© 2024 Wyoming Public Media
800-729-5897 | 307-766-4240
Wyoming Public Media is a service of the University of Wyoming
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transmission & Streaming Disruptions

A look into the rise of right-wing Israel


The decision by the United States to abstain from the U.N. Security Council's cease-fire vote yesterday - it cleared the way for the measure to pass. It also drew an immediate response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He canceled a planned Israeli delegation to Washington for talks on Israel's planned military operation in Rafah. Ramtin Arablouei, host of NPR's history podcast Throughline, brings us the story of Netanyahu's political ascent and the right-wing ideologies that have informed his current stance on Gaza and the state of Israel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do the Palestinians have a right to a separate state?


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is a 28-year-old year old Benjamin Netanyahu on a TV debate show called "The Advocates." It was 1978, 18 years before he would be sworn in as Israeli prime minister.


NETANYAHU: I think the United States should oppose the creation of a Palestinian state for several reasons, the first one being that it is unjust to demand the creation of a 22nd Arab state and a second Palestinian state at the expense of the only Jewish state.

ARABLOUEI: Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, just a year after Israel's founding. But when he was a teenager, his family moved to Pennsylvania when his father took a job there as a professor. Netanyahu returned to Israel after high school to join the military but then came back to the U.S. to study and eventually found his way to diplomatic work, including at the Israeli embassy.

NATASHA ROTH-ROWLAND: There, really fine-tuned the message that he likes to deliver to the outside world about why Israeli politics is the way it is and why Israel has to treat the Palestinians the way that it does.

ARABLOUEI: This is Natasha Roth-Rowland. She's a historian and researcher at Diaspora Alliance, an international organization that combats antisemitism.

ROTH-ROWLAND: Which is that Israel is this kind of lost outpost of, quote-unquote, "Western civilization" and that it's, you know, the last line of defense between Europe and the Middle East.

ARABLOUEI: Netanyahu returned to Israel with deep connections in the U.S. and a renewed sense of purpose. He jumped straight into politics, getting involved with the conservative Likud party.

ROTH-ROWLAND: He climbs the ladder in Likud, and he wins the chair of the party in the mid-1990s.

SARA YAEL HIRSCHHORN: Netanyahu, who is always very savvy to the pulse of the Israeli public...

ARABLOUEI: This is Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a historian and visiting professor at the University of Haifa and fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.

HIRSCHHORN: ...You know, really understands that the 1990s is a moment where Israel is at the brink of a civil war.

ARABLOUEI: In 1995, he delivered a rousing speech at a rally in Jerusalem protesting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's support of the Oslo Accords peace process with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

ROTH-ROWLAND: He does give this speech from the balcony of a Jerusalem hotel overlooking Zion Square, where all of this incredibly inciting language against Rabin is taking place.


NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ARABLOUEI: In the speech, Netanyahu called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a bloody man. The crowd cheered. He accused Yitzhak Rabin's government of bowing down to Arafat.

ROTH-ROWLAND: This is something that he knows will draw a political base toward him, will help a right-wing political base consolidate around him.

ARABLOUEI: About a month later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Rabin's widow accused Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders of stoking the flames of violence that took her husband's life, a claim Netanyahu denies.

ROTH-ROWLAND: He becomes prime minister despite the role that he played in the incitement campaign as, you know, one of its most high-profile figures.

ARABLOUEI: But Netanyahu's initial victory would be short-lived. In 1999, he lost his reelection bid for prime minister, and soon after, he announced he was stepping down from his leadership role in the Likud party.


NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ARABLOUEI: In the time he was out of office and out of the public eye, he seems to have figured something out. If he were going to make a political comeback, he'd need to move further right? And 10 years later...

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: In Israel, conservative Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister last night. Today he returns to the office he held a decade ago.

ARABLOUEI: In 2009, he recaptured the prime ministership. And again in 2015, when he was challenged for reelection, he pushed his messaging further to the right.


ELISE LABOTT: His surprising and crushing victory the product of an 11th hour push for right-wing votes, promising there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

ARABLOUEI: But unlike the U.S., Israel has a parliamentary system, which means even if your party wins an election, you still have to form alliances with other parties to create a majority in order to be a ruling government.

HIRSCHHORN: So he looks towards, you know, parties to his right and decides that, you know, the kind of government that he wants to form is an ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox coalition.

ARABLOUEI: And in 2019, one of the people Netanyahu had to cut a deal with was a right-wing politician who believed in using violence to achieve his goals, a man named Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's current minister of security.

ROTH-ROWLAND: Ben-Gvir gets into the Israeli government, and he basically gets to play kingmaker because of the number of seats that he's pulled. And Netanyahu - you know, he is crucial to Netanyahu's coalition at this point.

ARABLOUEI: Natasha Roth-Rowland says Ben-Gvir went from a pariah to a popular figure in Israel, especially with young people.

ROTH-ROWLAND: He voices what they see as things that they may not be allowed to say themselves. You know, he kind of - he voices the id of the nation in a way, in much the same way that Trump did. And...

ARABLOUEI: What kind of views was he expressing?

ROTH-ROWLAND: Just unabashed racism toward Palestinians, understanding every Palestinian essentially as a terrorist.

ARABLOUEI: But Netanyahu and his Likud coalition overplayed their political hand in 2023, when they proposed a law that would eliminate the oversight power of the Israeli Supreme Court.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Israelis woke up today to their three largest newspapers carrying a black front page.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The black pages were ads that protesters took out, calling it a dark day for democracy in Israel.

ARABLOUEI: Sara Yael Hirschhorn says the divisions on Israel's left and right are fundamental and got to a dangerous point last summer.

HIRSCHHORN: You know, it was becoming increasingly scary because no one really knew, you know, how this was going to play out. October 7, in some ways, you know, just ended this whole debate because Israel, you know, immediately came together because of this tragedy but also the necessity of the war effort to unify as a country. But some of these divisions are still simmering under the surface.

KELLY: That was Sara Yael Hirschhorn speaking with Throughline's Ramtin Arablouei. To listen to the full story on the rise of the right wing in Israel, you can listen to Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.

Enjoying stories like this?

Donate to help keep public radio strong across Wyoming.