Wary Israel and the Left

Battered in the 2009 elections and continuing to shed support according to recent polls, the Left is trying to re-assert itself on the grassroots level.

Israeli flags 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Battered in the 2009 elections and continuing to shed support according to recent polls, the Left is trying to re-assert itself on the grassroots level.
The most recent example is a declaration signed by dozens of intellectuals and artists, about 20 of them Israel Prize and Emet Prize laureates, endorsing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1949 Armistice Lines.
On Thursday, supporters of the initiative gathered in front of Independence Hall on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s statehood in May 1948. Organizers of the event said it was part of a wider effort to provide an alternative to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
“The Jewish people arose in the Land of Israel, where its character was forged,” their declaration states. “The Palestinian people is rising in Palestine, where its character was forged. We call on everyone who seeks peace and freedom for all peoples to support the declaration of Palestinian statehood... The total end to the occupation is a fundamental precondition for the liberation of the two peoples.”
In similar vein, about two weeks ago, several businessmen and former security officials, including former heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the IDF, publicized the Israel Peace Initiative, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the June 4, 1967 lines.
About a year ago, artists, journalists and media figures established the Rubinger Forum, a clearinghouse for leftwing ideas organized via Facebook which meets every two weeks in Tel Aviv. Movements such as “the National Left,” “Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity,” and “Smolah” [to the Left] have also been established.
The majority of Israelis seem underimpressed. Surveys indicate that support for right-wing parties is on the rise while the Left continues to lose ground. Rafi Smith, in a poll for the economic daily Globes, found that if elections had taken place at the end of March, the right-wing parties – including the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism – would have jumped from their present 65 Knesset seats to 71. The Left would have lost two seats, falling to 39. The Left has been further battered by Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision in January to split from Labor. Barak’s new party – Independence – would not even make it into the Knesset, the Smith poll found.
The Left’s failure to make a comeback is not for a lack of supporters in key positions in the media, the entertainment world, and the intelligentsia. It stems in part from a stubborn insistence on repeating historic mistakes.
A dire example is the recent controversy surrounding a WikiLeaks document suggesting Labor is still mired in old tensions between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In a January 2006 US diplomatic cable, Labor leadership hopeful Isaac Herzog was quoted as saying that the party’s poor showing in the polls ahead of the March 2006 elections should be attributed not just to the rise of Kadima but also to the public’s perception of Amir Peretz as “inexperienced, aggressive and Moroccan.”
Publication of the documents prompted an orgy of outrage and denial; good PR it wasn’t.
More substantially, however, the Left has lost its monopoly over the position – now supported by a majority of Israelis – that separation from the Palestinians is necessary to keep Israel at once Jewish and democratic. In his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu voiced support in principle for a two-state solution. And while the prime minister has so far failed to flesh out his vision, the Left has failed to offer a clear plan of its own that could end Israeli rule over the Palestinians while also meeting Israel’s essential security needs.
It was the blow to personal security amid a spate of Palestinian suicide attacks in the spring of 1996 that first brought Netanyahu to power. Today, witnessing the speed with which long-standing regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia can destabilize or even topple, many Israelis are again wary of entering into an agreement, including a substantial West Bank withdrawal, with a Palestinian Authority that might be gone tomorrow.
In a March poll conducted by Dahaf, only 28% of the Jewish public felt that, in light of the regional upheaval, Israel should make new efforts now to reach peace, while 70% said it was better for Israel to wait.
If the Left is to become politically potent again, it must rethink the insistent conviction that an “end to occupation” will near-automatically guarantee wider normalization and the decline of Muslim antagonism to Jewish sovereignty.
Many, perhaps most Israelis, have long been ready for dramatic territorial compromise in the cause of an accommodation with the Palestinians, to keep a Jewish, democratic, secure Israel. But many, perhaps most Israelis are not persuaded that such a compromise would indeed produce such a result.
Many on the Left seem to believe Israel has the capacity to solve this conflict on its own. And that’s where they often depart from the voters they would like to woo.