JERUSALEM – Walking down Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem on a Saturday night after Shabbat, huge crowds of young people line the streets. At one crowded bus stop hangs a life-sized poster of the far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, captioned in Hebrew: “Who are the real landlords here? The time has come. Jewish Power.”
As Israel heads to the polls on Tuesday for its fifth election since April 2019, a sharp rise in right-wing support among young Israelis raises questions about the prospect of a peaceful future.
A recent analysis by the Israel Democracy Institute, based on numerous surveys conducted this year, shows that about 60 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as right-wing today. But among young people aged 18-24, that number rises to 70 percent. In April 2019, only 46 percent of Jewish Israelis identified as right-wing, across all age groups.
“There’s no real left in Israel,” Sara Guggenheim, a 27-year-old content developer from Jerusalem, told VICE World News. “The most left-wing party in Israel would be considered a centre-right or right-wing party in Europe.”
This surge of right-wing support among young Israelis didn’t happen in a vacuum. Reactions to last year’s violence in Gaza, religious families’ tendency to vote conservatively and have more children, and deepening polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians are all contributing factors.
But 27-year-old Daniel Goodman, a freelance web designer who lives in Tel Aviv, says the term “right-wing” means something specific in Israel. “When we talk about [right-wing views], we’re mainly talking about security,” he told VICE World News. “Most young Israelis are very left-wing in terms of social issues, like gay rights and women’s rights. But when it comes to security, we need a strong leader like Bibi [the nickname for Benjamin Netanyahu, the former PM and current frontrunner] to keep us safe.”
On the 1st of November, Israel will hold its fifth election in less than four years. Former Prime Minister and Likud party chair Netanyahu, who resigned as party leader last year amid corruption charges, is poised to do well.
But his comeback relies, in part, on an alliance with one far-right Israeli lawmaker who has captured the country’s attention in recent months.
Ben-Gvir, 46, leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and has been accused of being racist and holding extreme political views. Although Ben-Gvir’s party is running independently in the upcoming election, it is considered a faction of the Religious Zionism party, which has called for fully annexing the West Bank, internationally recognised as having been occupied since 1967, as well as dissolving the Oslo Accords – which promised Palestinian self-determination – and giving Israel total control of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Ben-Gvir has threatened to deport all who are "disloyal" to Israel, and a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the man who massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994, hung in his home until very recently.
Bezalel Smotrich, the 42-year-old leader of Religious Zionism, will be another critical ally to Netanyahu. Smotrich holds views as radical as Ben-Gvir, advocating a shoot-to-kill policy for the Israeli military when they face stone-throwing Palestinians and for the separation of Jewish and Arab mothers in hospital maternity wards.
Most polls predict Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies will control the largest bloc of seats in the Knesset, but others show he may fall one or two seats short. Netanyahu, who was PM from 1996 to 1999 and then again from 2009 to 2021, has run a hardline campaign, but his success banks on an alliance with the far-right. If current polls hold, Ben-Gvir’s party could become the second-biggest in Netanyahu’s coalition and the third-largest in the country. And while many in Israel oppose his extreme views, Ben-Gvir has gained support among a growing number of young Israelis.
“Our only hope is Bibi and Ben-Gvir,” says a young Jewish Israeli woman from Jerusalem who spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity to avoid backlash from her community. “I want them to be my leaders and lead all the people of Israel.”
A generation of young Israelis and Palestinians have known nothing but conflict, and the vision of a shared, safe future feels increasingly beyond reach. The Oslo Accords – often called the “peace process” – marked a milestone in the pursuit of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Negotiations eventually came to a halt following the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. While there have been attempts to revive the peace talks, like the Camp David Summit in 2000 and the Annapolis Conference in 2007, none resulted in lasting peace or progress.
“To some degree, I remember the days of Oslo,” recounts David Daoud, an Israel research analyst at the Atlantic Council. “That kind of heady, naive optimism of ‘We’re gonna go eat hummus in Beirut soon, we’re gonna make peace with Syria, and the conflict is over.’ Instead, we went from the mountaintop all the way down. The failure of Oslo and the Second Intifada fed into the impression that this is a war to the death. And there’s been nothing since to replace that feeling.”
Daoud says the possibility of Netanyahu returning to power joined at the hip with Ben-Gvir reflects a wider, global drift to the hard right. “Today, we’re seeing a Western trend towards illiberal democracy, the rise of an illiberal right-wing – and that trend has now reached Israel.”
Tuesday’s election comes at a tense time following last year’s 15-day war, recent Israeli raids in East Jerusalem, and new militant groups forming in the West Bank. Young people, in particular, hold increasingly hostile views of each other. A 2021 study of 16-18 year-olds by the aChord Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that 42 percent of religious Jews and 66 percent of Ultra-orthodox Jewish people “hated” Arabs, while 22 percent of Palestinians “hated” religious and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In 2021, half of right-wing Israelis said they "believed in the prospect of a common future between Jews and Arabs,” but after last year’s surge of violence, that number has fallen to just 28 percent this year.
“We have legitimacy as Jewish people to be in this land, but it’s only valid if we realise there are other people in this land,” said Guggenheim, the content developer from Jerusalem. “We have to create more room for [Palestinians] in society, and I think that’s a price many are not willing to pay.”
Yasmine Daas, a young Palestinian woman from Al-Tira, an Arab-majority town in the central district of Israel, says she believes the rise of political extremism is behind the growing divide between this generation of Israelis and Palestinians.
“People are going more extreme,” Daas told VICE World News. “We’re drifting apart instead of coming together, especially with everything that’s happened in the past two years. For example, I know I can never trust what my Jewish-Israeli co-worker thinks of me as a Palestinian. I will always be the Arab Palestinian to her, and she will always be my occupier. We’re trying to live together, but things aren’t under the surface anymore.”
Daas says she and her family fear the rise of the far-right in Israel and what it will do to their place as Palestinian Arabs in society.
“Bibi never promoted peace,” she added. “His strategy is to make Israelis fear us. My parents are scared. They’re telling me: ‘Shit is going to blow up’… The future is not looking bright; it’s getting darker and more violent. Honestly, I don’t have hope. I’m scared.”
Daas’ hopelessness is echoed by Mahmoud Sou, 54, a Palestinian resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem. For many Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, daily fears and restrictions on movement are a part of everyday life.
“We don’t have a life,” Sou told VICE World News. “Sometimes, we want to go to the sea like everyone else. But we are always worried. What will happen to our house? It’s been a long time since we even went for a picnic. If the Israeli police see our house empty for a few hours, they can come and take it. Two or three people must be in the house at all times.”
Sou said his 75-year-old mother-in-law had a heart attack following a recent Israeli raid on their home, and his 19-year-old son has been in jail for eight months on charges of throwing rocks at Israeli police. But he says it wasn’t his son who started the fight; he says Israeli police routinely come to their neighbourhood and antagonise them.
“Under Israeli law, our life is very bad,” Sou said. “Nothing will change with a new Prime Minister. Nothing.”