The Origins of Right-Wing Populism in Israel: Peace Process and Collective Identities' Struggle
Populism can be considered as a political communication technique or an ideology, a phenomenon by which politicians are able to mobilise people through the use of a type of rhetoric capable of triggering powerful collective emotions and stressing the gap between “us” and “them”. In the Israeli political arena, the dynamic of populism is very interesting to analyse due to the fact that the society is fragmented, polarised and divided by “cross-cutting cleavages” (such as ethnicity, religion and ideology) which are capable of determining voters’ political affiliation. Israeli political discourse has always relied on strategies that would have been able to conquer the deepest emotions of affiliated voters, shaping the public debate in a way that could reinforce strong voting patterns and the existence of two, opposite ideological camps: the Left, leaded by Labor Party and the Right, headed by the Likud.
While populism in Europe is linked both to economic crisis and identity concerns regarding immigration, within the Israeli arena it seems to be related chiefly (if not only) to the identity dimension of the political discourse and therefore, ultimately, to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
This paper aims to analyse the case of today’s populism in Israel (it doesn’t matter if it is conceived as a strategy or an ideology) as a phenomenon originated by the right-wing narrative that peace is unattainable; indeed rightist coalitions have dominated Israeli politics in the last 20 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995: this major event, not only started the decline of the Olso process, but also paralysed the Left which has not been able to formulate a new viable alternative regarding the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving to the nationalist camp the occasion to impose its view in the formulation of the security agenda.
Of course, during these years of the Netanyahu era, the discourse adopted by the prime minister and his government has been radicalizing on many issues and has been increasing populist attitudes regarding, for example, the judicial system, the media and the police; but the rule of right wing-populism has stemmed from the overtaking of Left’s traditional dominance in the security discourse.
That element proved to be so fundamental because the Territories/Peace Issue is not only a political debate but involves deep collective emotions linked to the very definition of Israeli identity; this delineation polarises the electorate showing that the “peace camp” and the “nationalist camp” are more that simple expressions of two different political opinions, but are instead powerful, opposite concepts regarding the nature of the State itself (Medinat Yisrael, envisioned by the Left, or Eretz Yisrael, supported by the Right).
The rightward shift of the Israeli political arena, together with its values, can be re-balanced proposing an alternative to the positions given by the government coalition on the most crucial issues to the voters: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from which the electorate derives the anxieties and the polarisation that fuel populist dynamics in Israel.