what is worse for Israel’s international image–apartheid, or a Kahane-like deportation plan. Most right-wingers privately agree that the best solution is to deport most of the Arabs in the occupied territories, either as part of a peace agreement with Jordan or under the cover of war. As early as 1974, Israel’s hard-line Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin, a Labor Party hawk much admired by the right, urged the country to “create in the course of the next 10 or 20 years conditions which would attract natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Jordan. To achieve this we have to come to agreement with King Hussein and not with Yasser Arafat.” Those less patient than Rabin are in favor of exploiting a future Arab-Israeli war to expel 7-800,000 Arabs. “Such a plan exists,” General Aharon Yariv, former head of military intelligence said in Israel several years ago, “and the means to execute it have been prepared.”

Some Jewish fundamentalists also have quietly argued that there is another way to deal with the Arab problem–genocide. In 1984, Rabbi Moshe Segal, who fought with Menachem Begin’s terrorist underground Irgun, wrote a letter on behalf of a committee that was collecting legal defense funds for the Gush Emunim anti-Arab terrorist underground, in which he compared the Arab residents of the occupied territories to Amalek, the tribe destroyed by Joshua. “One should have mercy on all creatures…but the treatment of Amalek–is different. The treatment of those who would steal our land–is different. The treatment of those who spill our blood–is different.” Then quoting from the Book of Numbers, chapter 33, Segal wrote: “You must drive out all the inhabitants of the land as you advance…and settle there, for to you have I given the land to possess it…but if you will not drive out the inhabitants of the land as you advance, any whom you let remain shall be as barbed hooks in your eyes, and as thorns in your sides. They shall continually dispute your possession of the land in which you dwell. And what I meant to do to them I will do to you.”

Segal’s views are not unique. Rabbi Israel Hess, a respected scholar at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, also recently compared the Arabs to the Amalekites, whose extermination is mandated by the Torah. Rabbi Kahane, who often attends the funerals of Israelis killed by Arab terrorists looking for recruits for his movement, preaches that vengeance is holy. “Our God is a god of vengeance,” said a Kach bulletin distributed in Jerusalem last November. “It’s nonsense to assume vengeance is not a Jewish concept. The appearance of the Kingdom of God in the world depends on the trial of the nations who have been afflicting us, otherwise they will say where is your God?”

According to Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on extremist groups at Hebrew University, these radical concepts of revenge and genocide are not “considered illegitimate or abhorrent (by the radical right). More important, none has thus far been ruled out as erroneous by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the highest official religious authority in the land. It is not clear whether the silence…is evidence of disapproval or of political prudence.”

Many Israeli officials are reluctant to criticize the religious extremists because they are in the vanguard of those settling the occupied territories–an enterprise that has been endorsed by leaders of both the Labor and Likud Parties. There are currently more than 60,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and one government plan proposes settling more than one million Jews there by the year 2020. Jerusalem’s former deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti says the process of the West Bank’s absorption into Israel is “irreversible.”

Israel has spent more than $400 million to expand existing settlements within the last few years, an astronomical sum for an economically hard-pressed nation that depends on $3 billion in annual aid from the United States. Moreover, Ariel Sharon, Minister of Industry and Trade, has given generous grants to businesses willing to set up factories in the occupied territories. Since 1977, “more than 100 settlements have gone up in Judea and Samaria,” said David Levy, Israel’s hard-line Housing Minister from the Likud Party who has stated he would like to become Israel’s first Sephardic Prime Minister. “When I see that, with all the infrastructure and community facilities and planning for the future–all the talk about territorial compromise is an illusion,” Levy has explained.

Lest one dismiss Levy as being unduly melodramatic, consider that in November 1986, the Gush Emunim-dominated Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria vowed to take up arms against the Israeli government if it tries to trade territory for peace with the Arabs. The settlers threatened there would be “the most horrible scene…mutiny in the army, an armed uprising in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and finally–Jew fighting Jew.”

Zev Schiff, Haaretz’s respected military affairs editor, warned in a series of articles in 1987 that there are units inside the Israeli army, which are responsible for patrolling the occupied territories, “in which most soldiers belong to Gush Emunim or are close to the Gush in their opinions.” Schiff recommended that these politically homogenous regional defense units, whose officers and men live in the settlements, be disbanded before they pose a threat to Israel’s security.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian demographic time bomb is ticking. Israel cannot absorb several million Arabs and remain a democratic Jewish state. There are currently 1.3 million Arabs in the occupied territories and 750,000 Israeli Arabs, compared with 3.52 million Jews. According to Israeli government statistics, in 20 years the majority of greater Israel’s inhabitants will be Arab. The Gaza Strip alone will have one million Arabs by the year 2,000, according to an Israeli army study. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has said that the solution to the demographic problem lies in “a resurgence of immigration,” possibly by Jews from the Soviet Union. But even an influx of 60,000 Jews from the Soviet Union would make a difference of only 1%. The fear of being engulfed by an Arab tide has given Jewish extremists power and legitimacy in Israel.

Israel must choose whether to succumb to the religious-nationalist fantasies of those who seek a Greater Israel or to trade territory for peace with the Arabs. Danny Rubinstein calls it a “repugnant choice between two equally disastrous alternatives. Either annex the occupied territories and continue to oppress the Arab population, or agree to face the consequences of what may escalate into civil war [between Jews].”

Without coming to terms with Palestinian nationalism and repartitioning Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states, the future for Israel is grim. Israel is already on the verge of becoming a Middle Eastern Belfast, where Jew is pitted against Jew, and Jew against Arab in a never ending round robin of communal strife and destructive wars. Warned Y. Harkabi, the dovish former head of Israeli military intelligence, who advocates giving up the occupied territories in a peace settlement: “What awaits Jews and Palestinians if there is no solution–I will say it in very short terms–is hell!”

©1988 Robert I. Friedman

Robert I. Friedman is a freelance writer reporting on the rise of the radical right in Israel.

Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman