Challenging the Left to move it

Israeli politics may be over-fragmented, but the truth is that the Right continues to show a solidarity of purpose which enables it to unite effectively, while the Left continuously fails to get its act together.

Saturday evening’s demonstration by left-wing activists against the forceful eviction of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in August was a relatively tame affair, despite the reported attendance of over 3,000 people. There were no repeats of the situation, just several weeks ago, when the police overreacted to this legal form of demonstration and arrested some of the protesters for no good reason.
This time, the protest proceeded peacefully.
The crowd could be divided into three groups. One consisted of local Palestinian residents who were most directly affected by the eviction decision. Then there was a group of younger, largely student, activists who are just beginning to become politically aware. Whether their activism will carry over to their post-student days remains to be seen, but judging by the past two decades of left-wing political activism, the chances don’t seem particularly great. And then there were the veterans: the pro-peace, anti-occupation, activists, who have been involved in much of the pro-peace activism ever since the early days of Peace Now back in the 1970s, but whose numbers have dwindled significantly.
They largely stand at the back, exchanging social pleasantries, meeting old friends and mutually bemoaning the current political situation. Many of this group left the demonstration when the more radical elements objected to their displaying an Israeli flag or any symbols of the peace process, arguing that these were the instruments of “the occupation”.
They have seen it all before, see it as a sort of social obligation to attend – especially as it is taking place in Jerusalem where peace activism is the domain of an ever-decreasing minority – but don’t really believe that anything is going to change.
The situation in east Jerusalem may yet be stopped but it will be because of international pressure not because of internal discontent. The bigger picture, as far as they are concerned, is pretty gloomy in a country where public opinion and political power continues to move rightward.
SATURDAY EVENING’S demonstration coincided with last weeks release of the report of inquiry findings concerning the abysmal failure of Meretz in last year’s elections. For supporters of the Left and pro-peace activists, the report makes for sad, but in no way surprising, reading. The team of experts who undertook the inquiry, headed by one of the country’s foremost political scientists, Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Open University and the Israel Democracy Institute, made it very clear in its conclusions that it saw very little hope, at least in the short term, of any comeback on the part of Meretz or, for that matter, any serious left-wing alternative to the present right of center government.
The reasons are varied and many. Disillusionment with a failed peace process, general apathy among left-wing voters in even greater numbers than among the population as a whole, along with a failure to get a feel for the change in public opinion and an element of detachment from the masses – the potential voters – all played their part in bringing Meretz to its knees. For its part, the more centrist Labor party didn’t do much better, being reduced to the fourth largest party (Likud, Kadima and Israel Beiteinu all received more seats, while Shas only received two seats less), such that the electoral failure was of the Left as a whole, not just a single political faction or party.
One of the report’s conclusions, that the Left has to unite into a single inclusive umbrella organization if it is to have any chance of a comeback, is as messianic a belief as are the many other false messianisms which have been known to affect the Jewish people through its history. After all, when does political logic have any chance of combating the narrow ideological schisms which exist between the numerous left-wing splinter groups?
Israeli politics may be over-fragmented, but the truth remains that the Right continues to show a solidarity of purpose which enables it to unite around concepts of Greater Israel, support of settlements and against territorial concessions, while the Left has continuously failed to get its act together and see the bigger picture, even if it means having to agree while disagreeing on some of the finer issues.
Right-wing and pro-settlement activism has never ceased, even when right-wing governments are in power. The fact that it was the Right’s own heroes, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, who evacuated the Sinai and Gaza respectively, has left it with no doubt that it must continue to promote its cause regardless of who is in government.
FOR THEIR part, left-wing and pro-peace activists have displayed a tendency to sit silently at home during those increasingly rare occasions when there has been a left-wing government, only to be frustrated when the two-state promises of Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak amount to nothing.
Neither, so it would appear, does the younger generation of the Left have a potential new leadership of the type which the Right has in the radical activism of the hilltop youth. While the right-wing has, over the past 30 years, continuously spawned new leadership cadres, imbued with ideological and religious beliefs and zeal, the same intensity of feeling is rarely felt among left-wing student generations. It all appears to be too much of an intellectual exercise, full of well-meaning words and newspaper columns, but little in terms of action beyond important human rights projects at a grassroots level.
This is even more surprising given the fact that the main international supporters of Israel – the US and Europe – are strongly pro-peace and pro-withdrawal, to an extent rarely seen before.
But this support has been successfully manipulated by the Right in such a way as to portray the left-wing groups as acting against the long-term strategic interests of the state and, as such, has made many on the Left embarrassed in the pursuit of their cause for fear of being labeled “traitors” or “self-hating Jews.”
The entire Left has to reinvent itself. It requires a new, young leadership which is prepared to stand up and be counted. It requires a unification of the ranks around that which unites the many different groups, rather than a fragmentation over what divides them.
It requires them to state categorically how their positions willstrengthen the long-term objectives and survival of the State ofIsrael, rather than to succumb to the war of words being waged againstthem – both here and in the Diaspora – by those who believe that theconflict can never end.
Public opinion and electoral results will not change by sitting anddoing nothing; it has to be taken, democratically but forcefully.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.