“Fear has won the election,” wrote the Spanish paper El País last Wednesday after Israeli voters once again made the right-wing Likud the country’s strongest political party. “In Israel, fear is king and the one occupying the throne is called Netanyahu.” Other papers across the continent were equally disheartened. “Netanyahu’s victory pushes a dignified settlement of the Palestinian conflict far into the future,” wrote Le Monde. In Germany, Tagesspiegel wrote: “At the end of the tunnel, only a tunnel can be seen.”
But one growing faction in Europe is welcoming Benjamin Netanyahu and his re-election with open arms. On the ultra-conservative periphery, among the xenophobic, nativist fringe, right-wing populists are unabashedly rejoicing. For them, Europe is engaged in a battle against encroaching Islam – and the hardliner Netanyahu, they believe, is doing yeoman’s work on the front lines. “Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory is a good thing for several reasons,” Geert Wilders, the vociferous anti-Islam incendiary from the Netherlands, said in an emailed statement. “We share his criticism of Iran . . . and his opposition to a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria.”
“We are very happy,” agrees Filip Dewinter, a leading member of Belgian right-wing party Vlaams Belang. “It is a good thing for Israel, but also good for right-wing parties in Europe because he understands that the first danger for Europe is Islamisation.” David Lasar, a foreign policy co-ordinator for the Austrian Freedom Party, echoed that sentiment. “For sure, I am very happy,” says Lasar, who has worked hard in recent years to develop ties with staunchly conservative parties overseas. “It is a very important step that Netanyahu has won the election.”
From the perspective of a European chauvinistic periphery that has increasingly been striving for mainstream legitimacy in the recent past, the enthusiasm is understandable. As groups like the Austrian Freedom Party, France’s Front National and the Swedish Democrats have long histories of anti-Semitism, recent years have seen them attempting to refocus their enmity on Islam and Islamists. With that shift has come a recognition that Israeli conservatives, with their rejection of a Palestinian state and hardline approach to Islamism, are their natural allies.
The Likud party has been cautiously returning the admiration. Many Israeli conservatives feel that the political mainstream in Europe has become increasingly antagonistic toward Israel in recent years. They point to Sweden’s official recognition of Palestine and to the fact that other EU countries have discussed doing the same. European reaction to Operation Protective Edge, which saw the Israeli military invade the Gaza Strip last summer, was likewise critical. “A part of the centre-Left still sympathises with us,” says Michael Kleiner, a senior Likud member. “But the younger generation is more guided by Muslim votes. Left-wing parties are tending more and more to compromise between moral values and the need to be nice to the Muslims.”
Sentiments like that are music to the ears of European right-wing parties. “For me, Netanyahu is quite a positive choice,” says Aymeric Chauprade, a member of European Parliament for Front National. “He is very strong against terror and against Islamists.” Kent Ekeroth, a Swedish parliamentarian with the right-wing Swedish Democrats, agrees: “It is far better that Likud won,” he says. “The Left doesn’t take the security situation seriously and, because of that, they are far more likely to appease the Arabs.”
Ekeroth was careful to insist that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his party. But his message chimes with the increasing number of right-wing populist pilgrims heading to Israel for talks with West Bank settlers, Likud parliamentarians and other conservative leaders. Ekeroth, Dewinter and Lasar have all made the trip, as have Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache and Wilders. Even Front National leader Marine Le Pen, whose father and party founder Jean-Marie was considered vehemently anti-Semitic, has expressed interest in visiting the country.
Right-wingers are attracted to Israel for other reasons. Ties with the country serve to distance the populist Right from neo-Nazi groups. And that differentiation could be crucial to the parties’ successes at the ballot box.
In a January survey, the Austrian Freedom Party came in first place with 28% support. The Swedish Democrats polled close to 18% last December. “The Swedish Democrats and the Austrian Freedom Party have very questionable pasts. They are still perceived as racists and anti-Semitic by many,” says Yehuda Ben-Hur Levy, a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Reform and a long-time observer of the European far Right. “This is to some extent a way to legitimate themselves – saying, ‘If we go to Israel, you can’t really claim that we are anti-Semitic’.”
Thus far, the right wingers’ visits to Israel have not been given the official stamp of approval. While delegates have often been received by parliamentarians acting independently, they have never been received by a Foreign Ministry delegation or given an official government welcome. But there is some hope on the right that Netanyahu’s re-election may change that. “The understanding between right-wing parties and Israel can only get better under Netanyahu,” says Dewinter of Vlaams Belang. The Austrian press even speculated in December that Strache might soon receive an official invitation.
Such optimism may not be misplaced. Many conservatives in Israel now see the European right wing as being the only reliable partner on a continent where, they say, anti-Semitism has become rooted in the political mainstream. Right-wing parties, says Kleiner of Likud, “are better at recognising the real danger that Europe is facing from the Muslims . . . . They are less naive than the Left.”
While not explicitly embracing the Right, Netanyahu has been vociferous in his criticism of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in the wake of the January attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. He urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel and intimated he saw Europe as an unreliable trading partner: “Western Europe is undergoing a wave of Islamisation, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. We would like to ensure the state of Israel will have varied markets around the world.”
Such comments endear Netanyahu to the Right. “I am quite happy,” says Fiorello Provera, a senior member of the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord and a former European parliamentarian. “I think that Netanyahu is the right man for the difficult situation.” Provera then made a plea for the Israeli prime minister to not completely turn his back on the continent. “Since the left has abandoned Israel,” he said, “what is left for Israel are the right-wing parties of Europe.”