Savir's Corner: Center-Left and extreme Right

It’s not the right-wing of Menachem Begin, who respected democracy, but rather an outlook prevalent today in the European extreme right-wing parties of nationalism, driven by populism, and not necessarily always by the rule of law.

Liberman and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not bomb Iran, but last week he threw a political bombshell at our political system.
There are pragmatic self-interest considerations to the unholy alliance between “Bibi” Netanyahu and Avigdor “Yvette” Liberman. The ideological motivations for it go deeper, they relate to the perception of political power and leadership – a crude right-wing view of a strong national leader with total disrespect for opposition and minorities.
It’s not the right-wing of Menachem Begin, who respected democracy, but rather an outlook prevalent today in the European extreme right-wing parties of nationalism, driven by populism, and not necessarily always by the rule of law. Judges, journalists and parliamentarians are viewed as conspiratorial obstacles.
Liberman proclaims that he wants a presidential system – a strong leader, preferably President Yvette, not far from his caricature dictator image on the Eretz Nehederet satirical TV show: The leader dictates rather than serves; now he has been appointed crown prince, the next in line. As long as it guarantees four more years of “Bibi-tocracy” (by then altogether 11 years), then it is fair play for our prime minister.
In this, it is Netanyahu who has crossed the red line of endangering our very democracy, not to mention jeopardizing the basic respect for human rights, for equality, and for virtually any other principle outlined in our Declaration of Independence.
The good thing about Liberman is that he never hides his views; he says what he means. The dangerous thing is that he actually means what he says. If he could, he would outlaw much of the left-leaning civil society, as he attempted in his party’s legislative efforts. He is racist toward Arabs, as exemplified by hundreds of statements and by the legislation attempt on – “no loyalty, no citizenship.” He threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam in Egypt (2001) and to depose Mahmoud Abbas (2012). These are his real aspirations and now, if elected, he can pursue them.
The new Likud Beytenu alliance has turned these elections from a referendum on policies to one on the very nature of our socio-political system. A Netanyahu-Liberman victory would endanger our very democratic and Jewish nature, isolate us regionally and move the clock forward on a binational state which would be boycotted the world over.
Historically, in battles like this, it is rarely the Right that wins, but rather it is the weak Left – unable to articulate the real dangers and the real alternatives – that loses. Indeed our Left – or Center-Left as the politicians prefer to define themselves – suffers from almost a Weimarian weakness. It is internally fragmented, terrified to state positions forcefully, unable to define an honest, comprehensive policy agenda, afraid of being treated as traitors, lacking the energy and coherence to fight for values and interests; on this, it could learn quite a lesson from the new Israeli Right.
The initial reactions of Ms. and Mr. Center-Left were typical – the various party leaders focused less on the dangerous new alignment on the Right and more on why they should lead the opposite camp, and why they would not align with the others. Ego over country, at least for the time being.
Then there is Yair Lapid, who stutters something about the need for peace, but spoke at Ariel University as he aspires to be Mr. Consensus, the quintessential Israeli; maybe in a beauty contest, but not in a political one.
As for Kadima, it is a sinking ship, but out of that Titanic, Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni may yet rise as the person to lead the leaderless camp.
Yet most important, the forces of the Center-Left must articulate a new agenda and a new policy for the country at this critical crossroads – a clear alternative to the new extreme Right, without apologies and fear of being branded as unpatriotic. This is, after all, a struggle for the very soul of Israel.
This new agenda for Israel should be composed of several key elements: a) Democracy and equality – Israel’s democracy, based on our Declaration of Independence and a series of basic laws, is not yet well enshrined in our political system and public opinion. The recent polls, published in Haaretz, about the rampant racism among more than 60 percent of young Israelis is a dangerous red light. We are in need of a constitution, turning the Declaration of Independence into constitutional law, making the existing basic laws part of the constitution, and also securing in other areas real equality for all our citizens – irrespective of gender and religion, securing freedom of speech and of faith as well as the rights of minorities, the separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and a clearer separation between state and religion – including the supremacy of state legislation over religious law, the adherence to Jewish and humanitarian values and the outlawing of expressions of racism.
Israel’s dramatic nation-building process was based on our being a free and democratic society with respect for “the different” and “the other.” Without a strong democracy, there is no strong Israel.
b) Social justice – Israel, as a country of immigrants, has aimed at creating equal opportunity and social services for the most needy with significant success.
Yet in recent years, the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer, while the wide middle class suffers under the yoke of a high cost of living.
The protest movement has highlighted the lack of just distribution in our society, bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets and squares in the 2011 Israeli Spring.
The middle class is the backbone of our society – and its representatives must be part of offering a “New Deal” for Israel’s economy and society. A new deal regarding fair taxation, affordable health costs for all (not “Bibicare”), affordable housing (not just for settlers and friends of Shas), affordable education (including higher education with greater subsidies for all) and the economic strengthening of the weakest sectors: the periphery, the haredim and the Israeli- Arabs. This can be financed by the next government with three conditional policies:
• A significant reduction in the defense budget (along the lines of the Trajtenberg recommendations);
• Ceasing to pour money – hundreds of million shekels every year – into the settlements;
• Attracting the international private sector to invest in our economy.
All these necessary conditions depend to a large degree on our ability to promote a peace process within a framework of good international relations, particularly with the United States.
c) Peace and security – Although Netanyahu and Shelly Yacimovich seem to be in agreement that the issue of peace in the region should be sidelined, this is the most critical and necessary component of any social, economic and constitutional reform in Israel. In America, it may be “the economy, stupid,” but in Israel it’s “the peace...”
Without a serious process leading to a two-state solution, the next government will lead our country to a binational state, to being a minority in our own country, with apartheid and without democracy and social justice. Therefore the new agenda for Israel must center around the effort to revive the peace process with the Palestinian Authority, based on the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton visions.
If our next government adopts these American plans, we will not only have a Palestinian partner in Ramallah, but it will also bring Egypt, Jordan and Turkey closer to us fostering regional cooperation – both critical in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Such policies would also make for a more potent anti-Iran coalition in order to prevent it from developing nuclear arms and to confront growing Muslim radicalism and violence in the broader region.
d) Part of the family of nations – Our current policies and the bellicose discourse of our foreign minister have isolated us in the international scene more than ever before. Israel’s popularity ratings are plunging in Europe, not to mention in the rest of the world. In the United States there is a great discomfort with our prime minister’s meddling in the presidential elections on the side of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Sheldon Adelson.
We are a small country, very dependent on international support. In a world that is increasingly moved by collective diplomacy, we can be either part of international coalitions or out of them, isolated and even boycotted. A new Israeli foreign policy must adjust to the existing international system and to values which will strengthen our national security.
Israel, with the establishment of the new right-wing alignment, is at a historic crossroads. We have to make a choice on January 22 between two very different policies, sets of values and worldviews. Between on the one hand the view of the new extreme Right of a greater Israel at the expense of a Jewish democracy, of a “greater Israeli” at the expense of the middle class, the minorities, the Left and the values of our founding fathers and of an Israeli “go it alone” policy at the expense of our place among the nations and our relations with our number one strategic ally.
Or, on the other hand, a new agenda for Israel, of a stronger democracy, rejecting racism, with social justice for the middle class, with an active peace and security policy in coordination with the United States.
The new agenda will have to be carried by the political forces from the Center-Left. These forces and leaders should above all formulate, clearly and courageously, their policy platform, rather than battle about who should be in which electoral list and place – putting country before ego. The best people should come to the forefront, Olmert, Livni, Lapid, Yacimovich, maybe with disillusioned moderates from what was the Likud, and, who knows, maybe even with Arye Deri, in a composition, united or not, that can give our people a chance to choose between two conflicting visions of our future.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.