Israeli politics: A lurch to the right?

A new performing arts centre in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, 8 November The new theatre in the settlement of Ariel has become a stage where Israeli politics play out

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Joshua Sobol

There's a vacuum on the left - it has lost its sex appeal”

End Quote Joshua Sobol Israeli playwright

Joshua Sobol is one of Israel's most venerated and prolific playwrights. At 71, he is still very much involved in theatre - and politics.

He recently took part in a boycott of a new theatre in Ariel - a long-established Jewish settlement built on occupied Palestinian land.

Several leading Israeli actors and playwrights are joining the boycott. They say, it represents much of what is wrong with their country; the settlements, the treatment of Palestinians and growing intolerance.

"The public debate about the legitimacy of settlements has died out," Mr Sobol said as he supervised a group of young actors, rehearsing in the liberal, coastal city of Tel Aviv.

"So it was important to make a clear statement that the settlements are not part of the consensus and there is an important part of opinion makers in Israeli society who believe that the settlements are illegitimate."

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All those peaceniks because they have no political power, they have only the power of the pen”

End Quote Ron Nachman Mayor of Ariel

Summing up what he sees as the crux of the matter, Mr Sobol turned to me and said, "There's a vacuum on the left - it has lost its sex appeal."

Spent force?

Just a few miles to the east of Tel Aviv, but culturally and politically a million miles away, is Ariel - and its new 500-seat theatre.

For the residents of Ariel, one of the oldest and largest settlements in the occupied West Bank, the theatre is a natural extension of their daily life, a demonstration of their permanence here.

"The problem in Israeli society is the peaceniks, the leftists. All of their activity is putting Israel in a racist colour, in de-legitimisation," says Ron Nachman, the long-standing and hard-talking mayor of Ariel.

He says the new theatre won't be affected by the boycott and dismisses the left as a spent force in Israeli politics.

A new performing arts centre in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, 8 November Almost 20,000 Jewish settlers live in Ariel

"Most of the population of Israel became more nationalist. All those peaceniks because they have no political power, they have only the power of the pen, of the microphone, of the camera... so let them be a minority and that's all."

Israel may have been founded on socialist principles, but strong, nationalist leaders have always been prominent.

'Stained democracy'

The difference now, say some commentators like Bradley Burston, is that Israel is undergoing a dramatic transformation in which extremist voices are gaining legitimacy.

"I think what you see much more than a migration to the right is a fragmentation of the Israeli electorate," says Mr Burston, whose regular newspaper columns provoke fierce debate here.

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Prof Tamar Herman

The laws that were proposed recently do reflect some similarities to what we would refer to as fascist state of mind”

End Quote Prof Tamar Hermann Israel Democracy Institute

"This is due to 10 terrible years - from 2000 to 2009 - which saw three wars and tremendous violence. That kind of fragmentation in the Israeli political system favours extremists," he adds.

Indeed, Israel is arguably the most open and democratic society in the Middle East.

But some Israeli analysts have bluntly called some of the laws being debated in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, "racist" and "fascist".

They include proposals which would force new immigrants to pledge loyalty, specifically, to a Jewish state. Local communities could also have the power to prevent "certain" people from moving into their area.

"The laws that were proposed recently do reflect some similarities to what we would refer to as fascist state of mind," says Professor Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

"What we see is an alliance between marginal groups in Israeli society who have moved towards the more non-democratic side and I think that in this regard I would define Israeli democracy as democracy with stains."

Russian hard-core?

Next stop, a Tel Aviv skyscraper and the Russian language television station, Channel 9. From its studios overlooking this culturally diverse city, the channel's evening news broadcasts to more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Ana Shulik Channel 9's Ana Shulik dismisses stereotypes of Russian immigrants

Some, like former US President Bill Clinton, say the Russians are "hard-core" and an "obstacle to peace".

Then there's the example of Avigdor Lieberman - Israel's Soviet-born, tough-talking foreign minister and leader of the Israel our Home party.

He is accused, by some, of being at the vanguard of a lurch to the right in Israeli politics.

Ana Shulik, a presenter for Channel 9, says the commonly held view of Russians is stereotypical and simplistic.

"More Russians are right-wing voters than Israeli-born people, but I cannot say to you that all Russians in Israel are voting right wing because it's not true," said the newsreader as she prepared for that night's regular bulletin.

"You can't talk about one million people and say that all of them are thinking the same thing. It's a stereotype."

Ultimately, whether Israeli politics is shifting to the right or not isn't really the issue. Perhaps the real concern is growing intolerance and extremism that could, say some, lead to a schism in Israeli society.

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