Having spent the last few weeks trekking around Israel interviewing members of various activist groups, NGOs, and public intellectuals, I am now turning my focus back to the politicians. After early successes in contacting Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and Meretz, I am now trying to secure interviews with representatives of the remaining nine parties.
Today I met with Michael Ben-Ari, a member of Knesset for Ichud Leumi (National Union) at his office at the Knesset. Ichud Leumi, first formed in 1999, currently has 4 seats in Knesset (itself an agglomeration of four smaller factions: Moledet, Hatikva, Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, and Tkuma) and sits in the opposition. Considered the most right-wing of all the parties in Knesset, its members are united by their staunch support for continued Israeli control over the West Bank, the settlement enterprise, and the idea of Israel as a Jewish (although not theocratic) state. The party is effectively the successor of the old National Religious Party, a religious Zionist party which first formed in 1956 and had a strong affinity with Gush Emunim when the movement emerged in 1973.
Ben-Ari has often made headlines as an outspoken supporter of the political ideology of R’Meir Kahane, a far-right Israeli politician who advocated transfer of Arabs out of Israel and was assassinated during a visit to New York City in 1990. Indeed, a portrait of the late Rabbi hangs from his office wall as does a photo with Mr. Ben-Ari himself in the background. A former member of the banned Kach movement, Ben-Ari maintains connections with other notable former Kachniks including Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Recently he joined them in a right-wing rally in Umm al-Fahm, an all-Arab city in northern Israel. They they demanded that the Northern Islamic Movement, a movement closely associated with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood which exercises considerable political and social power there, be banned. 1300 police officers were deployed in anticipation and a minor riot ensued.
In our relatively brief conversation (MKs are very busy people), we discussed three themes: the Land of Israel, demographics, and the Arab minority. Ben-Ari, like many on the right, are unapologetic about their belief that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel. This claim, he asserts, is not based in the country’s security or economic needs, but in its historical title to the land. If Israel is not entitled to be a Jewish state on the basis of history and that it is the “land of the Tanakh”, then there is no reason that Israel should be here and not in Uganda or Zimbabwe, an early idea rejected by the World Zionist Congress in the early 1900s and and Adolf Hitler respectively, or even in the United States.
That said, he is under no illusions that controlling the Land of Israel is a costless endeavor. With regard to Gaza, he noted that this is a problem not only for Israel but for the whole of the international community. While the situation might be improved in his estimation if Israel were again in control of the territory, the whole world should be concerned about and invested in fighting Hamas while providing aid to the population there.
The biblically-promised Land of Israel, he asserted, includes Lebanon, Syria, and beyond, but Israel should not seek war in order to realize these territorial gains. However, without Yehuda and Shomron (West Bank), Israel is “nothing.” To withdraw from these lands is to forfeit Israel’s only legitimate title to the entire territory which today comprise the state. Similarly, he argued that those who believe Israel should negotiate over the status of the Golan want to divide the land and have regard for this critical history.
Here he acknowledges that Israel faces a demographic problem: there is a large and growing Arab population in the territories, particularly in Gaza. However, if one chooses to make critical political decisions on the basis of demographic fears, one must also consider the demographic problems facing Israel in the Galilee where in some areas Arabs significantly outnumber Jewish Israelis and even Yaffo, the predominantly Arab sub-municipality of Tel Aviv. Indeed, if demography is the reason to commit to territorial withdrawal or radical political institutional change, then many countries in Europe will have a much bigger problem than Israel.
The problem still remains, however, that if Israel does not commit to any further territorial withdrawals, it will be directly responsible for a significantly larger Arab population. As Ben-Ari identifies with the ideological precepts of Kahanism, one might think that he simply advocates the expulsion of the whole of the Arab population. That this is a gross oversimplification of Kahanist ideology aside, it also does not capture this MK’s approach. Arabs, he asserts, live in Israel and will likely continue to live in Israel for a long time to come.
The question will be what social and political rights they will enjoy. In this, he believes that Arabs should be allowed the status of ger toshav, resident aliens. Similar to other countries with this designation, Arabs would be able to live here, work here, and study here, but they would likely not be able to vote. Most importantly, they would not have the collective capability to change the legal, constitutive character of the state as both Jewish and Zionist.
The problem is posed not by all Arabs, but by those who are clear enemies of the state. In this category he includes Raed Salah, the head of the Northern Islamic Movement, whose vocal sympathy for and material support of Israel’s enemies and calls for Jihad are incommensurate with retaining citizenship or residence. It is for this reason that he participated in the recent march in Umm el-Fahm. The policy implication is that, in Ben-Ari’s opinion, a loyalty oath must be a meaningful assertion of allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state. Those who do not share this commitment have no place in Israel.
Unquestionably, Ben-Ari falls into the far right of Israel’s political spectrum. Indeed, he may be the most vocally far right politician in Knesset today, whose political ideology is guided by a deep belief in a Jewish religious, historical, and cultural entitlement to the Land of Israel to the effective exclusion of all others. At the same time, he shares with those across the political mainstream a high priority for Israel to preserve its character as a Jewish state, a reticence to engage in territorial compromise in the absence of obvious benefits, and a belief in the particular Jewish attachment to this land. The difference between the parties is not with regard to these beliefs, but rather the policies that should be affected to safeguard them. I do not know if this is encouraging or concerning, but it certainly is interesting.