Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu surprised many at his Tel Aviv press conference Wednesday night by promising a “new diplomatic horizon.”
It was remarkable not only because the press conference was supposed to be about war and not peace, but also because it came at the culmination of a week that was so bleak for those who want to see a diplomatic solution to the Gaza problem, and the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hopes for an extended cease-fire were dashed. Rocket attacks resumed in full scale and scope. And the Israeli Left endured a week that its leaders undoubtedly would want to forget.
The week started with a poorly attended pro-peace rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
The same location that once boasted 400,000 left-wingers at a demonstration got 10,000, according to the most optimistic among the event’s organizers – and much less according to others.
No matter who was right, the 10 sponsoring organizations should have been able to bring out a lot more, especially after they were challenged by none other than US President Barack Obama.
“If [Netanyahu] doesn’t feel some internal pressure, then it’s hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement,” Obama said in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.
If Obama had been the speaker at the rally, a lot more people would have come.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, Hadash chairman Muhammad Barakei and author David Grossman apparently were not enough of a draw.
Labor Party leaders admitted they boycotted the event because they were afraid it would cause then to lose votes from the Center. Perhaps that was also why Labor chairman Isaac Herzog attacked Netanyahu this week from the Right.
Herzog said Tuesday that the prime minister’s job was to provide security and complete quiet to residents of the South, implying he should take more action to do so.
“If, as Netanyahu has said, Hamas has been vanquished, he should reach a diplomatic deal under the best terms possible for Israel,” Herzog said. “But if the government was to surrender in order to bring about a fake quiet like that which we had until today, it would prove it is a weak government that has failed.”
The poor showing at the demonstration could be explained by a poll released Tuesday, which found that the Left’s numbers in Israel are dwindling. The Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University have been taking a monthly poll called the Peace Index since 1994; never in those 20 years have there been fewer people who call themselves left-wing.
When asked to place themselves on the political spectrum for foreign policy and security issues, 34 percent self-identified as part of the Right, 28% as moderate Right, 22% as centrist, 9% as moderate Left, and only 3% as Left.
IDI Prof. Tamar Hermann, who takes the polls, explained that at first the Right and Left were divided half and half. She said the Left’s numbers started to fall following the November 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
For many years, 25%-30% of respondents called themselves left-wing; in recent years, 15%-17%. In an interview with the new Voice of Israel website – a Jerusalem-based, English-language broadcast network – Hermann said the Left had shrunk due to internal disputes, the reshaping of the political map, demographic changes and steps taken by the Palestinians.
“People who tended to put themselves on the Left and supported the operation [in Gaza] were a bit hesitant to place themselves on the Left, because the vociferous Left was strongly against the operation – or at least its consequences,” she said. “People’s self-identification with this camp has become more problematic than it used to be in the past.”
Former deputy defense minister Danny Danon (Likud) had a different explanation.
The MK said the rival camp was suffering because the Palestinian leadership repeatedly rejected diplomatic overtures from Israel.
“The Left has become an endangered species,” Danon said. “I have noticed how frustrated people on the Left have become now that the public has realized we are not to blame for the lack of peace.”
Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer promised that another demonstration would take place again soon that would be better-advertised and attract many more people. A former Labor Knesset candidate, he said one of the keys to the Left’s recovery was for left-wing parties to unite under Herzog’s leadership ahead of the next election.
“People are looking at the peace solution not in a romantic way like they did in the 1980s or 1990s, but in a more realistic way,” Oppenheimer said. “They are not enthusiastic or waiting for peace to solve all the problems. But, on the other hand, they recognize that without the two-state solution, we will find ourselves fighting the Palestinians again and again.
“There is no reason for the Right to be optimistic. Eventually the people of Israel will understand that the only way to ensure Israel remains a Jewish-democratic state is a two-state solution.”
Oppenheimer’s optimism about the Left’s recovery contrasted with another question in the IDI poll, which found that left-wingers are more pessimistic than right-wingers about Israel’s future.
Sixty-five percent of Jewish respondents said they were optimistic about Israel’s future, while 33% were pessimistic.
When divided by political affiliation, the more left-wing people are, the more pessimistic they are.
Seventy-one percent of right-wingers called themselves optimistic, as did 67% of those on the moderate Right, 69% of centrists, 61% of the moderate Left, and 54% of the Left.
The fact that so many Israelis are optimistic despite the events of the past two months could be seen as a vote of confidence in the IDF, which the poll found enjoyed nearly universal support from Jewish Israelis, and in Netanyahu, who also fared well in the survey.
Netanyahu’s opponents on the Right said his attack on Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett at Wednesday’s press conference came because the prime minister was feeling pressure from his poor showing in recent polls.
But Netanyahu’s associates said his frustration with Liberman and Bennett was genuine, and based purely on their behavior.
Asked whether the prime minister’s statement about a diplomatic horizon was also genuine or merely intended to spite Liberman and Bennett, they said Netanyahu would only act based on what was best for the country.
What that means for the future will depend in part on what surprises the prime minister still has in store.