ANALYSIS: Can Abbas revive Israel’s Left?

A real opposition is critical to a functioning democracy worth its name – but Israel hasn’t had one in almost 18 years.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during the Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during the Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah
Buji Herzog’s move to head the Jewish Agency (an appointment that Benjamin Netanyahu did not want, but which American Jewish leaders pushed through to slap the prime minister around a bit for having slapped them around with the Kotel) will likely produce a much-ado-about-not-very-much competition for the position of head of the opposition.
Everyone who cares about Israel should be worried about the fact that the position of head of the opposition is fairly meaningless. Everyone concerned about the future of the Jewish state should celebrate a powerful opposition.
Genuine oppositions create debate. Real political debate allows a society to hone its views of its future, to ask itself what it wants to stand for. Even those who support Netanyahu should want his ideas and positions challenged, not because he is necessarily wrong, but for the sake of Israel’s public discourse. And those on the Left should – if the Left ever again comes to power in Israel – want a thoughtful, passionate and compelling opposition from the Right, for the very same reason.
A real opposition is critical to a functioning democracy worth its name. But Israel hasn’t had one in almost 18 years.
Yasser Arafat killed Israel’s Left. By rejecting the offer that Ehud Barak presented under US president Bill Clinton’s watchful eye and then unleashing the Second Intifada, Arafat proved that the very premises of the Left had been utterly wrong. The Left had argued that the Palestinians wanted a state and just needed a reasonable offer. Arafat (who didn’t even counter Barak’s proposal) proved that false. The Left had argued since 1967 that Israel could get peace by giving up land, and Arafat proved that wrong, too.
When Hamas announced just last month that its protests at the border fence would “end the Zionist project,” it proved once again that the Left was wrong.
When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spewed his antisemitic venom at almost the same moment and denied that the Jewish people has any historic connection to this land whatsoever, he proved the Left wrong again.
On that level, it’s not the Israeli Left’s fault that it’s dead. Someone killed it.
But it is the Israeli Left’s fault that it remains dead. After having had the carpet pulled out from under it in 2000, it has allowed almost two decades to pass without its having offered the Israeli public another compelling vision for our future. The more the Left argues that “there is a partner,” that ceasing settlement building will bring us peace – if not now, then eventually – the more most of the Israeli public becomes even more convinced that any intersection between reality and the Left’s ideology is accidental at best.
That is terrible not only for Israel’s Left, but for Israel as a whole.

IRONICALLY, THOUGH, if Arafat killed the Left, Abbas might just bring it back to life.
Soon, it seems, the trio of US President Donald Trump, special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt and senior adviser Jared Kushner is likely to float its plan for Mideast peace. That plan will likely give Israel more than it will give the Palestinians, which will, in turn, afford Abbas some cover as he rejects it. To be fair to Trump & Co., Abbas has already announced this is his intention even before he’s seen the plan, but still, he’ll get some air cover.
Many Israelis and supporters of Israel will delight in Trump’s plan. It will almost certainly not call for wholesale removal of settlers from their homes, perhaps not even those beyond the security barrier. It will likely not name east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. It will likely give Israel control over security matters even in Palestinian areas. It will probably not call for a Palestinian state, at least for now. And because Trump is so busy trying to undo Obama’s legacy, he will probably seek to make sure that whatever stalemate he puts in place will not easily be undone. It will be, in short, a big win for Israel’s Center-Right.
The Left will say, not incorrectly, that the Trump “victory” is actually a potential deadly blow to Israel, because one day the three million Palestinians who will remain stateless are going to say, “Fine, don’t give us a state. Just give us Israeli citizenship.” In today’s world, that would not fly. Israelis would say no, and the international community would probably not get on board either.
But a day will come when things are different. It could be more violence in which Israelis are dying by the hundreds again. It could be a very different White House. It could be a Europe unchastened by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s moral clarity. At some point, though, it could well happen, and if it does, and Israel has no choice but to accede, the Jewish democratic state will teeter.
How do we avoid that? Since Israel is not giving the Palestinians a state now, but won’t want them as citizens later, what should we do in the meantime? How do we imagine their lives, and ours, in 25 years, after Trump’s “solution”?
When the post-Trump announcement hoopla dies down, will anyone in Israel have the grounding in reality, the Zionist passion and the moral clarity to offer Israelis a realistic and compelling vision for the future of a Jewish and democratic state?
Today, the answer to that question is no. If the Israeli Left stays moribund and delusionally detached from reality, that’s precisely how matters will remain. And our children – or theirs – will pay the price.

The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.