In the four elections since 2019, the total votes for self-defined right-wing parties exceeded those for centrist, left-wing, and Arab parties. Yet as we all know the right-wing block was unable to form a coalition. Israel is now governed by one of the most unlikely coalitions in Israel’s history: one that includes the two smallest self-defined right-wing parties, along with self-defined center and left parties, and an Islamic party. This is a remarkable situation given the general shift to the right and the collapse of Israeli left-wing parties over the past two decades. In this interview, Laly Derai, a veteran journalist and political commentator, discusses the election cycles of 2019-2021, but more broadly what defines the Israeli right. She examines the background to the unlikely current state of affairs, why many Likud supporters do not consider New Hope and Yamina to be right-wing parties, and why Netanyahu, who is viewed by many as secular and culturally American, has the confidence of so many in the Mizrahi, traditional, and religious communities, along with other questions regarding the make-up and future of the Israeli right.
Olga: Good morning, Laly. I want to start off by discussing the events of 2021, with my first question being – what do you think is the reason for the failure of the right-wing parties to form a coalition in every single election in 2020-2021?
Laly: I think that there are a few reasons for this failure. I think that we, the right, underestimated the power and capabilities of an activist judicial system to shape the Israeli political map. Meaning, I think that for many years since the activist revolution of the Supreme Court in the 1990s led by judge Aharon Barak, who made all sorts of changes to the Israeli judicial system, such as allowing the Supreme Court to reject state laws, giving more power to the judicial consultation for government offices and the government in general, and the right of Standing ( a term in Israeli law that means anybody is allowed to appeal to the Supreme Court), and a few other changes that undermined the division of branches, the legislative, executive and the judicial, the boundaries between these authorities got blurred. The right-wing, unfortunately, was not alert enough to the impact of these changes because they were busy with other – very important – subjects.
Olga: How did all of this impact the recent elections, compared to the previous elections after which Netanyahu managed to form a coalition?
Laly: I am saying that fate made the stars align in a certain way. What happened in 2021 was that there was a combination of a few forces. First of all, the judicial system with the state attorney’s office marked Netanyahu out – and I am not the one saying that. The then attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit was quoted several months ago in a transcript of closed-door talks reported on Channel 12 and Maariv that he felt Netanyahu was heading in the direction of making major changes in the judicial system and the authority of the court in Israel, and that he wanted to go in a much more conservative route – although Mandelblit presented this as simple loyalty to Netanyahu. The point is they understood that they needed to stop him and were not even shy to say it. Then, he painted the situation of the discovery of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption as a divine intervention – I don’t buy it – but he said that thanks to these files they managed to stop him. What does this mean? That those in favor of an activist judicial system managed to mark their ultimate enemy, who is Benjamin Netanyahu. They found all sorts of very vague justifications to file charges against him, so as to mark him as someone who is corrupt, a nihilist unconcerned with the public good. That was the reality on the court’s side. As for the media, which is mostly controlled by the left and also favors judicial activism, it jumped on this story like someone finding a treasure and decided that it wanted to support it, and echo it.
I’ll give you an anecdote: there are a few law reporters on the main channels in the country, who during the time of the indictment against the prime minister were tweeting and reporting about every single thing that happened. The state attorney’s office knew how to guide them well and they knew how to do the job.
The minute that the trial started, the minute the cross-examination of witnesses started, they suddenly stopped reporting on the trial, despite the fact that it was most important trial in this country since Eichmann’s. They stopped because they realized that their story was crumbling in court. So, this judicial system that marked an enemy, together with the media that wanted to take Netanyahu down, and with opposing politicians, painted Netanyahu as an enemy of the state. Then, people like Bennett and Sa’ar got involved, saying ‘we are the right and we do not want to be associated with this’ – especially Sa’ar at first – to Netanyahu. Then, they used the platform given to them by the judicial system and the media to say we – especially Sa’ar – would never form a coalition with Netanyahu. And now that Netanyahu’s trial is coming to an end, we understand that the state attorney was very rushed in making the charges. In fact, it is worth emphasizing that the charges were initially made in an extremely hurried manner at the time that Netanyahu was in the US with President Donald Trump discussing the ‘deal of the century.’ So it was very urgent for the attorney general to make the charges and it seems that they did not do their homework. We see this reflected in the fact that they have asked to amend the charges time and time again. Last week the judges finally told them no. They said that they cannot accept any more changes and that it is impossible to amend the charges because the witnesses’ testimonies do not align with the thesis of the attorney general. We are now slowly but surely seeing the collapse of the files that are behind the charges against Netanyahu. And it is eating away at public trust.
Olga: I want to take this opportunity to raise my next question: Netanyahu was in the government for many years, and did not reform the judicial system.
Olga: So let’s talk about Netanyahu’s and other right-wing leaders’ responsibility for the failure to form a right-wing coalition during the elections in 2019-2021.
Laly: Netanyahu is responsible for this failure, and I think he is aware of this today, of not taking care of this, and regrets it a lot. He let the activists take over a huge part of Israel’s legal system. But ironically, I think his weakness regarding the court system is also generally his strength. Netanyahu is a fundamentally conservative person, meaning, he does not like revolutions, he likes evolution. He prefers doing things slowly, judiciously. That is his forte, and we know he had many successes, but here this approach was a failure. The court system had to be dealt with much more aggressively, there had to be a revolution, and he did not initiate one. I don’t know if it was a matter of courage, or simply a lack of understanding. Because when he wants to, Netanyahu can be bold. This is the same person who, as finance minister, understood that we were on our way to a big financial crisis, and did make revolutions, meaning, he is capable of this. But I think that his connection to Jabotinsky’s theory, which gives a lot of power to the legal system and respects it, is perhaps what made him misunderstand the depth of the problem. That is not to say he missed everything. I think that the right always focused on the problem known as the Supreme Court. We have seen, for example, how since the 1990s, the Supreme Court always rules in favor of the Palestinian minority, because of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which is why we always attacked the Supreme Court. We did not, nor did Netanyahu, I think, understand that the problem is with the state attorney and the institution of the attorney general, who has clearly been overstepping his authority, especially Avichai Mandelblit, but his predecessor in the job as well. This lack of attention, this inability to see the problem for what it is, is to our detriment.
Olga: What about the other leaders, the Haredi leaders, are they part of the story?
Laly: With the Haredi leaders it is the same issue. They did not like the rulings of the High Court of Justice that constantly chose the democratic identity of the State of Israel over the Jewish identity and wanted to force the Haredim to enlist in the army. The Haredi parties did not like any of this, but they too did not take into account the role of the Ministry of Justice and the weight of everything happening within the government, in the offices, through legal advisors who de facto began dictating the government’s policy. It took them a long time to understand this as well. Absurdly, Netanyahu’s trial, despite us lamenting it, did wake up the right-wing, the Traditionalist Jews, and the religious public. We understood that we need to make a dramatic change to the current system.
Olga: What is the position of the right regarding the rights of non-Jews, both Palestinians, but also Druze, Christians etc. in Israel?
Laly: I think this is the general position of the right: I will cite Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, a figure during the French Revolution who argued at the time that the Jews of France should receive every right as individuals, but no rights as a people. This means that all of the minorities in Israel, Arabs, Druze, Christians, should receive every civil right granted to Israeli citizens as individuals. In practice it is necessary to improve the infrastructure of their communities, to help them build where it is legal to do so, to address the violence within their communities, and to engage with all other issues they face that affect their quality of life as citizens. As individuals every right, but as people no rights, which means there is to be no question of a Palestinian state or waving Palestinian flags in Israel as we have seen recently. In my view it has been one of the grave mistakes of the Zionist movement not to make this distinction more clearly.
Olga: What does this mean in terms of their control over their community institutions, like schools for example?
Laly: Schools are a good example of the importance of the distinction between rights as individual citizens and rights as a people. The moment the state treats the Palestinians in Israel as a people then it does not get involved in their school curricula. As a result, it frees Palestinian leaders to brainwash their children politically. At the same time it does not ensure that schools are giving students all the necessary opportunities. In other words, my distinction would mean that the state must put more effort into the quality of education for minorities while also making clear boundaries about what can be taught in Israel. It is not a matter of demanding assimilation. All schools for these communities should continue to teach in Arabic and Muslim and Christian children should learn about their religions. It is a matter of supervising the curriculum so that what they are taught is not anti-Israel and anti-Jewish as well. Israel is a Jewish country, which is the reason the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law. In my view, and that of the right more generally, Israel should not be willing to accept that minorities, especially the Palestinians, teach their children in Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, that this country is in fact theirs.
Olga: I want to move to another feature of this period, the rise of new right-wing parties. Both the New Hope and Yamina parties define themselves as right-wing. Do you agree?
Laly: No, I think that they really want us to believe that they are part of the right, but everything they do proves that they are not right-wing. I will explain. They have joined a government with a minister from the Labor party, who told the American Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, that the main problem in his opinion as Minister of Public Security, is settler violence. Consider everything we went through last year, Operation ‘Guardian of the Walls,’ the violence and uprisings of Arab citizens against Jews in Arab-Jewish cities, and he choose to talk about settler violence and not this. When New Hope and Yamina didn’t demand his apology, did not demand he resign, they showed us they are not right-wing. Consider another issue. I was one of those who supported including Mansour Abbas’ Arab party in a right-wing government under Netanyahu. I supported it, why? Because I thought that Mansour Abbas has the courage to take the Arab Israeli community in a new path, a civil one and not a national one and that those people from the hard right, like the Likud, but especially people like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, would keep him from doing foolish things. Mansour Abbas did for example go to the synagogues in Lod that were destroyed during the May 2021 riots with the mayor, but he did not condemn terrorist attacks against Jews with the same clarity that we hear from Jews condemning Jewish terror, God forbid. I understand his position. There are things he is not able to say politically. However, both New Hope and Yamina must be clearer about their relationship with him and the limitation of what he says. If they continue to be silent, then I don’t believe they are part of the right. There would never be this kind of response in a true right-wing government.
I think, however, that there is another and more complicated issue at play. New Hope and Yamina are very “white” parties. What does this mean? Very Ashkenazi, very Western, and while they keep bragging about unifying all of the people of Israel by including Yair Lapid and Meretz as well as the Labor party, they have brought together parties that are also very white and Western, as well as very one dimensional in terms of the division of religion and state and the Jewish identity of the country. On these issues they are very very similar. When the current government claims to connect all of the people of Israel, they forget that fifty percent of the population does not feel the same. When they see Dudi Amsalem, a Knesset member from the Likud, they see the enemy. He talks with his hands. His family came from Morocco. He is not as high-minded as they would want him to be, as they think they are. Lapid said something which is incredible in my opinion: “we are the normal ones.” What does that mean? And why are you the one who determines who is normal and who isn’t? Who says that, say, Merav Michaeli’s feminism is the right feminism, and not my grandmother’s feminism, my mother’s feminism, the Mizrachi, or the Sephardi feminism? Or, all sorts of Haredi women’s feminism, which include gender-based separation? Who determines these things? For Bennett, Sa’ar, and their coalition partners, they are the Richter scale of human rights, ethics, values, Zionism, everything. This is how they view themselves.
Olga: Do you mean to say that the difference between all of self-defined right-wing parties is a cultural and ethnic difference?
Lali: I think that it’s also a sociological difference. I really supported Bennett and Shaked entering the Likud, I wanted them do us a favor and stop participating in their sector-based parties, which is what they had done up until then. Until before the last election, I thought that Yamina should roll up their sleeves and work within the Likud. I did not believe that there was a need for so many right-wing parties and that we needed to unite.
But today I cannot say something like this. Yamina and New Hope do not belong in the Likud anymore. I do not feel that they belong there ideologically. They say that they belong, at least Ayelet Shaked does, but I do not think that she does enough to implement these words in practice. She proudly states on Twitter that she is a woman who believes in right-wing ideology, but regarding the judicial system, the main subject concerning the right-wing, she does nothing. She lets Gideon Sa’ar appoint all sorts of people. Every single person, the attorney general, the judges, all of them, are like duplicates of themselves. We are not seeing new blood. She takes pride in appointing one judge – Noam Solberg. That’s it, that is what we have, one or two conservative judges in the entire system.
Olga: Avishay Ben Chaim says that the Likud is the party of ‘second Israel.’ How do you view the achievements and failures of the Likud between 2009-2021 in light of this saying, and more generally the Likud’s record with Mizrachi and Haredi Jews?
Laly: There is fascinating research conducted by Professor Nissim Leon discussing the development of the Sephardi and Mizrachi middle class, mostly in peripheral areas, under Netanyahu’s reign, and generally since 1977, when the right assumed power. He says that people in those areas are constantly asked, ‘but the right are capitalist pigs, how can you support it despite the right-wing representative not supporting the poor, etc. etc., then why do you elect them?’ Professor Leon’s research proved that the opposite occurred – that the liberal policy of the Likud and the right since they took power, but more specifically since Netanyahu was finance minister and then prime minister, benefitted the Mizrachi sector. But one needs to understand something more important: the Mizrachi sector, the ‘second Israel,’ as Avichai Ben Haim calls it, would never ever vote for a candidate just because he belongs to their tribe or because he benefitted them specifically. These people are such true Zionists, nationalists, that the only thing that interests them is the good of the state, and its Jewish identity. I think that, despite being a non-religious person who doesn’t keep the Sabbath, they still see Benjamin Netanyahu as the protector of the Jewish state.
Olga: I just want to focus on this for a second. It is pretty paradoxical. Let’s compare Netanyahu and Bennett. Bennett keeps Sabbath. Netanyahu had an affair with a non-Jewish British woman. He doesn’t wear a kippah, he does not keep kosher. It is pretty interesting that this is the first time we have a Sabbath-observant prime minister. Yet for the people of ‘second Israel’ Netanyahu is Jewish and Zionist, and Bennett is not.
Laly: It is very interesting. I need to choose my words wisely because I do not want to say something too absolute. I think that the “second Israel” view Netanyahu first and foremost as Jewish since he has tied himself to their fate and sees Israel in almost prophetical terms. Meaning, despite the religious practice – he is not truly religious – he is before anything else Jewish and this is what interests him and they see that. Bennett, because he had to prove to everyone that he is not purely sectoral, that he can be the prime minister for everyone, really hid his religious and Jewish identity. That is not what is central for him.
Olga: But Bennett started in the Jewish Home party. He began his career with a party that wanted to respond to violence towards Jews more aggressively than Netanyahu himself.
Laly: Notice that the Jewish Home party never, absolutely never, meddled in issues of religion and state. Never. They let the Haredi parties lead on these issues. They never thought about it. Meaning, and again this is very interesting, because the left keeps saying that Netanyahu uses the Jewish Traditionalist [Masorti] sector. I think that it is the reverse: the traditionalists use Netanyahu. They understand that through him they can achieve a Jewish state, a state where they have a place, and not just others. They understand that he can help them thrive economically, socially and have a seat around the table of decision makers. The fact is, they are right. Because Bennett is prime minister today, they don’t get a seat at the table. The respect that Netanyahu has for this sector is much more significant than Bennett’s. The second Israel are right to think that Netanyahu is their ally, their partner, in maintaining security, a strong economy, and the Jewish identity of the country. Bennett is not, he does not see them as his partners, and they do not see him as theirs.
Olga: I want to discuss this further. You are part of a movement called The Golden Age, an NGO promoting traditionalist and Sephardic values. There is a problem in the country’s education, which doesn’t sufficiently include the history and culture of Jewish people from Muslim countries. When Netanyahu was prime minister, nothing changed. So I want to understand, what is going on here? Is it a matter of security, of nationality? Where did Netanyahu succeed and where did he fail in terms of the people who voted him, the people of ‘second Israel?’
Laly: I will repeat what I said previously because it answers this question as well. I have a lot of criticism towards Netanyahu and the Likud on this subject, for example for not putting enough emphasis on the Sephardic legacy in the education system, in culture, or in any institution controlled by the elites of the ‘First Israel.’ I think that this was one of the mistakes of his candidacy. On the other hand, it is Netanyahu – after Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – who gave the Sephardic Jews an equal opportunity, enabling them to thrive as part of the middle class, leave poverty, and reach the upper classes, which is why they are not that mad at him. They are also less angry because, as I previously mentioned, he remained to them, to us, the person who is most capable of keeping this country a Jewish country, as well as ensuring Israel’s safety, its diplomatic interests etc., so they will keep voting for him. They will do so according to their list of political priorities, their well-being as a sector is less important than that of the entire country.
Olga: We already spoke a little about the accomplishments and failures of the Likud regarding reigning in the power of the Supreme Court. But there are people within the Likud like Dudi Amsalem who say that Netanyahu has transformed the Likud from Begin’s party, which respected the different powers, into the party of the majority. In others words, that Netanyahu wants to go too far.
Laly: I don’t think so. I don’t think that the right-wing is there. I think that Likud supporters understand the importance of a decent, functioning, justice-seeking judicial system, and understands the need for a just judicial system. I don’t believe that this is what the right wants. The right wants balance, there is no balance right now.
Olga: You yourself said that you were open to collaboration with Mansour Abbas, because you thought that Bezalel Smotrich would draw a line somewhere. This is what Bennett and Sa’ar claim. ‘We are sitting with them because this is what is needed to form a new government, but we will draw a line.’
Laly: What line? Just a few months ago they passed the electricity law. What does this mean? It means that the Bedouins who built houses illegally in the Negev and who currently do not receive electricity now, under Bennett’s government and Meretz’s influence they will receive electricity. What message does it send out to Arabs who transgress the law? That their illegal building is fine and gets brushed over. Or to take another example, what line is drawn by Naftali Bennett when Mansour Abbas refuses to condemn a terrorist attack against Jewish people? Or where is that line, when Ra’am’s Knesset members go visit terrorists or terrorist supporters? Where is this line? I don’t see it.
Olga: I want to shift gears and discuss right-wing ideology more deeply. As mentioned, you are a part of the NGO the Golden Age, an organization promoting the Traditionalist Jews and Mizrachi people in the country. What do you think is the relationship between religious tradition and the right?
Laly: Since the right-wing is traditionally conservative, the connection is very clear. The Israeli right is first of all Jewish. Reuven Adler [an Israeli media mogul] said that this is what separates the right and the left in this country. The right is Jewish first, Israeli second, while the left is Israeli first and Jewish second. Thus, the strong connection between the right and religious people. The Traditionalist Jews define themselves as Jewish first and foremost, and the Jewish tradition is an inseparable part of them. They are nationalists because they are Jewish. Their entire identity revolves around Judaism. We Traditionalists came to this country because we are Jewish, we see Israel as a Jewish country above all, and we want to keep it that way. And it is very important to mention: seventy years ago, the left was also very proud of its Jewish identity. David Ben-Gurion referred to the Bible as our property deed to the land. Today, his progenies don’t say anything like this. The right is very connected to the Jewish identity, but the left has gone very far, too far, in disconnecting from their Jewish identity. Jewish identity is one issue, another is the left’s close relationship to Arabs and Palestinians.
Olga: I want to continue with this question, because while the right says the left is no longer Jewish but Western, critics of the right say that the right is also foreign. They claim Netanyahu is very American. He studied in the USA. He speaks English just as well as Hebrew, his politics copy the American Republican party, he does not observe Jewish law. He is a nationalist, fine, but where is his traditional Jewish ideology? Is it not just American conservatism?
Laly: Here we arrive at traditional ideology, which is not about religious practice. A person is not a Traditionalist Jew because he only keeps some of the mitzvot. That is not what defines him. What defines him is a strong connection to family, to Israel, and the people of Israel. In these matters, Netanyahu is the number one champion, that is what defines him and his primary concerns. He is the son of a historian; he sees his mission in life from a historical point of view. In terms of Jewish tradition, this is more important than keeping the commandments. He speaks Jewish. I try and keep every Jewish commandment of the Torah, and can be considered to be very religious, but I still trust him completely, this relationship is similar to that between Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba, whom he called the messiah, despite Bar Kokhba’s having told God to let him do things on his own, without his help. Netanyahu is not the messiah, but he has a national vision, the historical perspective, the great love towards the people of Israel and the country itself. For these reasons many traditionalist Jews believe that he can lead the right-wing camp.
Olga: But what about his Americanism? He doesn’t exist solely in the traditional Jewish world. This is a completely western person.
Laly: A western person who also understands, an understanding that developed over the past few years, that you cannot copy-paste American conservatism here. It is impossible. I know there are many institutions such as the Tikvah Fund and the Kohelet Policy Forum who think it is possible, and I claim that because of or thanks to the strong Sephardic Jewish tradition that is very significant in this country and that combines economic liberty and societal compassion such as concern to the poor, etc. that it cannot be copy-pasted. Netanyahu understands that, which is why he gave a lot of money to the labor market during the Covid crisis, which wasn’t a strictly Republican policy. He understood that the country cannot run properly otherwise. In this case and others, including on the subject of Jewish identity, he is not a Republican, even if the Republicans are also very conservative when it comes to religion. Netanyahu is well aware of the fact that the population of Israel is not American. He does understand the Western point of view very well, and he knows how to express himself according to that culture, but he knows that this country is Jewish. He knows that America has a very clear distinction between church and state and this this approach cannot work here in Israel.
Olga: I want to take this chance to continue to the next question: there is a party, National-Union Tkuma, Bezalel Smotrich’s party, which addresses issues of tradition, such as the Temple Mount, in a much stronger tone than the Likud. For the religious and traditionalist community, what’s central? There are issues like the status and future of Hebron and the Temple Mount and the borders of the Land of Israel. Maybe you can describe where the Likud stands on these matters and say what the priorities should look like for today’s right-wing in Israel.
Laly: There are many issues here. I’ll say this – first of all, Smotrich is not a liberal. When Smotrich talks about the LGBT community or all sorts of issues regarding church and state, I’m not sure that the Traditionalist public relates to his way of presenting things.
Olga: In what way?
Laly: I’ll give you an example. In a Jewish Traditionalist family, when a person comes out and says he’s gay, they will never ever banish him. They will hug him even tighter than before. Because family is above everything. Because we don’t separate from anyone because of their beliefs or sexual orientation. There is no way in the world to make a Traditionalist family separate from one of its children even if that child acts in a different way than what we would have wanted. This is something that I am not sure that Smotrich reflects in his speech. I’m sure he feels the same, but I am not sure that his thoughts and message can live under the same roof with Traditionalist Jews. On the issue of land, I don’t think there is big difference between what Smotrich is saying and what a lot of Knesset members from the Likud are saying regarding settling the land, including where I live, a locality called Eli, and Hebron, etc. The only difference between Smotrich and the Likud is how to get to those goals. We saw this with Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century.’ His plan, which Netanyahu himself promoted, suggested this: we will annex all of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, but we will so also write the words “A Palestinian State.” Netanyahu agreed to this because he and his voters understand diplomacy and politics. But this Palestinian state will never actually come to be. Why? Because the right under the Likud has made it absolutely impossible for the Palestinians to ever establish their country. Nevertheless, several people, Smotrich for one, said no, we don’t want the words “Palestinian State” to appear anywhere in any agreement. They didn’t understand that in politics you have to get the most out of existing options. They didn’t understand that by saying no to Trump’s Deal of a Century, they will shoot themselves in the foot, which has now been proven, because today it will take a huge effort to go back to the type of deal that Trump offered to us. Smotrich’s purism prevented us from getting sovereignty in the Israeli settlements, and that is worth crying about – the traditionalist pragmatism versus Smotrich’s purism.
Olga: I would like to end this interview with your views on the Israeli left, clearly you strongly oppose its approach to Israel, the courts, and many of its policies, but are there things you value about it?
Laly: There are many things that I value on the Israeli left. I value its compassion, at least what it says about compassion. I value its past, what its members built here, the settlements and the moshavim and kibbutzim, and that they built on every part of the land. I also value their stance on principles, they stay their course, they continue to say what they think. I like this even if I don’t agree with them. I also like their will to fix the world, again, even if I don’t agree with the way in which they want to do it.