International Relations

The relationship between the political and religious right in Israel (1967-1981)

Charlotte MORLIE (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Bsc in International Relations. 


         The relationship between the political and the religious right in Israel between 1967 and 1981 was a deep ideological relationship based on a renewal of both their conception of the Israeli national identity and understanding of Zionism. The simultaneous rise of these two entities following the 1967 war was no coincidence: the Likud could not have secured power in the 1977 and 1981 elections without the support of the religious right, which in turn was reinforced by this new political environment. However, historians have argued that this relationship was not merely a strategic and pragmatic alliance based on mutual interests and reciprocal concessions. These two trends shared a common worldview that marked an important ideological change in Israel. Interestingly, the political and the religious right stem from two very different, almost opposed, intellectual currents: religious Zionism and revisionist Zionism. Nevertheless, they both share a commitment to territorial maximalism which was revived after the 1967 war. This new political climate does explain the strategic relationship between the religious and the political right and also the tensions within it. However if the relationship endured, it is because it had a much deeper dimension based on a shared re-definition of the Israeli nation and identity. This ideological relationship will become particularly apparent through a discussion of the settlements. The political right and the religious right are not homogenous groups and there was a range of different opinions within them. This essay will thus focus on the Likud and especially Menachem Begin’s ideas as representing the political right and on certain groups within the religious right, such as Gush Emunim.

            The political and religious right in Israel come from two very different traditions, both marginalised from mainstream socialist Zionism. Begin presented himself as the true heir of Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. He had been very strongly implicated in the movement as the leader of its military arm, the Irgun, from 1943 to 1948.[1] This trend of Zionism claimed that a state should be created for the Jews on both sides of the River Jordan. In opposition to Herzl’s political Zionism, however, revisionists claimed that the best way of establishing such a state was through military force. Jabotinsky believed that Arab opposition to a Jewish State was inevitable, therefore it had to be imposed on them by military power.[2] He stressed discipline, military might, courage, hierarchy and order.[3] Jabotinsky was also committed to the notion of monism, he did not think that Zionism could be mixed with other ideals, such as religion or socialism.[4] Here, there was a clash with religious Zionism as Jabotinsky understood the Jewish State to be a secular state. There was an even more basic difference between the two trends: religious Zionists can hardly be called Zionists at all because they rejected the project of establishing a state. They believed they were the ‘chosen people’ by God to live on “Eretz Israel”, the Holy Land, but that the end of Jewish exile could only occur with the return of the Messiah. This passivity was directly opposed to Jabotinsky’s active and aggressive strategy and most Zionists were considered heretics for wanting to alter God’s divine plans.[5] If most of the religious parties had to accept the reality of a Jewish State after 1948 and participate in the political system, some such as the Aguda still focused on the call for a religious state and the obedience to Orthodox Jewish Law and practices.[6] Their prime concern was not the relations with the Arabs and many religious parties actually had a moderating effect on Israeli foreign policy before 1967.[7] Revisionists and Religious Jews had thus very different concerns. Nevertheless, as early links already between certain religious circles and revisionist leaders in the 1930s and 1940s show, there was a potential for reconciliation and overlapping aims between these trends.[8]

            Indeed, both the religious and the political right shared a commitment to territorial maximalism which was revived after the 1967 war. They were both opposed to the partition of Palestine and saw the establishment of the Israeli State on the whole of Eretz Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, as undeniable and non-negotiable. This strong territorial maximalism was introduced in the religious thinking by Rabi Avraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook in the 1920s, who managed to reconcile messianic beliefs with the secular Zionist project.[9] He saw the Zionists as an instrument of the divine will and the establishment of a state as the first step in the redemption process that will bring about the return of the Messiah. The 1967 war appeared like a divine confirmation of this territorial maximalism. Israel achieved an overwhelming victory over the Arab armies in only six days and had quadrupled its territory to finally occupy the whole of the “Holy Land”. The unification of Jerusalem was seen as very symbolic event for the religious right. Only a divine miracle could explain this victory. This messianic understanding of territory was revived in even more aggressive and determinate vein by Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook.[10] Jews were in the middle of the redemptive process and the newly acquired land had to be secured, a concern shared by the political right.

            The post-1967 period was marked by a political crisis that brought the religious and the political right closer together around the notion of territorial maximalism. The “period of waiting” from the 14th of May 14 to 11th of June 1967, when Israeli did not know how to react to a series of Egyptian threatening moves, was marked by a deep feeling of vulnerability for the Israeli population. For the first time since the establishment of Israel had it felt such anxiety, illustrated by a revival of memories of the Holocaust.[11] This sense of insecurity was again revived during the 1973 War when Israel found itself so close to defeat. This rupture between the post-1967 overconfidence and the trauma of 1973 created a political situation that was exploitable for the right. The Likud criticised Labor’s pragmatic and minimalist approach to occupied territories, as bargaining tools in a potential peace plan.[12] Begin resigned from Parliament in 1970 opposing the Rogers Plan which called for an Israeli withdrawal of Egypt.[13] The Labor was experiencing a deep political crisis and its lack of determination and assertiveness on annexation and settlement was condemned by the religious right as well.[14] They saw in Begin’s coalition party a way more convenient partner to advance their territorial claims. In Likud’s Original Party Platform, the right to annex the occupied territories is linked to the “right to security and peace” but the change in the terminology implies a direct biblical right: the use of the religion-connoted terms“Eretz Israel”, “Judea” and “Samaria” to describe the West Bank shows Begin’s ideological, rather than pragmatic approach to territory.[15] This religious framing also allowed Begin to solve the problems of the Palestinian Arabs: described as a religious or ethnic minority but not as a nation, they had no right to establish an independent state.[16] The religious right was pleased with this change in rhetoric and saw in Begin a man that could finally understand their claims and materialise them. In turn, their electoral support was necessary for the Likud to stay in power.[17] There was a relationship of mutual interests. Begin made many concessions to ultra orthodox parties such as Aguda, passing a number of religious reforms such as the 1980 Chief Rabbinate Law on marriages.[18] Like any alliance based on mutual convenience, it was marked by tensions. Likud, as a broad coalition, tried to accommodate both the most extremist religious groups, but also the more moderate camp, largely constituted by the former members of the Liberal Party.[19] As territorial maximalism was the chief common denominator between religious and political right, Begin’s signature of the Camp David Accords in 1978, returning the Sinai back to Egypt, was seen as a betrayal by parts of the religious right.[20] It led to the emergence of a more radical current with the creation of the Banai party, the break of Kahane from Begin towards an even more violent and extremist attitude, and the early emergence of the “Jewish Underground”, responsible for a number of terrorist acts against Arab civilians in the 1970s and 1980s.[21] Interestingly, there is thus some sort of mutual radicalisation between the religious and the political right as they manipulate each other to further their agenda.

            However, the relationship between the religious and the political right in Israel was more than an alliance of mutual convenience and manipulation, it had a deep ideological basis. It responded to a spiritual as much as a political crisis, exacerbated by the 1967 war. Weissbrod has argued that the transition to a Likud government in 1977 was representative of a broader ideological shift from Labour Zionism to New Zionism.[22] Labour’s conception of the national identity, essential to legitimise its dominant role in the establishment of the Israeli State, was mainly secular. It operated a rupture between Israeli and Jewish identity.[23] The real Jew was the Israeli, the one who lived in Israel, as opposed to the diaspora Jew, which was increasingly rejected and derogated.[24] This meant a dissociation from Jewish heritage and Judaism more generally and on emphasis on socialism. This secular understanding was very much influenced by the Eastern European Jews, who having not benefited from the open secular environment of Western Europe, strongly rejected religion and the rabbi’s authority.[25] There was a wish for normalisation, against the background of failed assimilation, that went against the messianic concept of choosiness, the Jewish were not a special people chosen by God, but a normal people entitled to a state like every other nations.[26] However, this alienation to Jewish past and Judaism became increasingly problematic. How could the occupation of the territories in 1967 be ethically justified if the young Israeli had downplayed the role of Jewish religion and past?[27] Furthermore, the increasing sense of being condemned and abandoned by the international community in the 1967 and 1973 wars damaged the ideas of normalisation: as Israel was not accepted as a normal state, it’s messianic uniqueness had to be revived.[28] New Zionism thus reincorporated religion in the national identity and operated a return to Jewish historical roots. Both the political and the religious right shared this new belief system at the heart of a new conception of nationality. Begin was not just merely using biblical terms as a rhetoric tool to attract support of religious movements, he was a strong believer and ideologue, a “man who thinks like a Jew, acts like a Jew, faces television with a yarmulka on his head”.[29] Religious and political right shared this understanding of what it meant to be Jew.

            This shared understanding of the national identity explains also their common commitment to settlements. Illegal settlements in the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank, was not a new phenomena under Likud. Already under the Labor government, settler movements used the “fait accompli” strategy. Like in the 1968 establishment of ten families in Hebron, these settlers would create facts on the ground: they established themselves in a location, the state would have to send the army to protect them, and they would eventually reach a compromise, rendering official what was first condemned as an illegal action.[30] Yet, under the Likud, it was different, the government did not just half-heartedly accept settlements, it would overtly support them. From 1977 to 1981, the religious settler-movement Gush Emunim, created in 1974, was able to expand their activity to reach twenty settlements.[31]The proclaimed aim of the government was to “maintain vital security areas” and no direct reference to religious or biblical justification was given.[32] However, this was not merely a convenient way for Likud to fulfil its aim of territorial maximalism, and often settlements were accepted in areas with no strategic value, such as Elon Moreh[33]. The drive for settlement exemplified the new conception of Israeli national identity: it was about the “renewal of the pioneering spirit”.[34] Gush Emunim embodied this renewed spirit and bridged the gap between the secular and the religious, between the national and the messianic, between the young and the old. They were able to promote this new conception of national identity based on religious beliefs but adapting it to the modern Israeli society. Indeed, they were a product of the post-1948 state and strongly emphasised nationalist themes: security, military might and other nations’ hostility. [35] They downplayed the imposition of religion in everyday life but presented settlement as a holy duty, as the messianic process towards redemption.[36] They impressed by their youth, energy and dynamism, opposing to what was perceived as a weak Labor establishment who had relinquished its original revolutionary ideology. Against that ‘routinised’ Zionism, they reaffirmed the new national identity: the real Jew was the strong and mighty Israeli, the young ‘Sabra’, but also a true Jewish believer, reconciled with its historical and religious roots, furthering God’s will.

            The relationship between the political and the religious right in Israel between 1967 and 1981 was a more than an alliance of convenience, it was also based on a deep ideological relationship and renewed conception of the national identity. Both trends stem from very different zionist traditions but they overlap on the question of territorial maximalism which was revived after the 1967 war. The 1967 war marked also a turning point as it created a crisis of identity for young Israelis which the Likud was able to respond to by reincorporating religion in the new national identity. This was particularly apparent when it came to the issue of settlements. There was more than mutual manipulation in this relationship as some historians have argued. The fact that it had a deep ideological basis matters for two reasons: it means that this relationship is potentially very solid and could endure, as it does today, even if Netanyahu is arguably more pragmatic and less ideologue then Begin. It also matters because it impacts the larger dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The centrality that has taken questions of religion and identity has radicalised the respective actors, especially because the increase of religious fundamentalism in Israel has been mirrored on the Palestinian side with the emergence of Hamas in 1987.


Brenner, Lenni. The iron wall: Zionist revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir. London: Zed, 1984.

Kahane, Meir. “The Activist Column: Reflections on the Elections”, The Jewish Press, 1977.

Newman, David. “Gush Emunim and the settler-type in the West Bank,” Bulletin (BRISMES), Vol 8, No 1 (1981).

Original Party Platform. Jewish Virtual Library, 1977.

Rubinstein, Amnon. The Zionist dream revisited: from Herzl to Gush Emunim and back. New York: Schocken, 1989.

Shlaim, Avi. “The Likud in power: the historiography of revisionist Zionism.” Israel Studies 1, no. 2 (1996): 278-293.

Sprinzak, Ehud. The ascendance of Israel’s radical right. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Sprinzak, Ehud. “The Emergence of Israel’s Radical Right,” Comparative Politics, Vol 21, No 2 (1989): 171-192.

Tessler, Mark. “The Political Right in Israel: Its Origins, Growth, and Prospects.” Journal of Palestine Studies 15, no. 2 (1986): 12-55.

Weissbrod, Lilly. “From labour Zionism to New Zionism.” Theory and Society 10, no. 6 (1981): 777-803.

[1] Avi Shlaim, “The Likud in power: the historiography of revisionist Zionism.” Israel Studies 1, no. 2 (1996),280.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ehud Sprinzak, The ascendance of Israel’s radical right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 26.

[4] Lenni Brenner, The iron wall: Zionist revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir (London: Zed, 1984), 79.

[5] Mark Tessler, “The Political Right in Israel: Its Origins, Growth, and Prospects.” Journal of Palestine Studies 15, no. 2 (1986), 37.

[6] Tessler, 17.

[7] Amnon Rubinstein, The Zionist dream revisited: from Herzl to Gush Emunim and back (New York: Schocken, 1989), 47.

[8] Sprinzak, 31.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rubenstein, 45.

[11] Sprinzak, 38.

[12] Sprinzak, 62.


[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Original Party Platform (1977), Jewish Virtual Library,

[16] Shlaim, 283.

[17] Brenner, 166.

[18] Brenner, 167.

[19] Tessler, 27-28.

[20] Ehud Sprinzak, “The Emergence of Israel’s Radical Right,” Comparative Politics, Vol 21, No 2 (1985), 174.

[21] Sprinzak, “The Emergence of Israel’s Radical Right”, 175.

[22]Lilly Weissbrod, “From labour Zionism to New Zionism.” Theory and Society 10, no. 6 (1981), 777.

[23] Weissbrod, 792.

[24] Ibid., 790.

[25] Rubinstein, 15-16.

[26] Rubinstein, 31.

[27] Weissbrod, 792.

[28] Rubinstein, 80-82.

[29] Meir Kahane, “The Activist Column: Reflections on the Elections”, The Jewish Press (1977), 20.

[30] Rubinstein, 102.

[31] David Newman, ‘Gush Emunim and the settler-type in the West Bank,’ Bulletin (BRISMES), Vol 8, No 1 (1981), 33.

[32] Original Party Platform (1977), Jewish Virtual Library,

[33] Rubinstein, 108.

[34] Original Party Platform (1977), Jewish Virtual Library,

[35] Rubinstein, 106.

[36] Rubinstein, 114-116.

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