faculty & experts
20 February 2023

“It’s the Occupation, Stupid”

Professor Cyrus Schayegh explores potential root causes for the far-right leanings of Israel's current government. 

Israel’s current, 37th government is the most far-right of its history. Even conservatives like ex-Defence Minister Moshe Ya‘alon think especially one coalition party, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength), is “fascist.” Its platform calls for “total war on Israel’s enemies.” 

The government has been materialising a rightwing drift since the 2000s. This drift has a basic cause. It’s not the Orthodox community’s growth, though its youth like voting for non-Orthodox ultra-nationalist religious parties. Nor is it Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles, since 2019, though these have made him legitimise ultra-nationalism and fascism to remain PM and evade judgment by hook or crook. And while the Israeli centre-left’s disunity matters, and though the illiberal drift of democracies like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and India play a contextual international role, they are not key either. 

What’s key is the 1967 occupation and following settlement of Gaza and the West Bank. Sure, Israel was not a perfect democracy before: in 1948-66 Palestinian Israeli citizens lived under military rule. But since 1967, state-supported settlement has both slowly radicalised and mainstreamed some religious forms of Zionism, a process accentuated by the traumas of the 1990s Oslo Peace Process, the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, and the Gaza settlements’ evacuation in 2005. Hardline settlers have been formidable political organisers too. 

By the later 2010s, their worldview had reshaped the Likud Party, marginalising old-style liberal nationalists like Benny Begin, producing laws like “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” (2018), and preparing the ground for Naftali Bennett to become Prime Minister in 2021-22.

Now, occupation-cum-settlement has fully boomeranged, taking over Israel. The religious-nationalistic and by now fascist impulses resulting from hundreds of thousands of settlers’ and soldiers’ decades-long daily confrontation with occupied Palestinians are shaping Israel’s government to an unprecedented degree. 

And now, the illiberalism innate to these impulses is threatening the foremost check in Israel, which lacks a constitution and has only one parliamentary chamber, on a majoritarian democracy: the judicial system, in particular the Supreme Court.

Yes, Jewish Israelis who are now for very good reason protesting are still not addressing the Occupation. (Few Palestinian Israelis are joining them.) But without equality for Palestinian Israeli citizens, and without a solution to the century-long drama of Palestinian statelessness, now more remote than ever, Israel will never be a liberal democracy, even though it is a trusted US partner and  let’s not forget – an Associated Member of the European Union.