Into the Fray: Israel’s urgent imperative – A doctrine of the liberal hawk

Re-defining the political divide in Israel as “Doves vs Hawks” rather than “Left vs Right” is a matter of far-reaching substantive significance, well beyond mere semantics.

IDF soldier at West Bank checkpoint at Gush Etzion Junction. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IDF soldier at West Bank checkpoint at Gush Etzion Junction.
... [dissenting] intellectuals tend to be scorned and abused and vilified as “the Right”; “right-wing” – that all-purpose, nonsensical, infantile insult which is designed to shut down argument. There is nothing remotely right-wing about standing up for truth against lies, justice against injustice, freedom against those who would snuff out freedom. Melanie Phillips, Israeli TV (January 8, 2011)
This is perhaps the most important column I have written in the “Into the Fray” series, and one I have been planning for a long time. I hope, in light of recent Jerusalem Post managerial issues, it will not also be one of the last.
Whatever the future of this column may be, it is my sincere wish that this week’s piece provide the impetus for ongoing debate on what to my mind is no less than the most pressing imperative for the conduct of the political debate in Israel.
The political divide in Israel
For decades, the rivalry over political power in Israel has ostensibly focused on a divide between political programs classified (or rather, misclassified) as “Left” and “Right,” and the political parties allegedly championing competing worldviews, perceived (or rather misperceived) as being mutually exclusive.
Sadly, this dichotomy not only overly simplistic, it is misleading, inappropriate, and in the final analysis, deeply detrimental to the conduct of political life in the country. Indeed, in Israel it is, arguably, a divide that is even more deceptive and distortive than elsewhere in the world, because here the real watershed between the so-called Left and Right is, in large measure, not determined by the usual socioeconomic criteria, but rather more by one’s leanings on defense and foreign policy.
Perversely, perhaps the overriding factor in defining a person or party as Left or Right is their position on the Palestinian issue – with those advocating large-scale territorial withdrawals/political concessions to the Palestinian- Arabs considered Left, while those opposing them, designated Right.
This frequently results in absurdly bizarre political outcomes – on which I will have to elaborate elsewhere. For the present, however, it will suffice to point out that, paradoxically, an avowed free-market advocate, who avidly supports a policy of dovish concessions to the Palestinian- Arabs, would be considered a leftist. By contrast, a strong advocate of enhanced social welfare who uncompromisingly opposes any significant concessions would be considered a right-winger, even, gasp, an “extremist.”
The bogus litmus test
Accordingly, in the Israel-related discourse, the determination of whether one is “right-wing” or not has little to do with one’s views on socioeconomics or domestic politics.
Thus one’s positions on matters such as government intervention in the market place, social welfare, gay liaisons, abortion, and tolerance of political dissent, cultural diversity and freedom of worship, seem to carry scant weight in establishing whether one is to be doomed to the dreaded “right-wing” epithet.
Instead, the definitive litmus test for being right-wing is all about one’s perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestinian one in particular. This has become the definitive yardstick determining the perception of the “Left-Right” divide. If one supports a concessionary policy toward the Arabs, one is elevated to the exalted ranks of “enlightened Left”; if one opposes them, one is relegated to the “retrograde, reactionary Right.”
To illustrate the point: Several years ago (August 5, 2011), The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner referred to an “Into the Fray” column I had written on the “social justice” protests then sweeping the streets of urban Israel (“Come to the carnival, comrade!”). In it he characterized me as “a right-wing columnist” – apparently because I pointed out that construction constraints in areas across the pre-1967 Green Line were contributing to the high cost of housing. Significantly, (or is that, ironically?) this was something even the Rabin government – initiators of the Oslo debacle – recognized when, in contradiction to its electoral pledges, it launched extensive construction projects in “settlements” to bring prices down.
The fact that I also wrote that social workers, police, doctors and teachers were scandalously underpaid and should be better remunerated, or that avaricious oligopolistic cartels should be targeted and the excess profits cut, had no effect on the way I was categorized.
Tri-axial political realties & three dimensional ‘political space’
It is one of the lamentable features of political life in Israel (as well as in other parts in the West, including the US) that in designating what is “Left,” what is “Right” and what divides them, several unrelated factors have been lumped together, despite the fact that no substantive similarities link them.
Clearly, there is no intrinsic reason why someone’s attitude on one issue (say, national security) should define, or be defined by, his position on any other issue (say economics or religion).
Regrettably, this is not the case in practice. As a general rule, if someone is identified as being a hard-liner on security issues, he or she is more likely to be assumed to be religious rather than secular and a socioeconomic conservative rather than a “social justice liberal.” As mentioned previously this is a cognitive norm that is distortive and deceptive. The effects that it produces are both detrimental and dysfunctional.
(Of course for, Israel, this dysfunction has implications far more severe than for most other Western countries.
After all, while in Europe and America, the issues comprising the political discourse have – at least until very recently, had – little immediate practical impact on the realities of daily life, in Israel they frequently comprise tangible matters of life and death.) For in fact, rather than being perceived of as unidimensional, political space should be seen as composed of three dimensions, defined by three independent axes:
(a) A Hawk-Dove axis for security and foreign policy;
(b) A Conservative-Liberal axis for socioeconomic issues; and
(c) A Secular-Religious axis for faith-based issues.
Viewing political space in this manner allows for a far more comprehensive, nuanced – and accurate – classification of an individual’s political identity, than a simplistic, and frequently misleading, Left-Right dichotomy.
No political home for secular hawks
Indeed, this tri-axial representation allows one to conceive of a wide variety of complex political identities.
Thus, one can envisage individuals with hard-line hawkish views on security, who might be secular or religious; free-marketeers or welfare advocates. Conversely, the same clearly holds for those with concessionary dovish credos.
Indeed, one only need think of Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, who recently joined the radical “left-wing” Hadash party, to grasp how invalid, inaccurate and inadequate the commonly held stereotypes of the Left-Right diagnosis are. For Burg vividly demonstrates that one may be an ostensibly religiously observant person, sporting a kippa on his head, with strong – the less charitable might say, avaricious – capitalist proclivities, yet nonetheless hold extremely concessionary – the less charitable might say, subversive – views on security and foreign policy.
Likewise, there is no inherent reason to assign either religious fervor or tightfisted fiscal frugality to anyone who opposes a policy of appeasement of Israel’s despotic foes.
Although one might expect this to be almost self-evident, in Israeli political realties this is not so at all so.
Indeed, given the Likud’s lurch leftward, and its embrace of policies it previously vilified, for two decades – arguably since the demise of the Tzomet party, in the mid- ’90s – there has been no political faction that could really serve as a political home of a nonobservant hard-liner, with a platform endorsing what could be described as a doctrine of the non-observant liberal hawk.
Substantive significance of semantics
This should not be dismissed as mere abstract rumination, for it is a lacuna that has grave repercussions for the conduct of the country’s domestic politics and for its foreign policy.
This has allowed opposition to political appeasement and territorial withdrawal to be painted in, or rather tainted with, colors considered, rightly or wrongly, unpalatable to many within the political mainstream – inseparably entwined with elements they find objectionable in other spheres.
This has had a chilling effect on public debate on one of the most – arguably the most – crucial topic on the national agenda. For as Melanie Phillips points out (see introductory excerpt), in many influential circles it is sufficient to brand your adversary right-wing to “shut down argument” and dismiss whatever he/she has to say without any need to contend with the substantive merits of his contentions.
Accordingly, it is crucial to decouple the debate on issues of security and foreign policy, in general, and on territorial withdrawal, political concessions and permanent frontiers, in particular, from other issues usually, but inappropriately, associated with them. This calls for the formulation of a political doctrine that combines a hardline stance on matters of defense and diplomacy with a domestic agenda that may be liberal in terms of its socioeconomic credo and secular (or at least non-observant) in faith-related realms.
For as we shall see, semantics does indeed have far-reaching, substantive significance.
Reaching across the current political divide
The formulation and propagation of such a doctrine will provide those who may have grave misgivings as to the prudence of the “Left’s” policies of appeasement, a vehicle to identify openly with opposition to these policies – without being branded a religious zealots or retrograde right-wing extremists, or any other unseemly epithet.
Indeed, as Phillips correctly notes, in reality, “There is nothing remotely right-wing about standing up for truth against lies, justice against injustice, freedom against those who would snuff out freedom.”
Thus, to break away from the stereotypes and stigmas that have plagued Israeli politics for decades, the formulation of a doctrine of the “liberal hawk” is an urgent imperative. It is a doctrine that would provide the hitherto reticent with both the substance and the symbolism that would allow them to publicly embrace an uncompromising approach to security matters, without having to relinquish their self-image of enlightened liberals, or precluding them from continued affiliation with their long-held socioeconomic beliefs.
It is, arguably, the only way to reach across the political divide, and rally political support, beyond the current electorate of the “right-wing” parties, to oppose injudicious concessions that gravely imperil the survival of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Hawks vs Doves: The real difference
It is crucial that one thing be made unequivocally clear: The divide between Doves and Hawks in Israel is not that the one desires peace while the other advocates war.
Both Israeli Hawks and Doves desire peace (or at least, wish to avert war). The fundamental divide between them is this: The Doves believe that adversaries can be coaxed into making peace by means of a concessionary policy of compromise and goodwill gestures. The Hawks believe that adversaries must be deterred from making war by adopting an uncompromisingly resolute policy of rejecting any appeasement or concessions which might embolden them to attack.
The divide is not over the desired outcome, i.e. what to achieve, but over the preferred process, i.e. how to achieve it.
There is historical precedent to support both schools of thought in different contexts. However for Israel, given its geo-political location in the Mideast, the crucial – indeed existential – question is this: Which is the appropriate approach for it to adopt as its national policy? Perversely, although it is perhaps the most divisive issue among Israelis, it is the one on which there should be no dispute at all, whether one subscribes to a vision of an ultra-Orthodox religious state governed by ancient halachic laws; or a post-Zionist secular “state of all its citizens,” governed by the laws of liberal democracy.
For one thing should be beyond dispute. Situated as it is, in an area dominated by forces of political tyranny and Islamist theocracy, who reject its right to exist, Israel will remain neither Jewish, nor democratic within, unless it is secure against the dangers from without. And an indispensable condition for such security against outside threat is defensible borders, and defensible at a bearable economic cost.
Rebranding the Right; restructuring the divide
Clearly then, there is nothing illiberal in rejection of a policy of perilous withdrawal and concessions. To the contrary – such rejection is the sine qua non for sustaining any hope for a durable liberal reality in the country.
Accordingly, the supreme challenge confronting anti-appeasement intellectuals today is to rebrand the “Right” and restructure the dominant divide in Israeli politics from “Left vs Right” to “Doves vs Hawks,” whatever the anti-appeasement intellectuals’ socioeconomic proclivities, cultural preferences or spiritual credos.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (