Israel is possibly the only country in the world where the religious right has taken the initiative to infiltrate secular political parties in an apparent effort to increase their influence and grip on the state. This phenomenon has been attracting attention in the past three years because of its real-time effects that are capable of re-drawing the fault lines in Israeli politics and the repercussions this may have on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
A reflection of the growing influence of religion in secular parties was the result of a meeting convened two months ago by the Executive Committee of the ruling Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister was embarrassed when religious members of the Executive managed to persuade a majority to refuse Netanyahu's initiative to appoint a person loyal to him at the head of the Committee. The religious members wished to appoint a figure even more extreme than Netanyahu's candidate.
It was reported in the Israeli press that Netanyahu was stunned when he saw how many of the 2,000+ members of the Executive Committee are bearded and wear the kippa (skull-cap), and belong to the religious Zionist wing which advocates more settlements and Judaisation of occupied Palestinian land.
Although religious infiltration of secular parties has been more noticeable in the past three years, it started quietly more than a decade ago in a manner that shows it is part of a scheme designed to exercise the greatest influence on decision-making circles in Israel. This would be done through penetrating the secular parties, particularly those on the political right, as they look set to run Israeli governments for the foreseeable future.
The enthusiasm of religious activists to join secular parties has resulted in those groups representing religious Zionist trends seeing their memberships falling. Hence, Al Mifdal Party collapsed as a parliamentary party, and the influence of the National Union Party diminished, although the ultra-Orthodox religious parties such as Shas have maintained their power. If the elites of the Zionist religious trends are infiltrating those parties which are in the ruling coalition, such as Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel our home") and Kadima, then the indications are indeed that Likud is set to rule Israel for a long time.
Although the religious parties have been the touchstone in most of the coalitions formed in Israel after the political upheaval experienced in 1977 with the rise of Likud to power, they were unable to dictate government policy, especially in terms of an agreement with the Palestinians and the resolution of the conflict.
The signing of the Camp David treaty with Egypt and the Oslo Accord with the Palestine Liberation Organisation went against the grain for most of the religious groups. Having the support of only about 30 per cent of all Israelis, and because of the internal disagreements between the religious parties and the sects they represent, the religious party leaders realised that they couldn't gain control and influence of any government.
Thus they took the strategic decision to infiltrate large right-wing secular parties, in particular Likud, in order to influence the party's political agenda and participate in its leadership committees to a degree which is disproportionate to the demographic weight of religious Israelis and the representation of their parties in parliament. For the secularists, the presence of religious activists in their parties made it easier to use a faith-based rationale for their ideology and politics.
It could be argued that the Jewish Leadership Movement (JLM) is the most religious group to have achieved clear successes in its infiltration of Likud. This movement was founded by Moshe Feiglin, who was a young member of the banned Kach Jewish terrorist movement, founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, which called for the expulsion of Palestinians to Arab countries.
Shortly after Oslo, Feiglin established a group called "This is our land", which organised protests to prevent the implementation of the Accord. Feiglin was the first to realise the importance of infiltrating secular parties, especially the Likud, and the JLM has succeeded in persuading many religious people, especially settlers, to join Netanyahu's party. By getting "his" people onto the Likud Executive Committee, Feiglin sought to influence the selection of candidates, not least for the post of prime minister. The Jewish Leadership Movement has succeeded to such an extent that politicians who want a place on the list of Likud candidates for the legislative elections go out of their way to appease JLM members. This is generally done through support for more settlements and greater Judaisation, particularly in occupied Jerusalem. Any project which may help to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians is unlikely to get their support.
As such, a number of avowedly secular Likud politicians are now extreme in their adoption of pro-JLM policies. An example can be seen in the opinions expressed by secular Likud Knesset Member Miri Regev. She does not hesitate to accuse Netanyahu of "negligence" regarding the rights of Jews in the occupied West Bank, even though there is no doubt that Netanyahu is the most extreme Israeli Prime Minister ever as far as any agreement with the Palestinians is concerned. She adopts this approach because she knows that members of the JLM are concerned about surrounding Netanyahu and stopping him from bowing to any outside pressure and showing flexibility in terms of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Successes achieved by the Jewish Leadership Movement have tempted its leaders to push for the top job in Likud; they are not content in just being in a position of influence. One indication of this is that Feiglin is the only politician who has dared to compete against Netanyahu for the leadership role.
Feiglin has fought Netanyahu twice in a leadership election, winning 25 per cent and 30 per cent of the votes of party affiliates. This is a massive achievement for the JLM, which has announced that its senior members will be seeking places on the Likud candidates' list for the next election. Clearly they believe that it is no longer enough to influence secular MKs in parliament; they want to be the MKs.
According to recent public opinion polls, it is expected that Jewish Leadership Movement candidates could receive up to one-third of the seats in the Knesset.
Those who first supported the JLM financially were Christian right-wing groups in the United States, but Feiglin's increasing influence in Israeli politics has seen him get support from prominent businessmen, notably Shlomo Ben-Zvi, who owns most of Israeli television's Channel Ten, one of the country's main stations.
Feiglin has announced that he is no longer looking for offers of support because he has plenty already. Perhaps his group's infiltration of the Likud Party is the largest and most obvious of them all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.