The new National Left movement hopes to reinvigorate Israel’s flagging Left and fill a huge political vacuum.
By LESLIE SUSSER
On a warm night in mid-May, about 2,000 flag-waving left-wingers demonstrated in Jerusalem’s Zion Square against Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. The rally might not have attracted much attention but for the fact that it was held at a venue normally associated with fiery right-wing demonstrations and, unusually for them, the left-wingers were brandishing Israeli flags.The carefully chosen arena and the jingoistic flag waving were meant to represent a symbolic recapturing of patriotic space lost over the years to the Right. The subliminal message: Withdrawal from the West Bank is a core Israeli interest, not a concession to the Palestinians; and staying in the territories as the settlers and the Right would have Israel do is not patriotic or Zionist because it will lead to a bi-national state with an Arab majority and the end of the Zionist enterprise.“Zionists are not settlers,” placards sporting the blue and white of the Israeli flag categorically proclaimed.The theme of the rally was inspired by the National Left, a newcomer on the leftist scene which disputes the Right’s longstanding claim to exclusive representation of the country’s pro-Zionist “national camp.” “Being Zionist means leaving the territories and not ruling over another people,” author and historian Gadi Taub, one of the fresh faces in the new movement, bellowed from the podium. “The Right is not the national camp. The Right is the bi-national camp,” he declared.With the traditional Zionist Left in ever increasing disarray (the once proud Labor party with only 13 seats in the 120 member Knesset is being torn apart by bitter internal wrangling, and Meretz, languishing in opposition with only three seats, has made little impact in the current right-dominated Knesset), the National Left hopes with tougher messages to tackle the settlers and the Right head-on, and, by setting new social and political goals, to reinvigorate the flagging Left and fill a huge political vacuum.It is not the first group to harbor such aspirations. In the run-up to the last elections in early 2009, left-wingers led by lawyer-politician Tzali Reshef tried to launch a new improved, more high-profile Meretz and, last November, Labor rebels, Ophir Pines-Paz, Yuli Tamir, Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel launched the Democratic Platform in a bid to create a broad new alliance of the Left. The Meretz initiative failed when none of the big names it promised materialized and the Democratic Platform collapsed when Pines-Paz and Tamir both suddenly withdrew from politics earlier this year.So can the National Left, with a calculated push into uncharted right-wing territory and a self-proclaimed awareness of the inadequacies of the traditional Left, succeed where the others failed? Or is the Israeli Left too far-gone to be saved?AdvertisementWhat is different about the National Left is that where others have largely sought organizational solutions, bringing in electorally attractive new leaders or creating new political alliances, it has come up with a blunt new political philosophy it hopes will appeal to a wide range of voters across the country.Its ideological springboard is a 100-page manifesto by award-winning playwright and director Shmuel Hasfari, 55, and high-flying Tel Aviv attorney Eldad Yaniv, 42, a former close aide to Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. Entitled simply, “The National Left,” the manifesto, which first appeared as a draft for limited distribution in the summer of 2009 and then as a slim booklet in April 2010, argues that the classic Zionist, security-oriented Israeli Left “died” in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. Obsessed with post-war peacemaking, it lost sight of its core values – pragmatism, social solidarity, personal example and the creation of a model society.According to Hasfari and Yaniv, this loss of direction made it an easy target for the Right. Stigmatized as a bunch of unpatriotic, Arab-loving peaceniks and damned by association with upwardly mobile yuppies caring more about self-fulfillment than the country, the post-1967 Left gradually lost its legitimacy and became unelectable. To reclaim its national, patriotic credentials, Hasfari and Yaniv maintain that the Left needs to recapture the pre-1967 vision and spirit of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s tough-minded first prime minister, and of the brief left-wing revival in the 1990s under Yitzhak Rabin, when peacemaking and radical social change went hand in hand.To pave the way for this, they propose a simple restatement of Zionist principles. The main goal, they insist, is not peace, but the creation of a model society. Peace is an important means to that end, but only a means, and only one of many. Once that is understood, Hasfari and Yaniv argue, everything else falls into place: “Israel must be a model society – even without peace. Israel must be egalitarian – even without peace. Smart, successful, intelligent – even without peace. Reach the World Cup soccer finals – even without peace. Israel should win the math Olympics – even without peace. The development towns must go on developing – even without peace. The monstrous gaps in wages between company directors and floor sweepers must be dramatically narrowed – even without peace. Jews of Ethiopian origin must be allowed into Tel Aviv nightclubs – even without peace,” they write.In other words, Israel cannot allow the building of a model society to be held hostage to a never-ending peace process, and to the wishes and actions of a capricious peace partner.Still, the “Palestinian problem” cannot be ignored because the continued occupation corrupts the moral fiber of the Jewish state and seriously undermines the building of the model society. According to Hasfari and Yaniv, it creates a corrosive master-servant relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, while consuming billions of shekels in government subsidies, which could otherwise have been devoted to social services in Israel proper. For the sake of the model society, it needs to be ended as soon as possible.And since they refuse to be sucked into a never-ending peace process, Hasfari and Yaniv propose an Israeli-initiated withdrawal from the West Bank within two years. But unlike the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the pullout should be by agreement – not with the Palestinians, but with the international community. Israel, they say, should announce its intended departure date, and use the remaining time to compensate the settlers and negotiate the terms of an international mandate for the West Bank, including the deployment of multinational forces to keep the peace. It is true, they argue, that, even then, if Israel withdraws without an agreement with the Palestinians, there could be rockets on Tel Aviv; but, they say, if Israel does not withdraw, there will be no Israel.As it tries to carve out its own political space, the National Left has been slammed on both the left and the right. For example, to underline its patriotic credentials the National Left puts great emphasis on social solidarity – so much so that left-wing critics accuse it of a totalitarian-like insensitivity to individual civil rights. The controversy is over military or national service. Hasfari and Yaniv argue that social solidarity means pulling together, everyone serving when his or her turn comes. This includes Israeli Arabs.To facilitate Arab national service, they propose dividing the IDF into two wings, military and civilian, with all citizens, Jewish and Arab, obliged to serve in one or the other. Those who shirk, or don’t see their way to serving the Israeli nation, will be stripped of basic civil rights – like free education, free health care, a passport, the vote. Critics argue that, at bottom, this approach is not very different from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s “loyalty” demands, castigated by many on the Left as fundamentally undemocratic, not to say racist.Hasfari and Yaniv have also offended many on the right with their blunt descriptions of settlers as “possessed by demons of messianic madness,” and settler youth as “mostly racist, blinkered and immoral.” “Youths who attack old women picking olives in the family orchard forfeit the right to be called Jews,” they wrote in the manifesto.Indeed, right-wingers were so outraged by the booklet – and possibly also afraid of its potential vote-grabbing influence – that they successfully pressured the nationwide book chain Tzomet Sfarim to remove it from its shelves just three days after it went on sale in early April. A spokesman for the store said they had received complaints that the booklet “hurts the feelings of some of our customers,” and that it had therefore decided to stop selling it. According to Yaniv, in the short time it had been on sale (at one shekel or 25 cents each), 5,000 copies had been snapped up.Those brisk sales suggest that there is a thirst for something new from the Left. But it is much too early to say whether the National Left has really struck a chord or whether it has what it takes to break through as a national movement. It does have a number of things going for it – for example, the huge political vacuum on the Left and the fact that it alone of all the left-wing groups has a clear answer to right-wing aspersions about their patriotism.It also has potential appeal (for votes or future coalition building) to wide segments of the population, including secular, mildly observant and ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, for whom Hasfari and Yaniv show great empathy. Conversely, it is unlikely to win any points from the growing anti-haredi sentiment among secular Israelis or from anxious Arab voters. Moreover, the Left remains splintered, with no sign of its many divided factions uniting around the National Left.Worse: There are two abiding reasons for the Left’s eclipse not mentioned by Hasfari and Yaniv – the terror of the second Palestinian intifada and the long years of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza, which radically moved the Israeli electorate to the right, and the fact that Kadima, with its centrist peace orientation, has taken over much of the Left’s traditional political space. There is also a stamina issue. Hasfari has already returned to his theater work and is no longer actively involved; and there is a question mark over whether Yaniv, a busy lawyer with huge corporate clients like the Ofer brothers’ Israel Corporation, will stay the political course.Most importantly: There is a crying need for a charismatic leader to galvanize a left-wing revival. Yaniv would be the first to acknowledge that he is not that man. So far there is no obvious candidate on the horizon. There is some talk in political circles of the current IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi going into politics as the Left’s next great hope. But that can only happen in about four years’ time, after his retirement from the army next year and the prescribed 36-month cooling-off period that follows.Among major left-wing players, the National Left gets mixed reviews. Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer, one of the main organizers of the Zion Square rally, confirms behind-the-scenes moves to build a broad new left-wing party / political coalition, but says nothing has jelled so far. A lot, he says, will depend on other players, especially Labor and Kadima. “For example, if Labor gets its act together and the peace-oriented Tzipi Livni remains the leader of Kadima, there will be less room for a new player on the left; but, on the other hand, if Labor implodes and the more hawkish Shaul Mofaz defeats Livni for the Kadima leadership, that will create a huge opportunity for a coalition around the National Left,” he tells The Report.Mainly because of its public reports on settler violations of building restrictions, Peace Now is one of the left-wing organizations most often targeted by the Right as “unpatriotic.” Indeed, it could be considered an example what Hasfari and Yaniv derisively call “smol” (a derogatory misspelling of left in Hebrew), which refers, inter alia, to left-wingers who, out of universal human-rights principles, act against the interests of the state.Oppenheimer, however, is buoyed by the National Left’s fighting talk about left-wing patriotism, which, on the contrary, he sees as providing a protective umbrella for organizations like his own. “I think there is something very positive here – the recognition that one of the Left’s problems is with its public legitimacy. Sometimes we are perceived as people who don’t have the interests of the state at heart, although it is obvious that Israel’s good is the motivation for everything we do. People who would otherwise be receptive to the message are sometimes not receptive to the messenger. Here the question of legitimacy, of national identity, of Israeli patriotism is critical. It’s not just a question of image. They give an answer to this, and that’s something I can identify with,” he avers.There is much, though, in the National Left manifesto Oppenheimer rejects – for example, the blunt language and the call for withdrawal from the West Bank without a peace agreement. Nevertheless, he says, the common denominator without which they would not be able to work together is the call for a speedy end to the occupation “from a very Zionist and Israeli place, which resonates with the Israeli public.”Others on the left are more critical. Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich welcomes the thesis that the Left has been too engrossed in peacemaking at the expense of social reform, but laments the fact that Hasfari and Yaniv fail to spell out a detailed Social Democratic agenda.The most vehement CRITI- cism, however, comes from others in Labor who are appalled at the National Left’s most fundamental tactic – its attempt to fight the right for patriotic boasting rights. “We are living in a post-Zionist era, in which all the crazy post-Zionist fringes are trying to destroy the Zionist movement. And what is the National Left doing? Dressing up like the crazies to get popular legitimacy and support,” says Labor’s Daniel Ben-Simon. “It’s a tragedy that the Left, which built this country, is now trying to hitch a ride on the back of the Right. The way Shas took a ride on the back of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox to destroy the core identity of the Sephardim, they are taking a ride on the back of the Right, which could destroy the core identity of the Left. In both cases it is pathetic,” he tells The Report.Ben-Simon, who at one stage was touted as the fifth Knesset Member needed for the breakaway from Labor to launch the Democratic Platform as an independent movement, is deeply pessimistic. He sees Lieberman-style ultra-nationalism choking all that is good in the country, and, rather than providing a cure, the National Left, he says, is part of the disease. As for Labor, Ben-Simon depicts it as a wounded animal, lying on the ground and attracting some of the wrong predators, like the National Left.“We are a tired movement that doesn’t have the strength to lift itselfup. There are people, like Ehud Barak, who know the truth and who couldsave the country, but who, despite the seriousness of the hour, aredealing with trivialities,” he maintains.Still, despite his gloomy diagnosis, Ben-Simon still believes somethingwill happen to revive the fortunes of the Left, and put Israel on asafer and more rational path. “It’s just not possible that the Zionistproject – one of the most glorious in modern times – will simplyevaporate,” he declares.After the first Netanyahu government in the late 1990s, a wave ofleft-wing energy engulfed the country, sweeping Ehud Barak to power.One of the first things he did then in his campaign was to assert hispatriotic credentials as a former IDF Chief of Staff and commandofighter against Palestinian terror.The question is, after Netanyahu Mark 2, will the National Left orother left-wing forces similarly be able to neutralize the right-wing’spatriotic appeal and pull off something similar? For now, it is verymuch a case of a revolution still waiting to happen.
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