After an unimpressive filibuster by members of the centrist Kadima party and the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties on the evening of July 10, Israel’s parliament ratified a law that gives individuals, institutions, and businesses standing to sue those who implement or even advocate anti-Israel boycotts. The Knesset vote was 48 to 38.
In one sense, what happened that night was the best of democracy in action: a much-discussed bill, a public debate, some parliamentary maneuvering, and finally an open vote by the duly elected representatives of a free people. But there was something more momentous and suggestive here. Drafted by the chairman of the governing coalition, Zeev Elkin, and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the controversial legislation was for many—and not only those on the left—an affront to democratic sensibilities.
The law was designed to take a strong legal stand against the so-called BDS movement, which seeks to use boycotts, campaigns to divest stock, and government-levied economic sanctions to influence Israeli policy on settlements and the relationship with the Palestinians. It empowers anyone who claims to have been affected by BDS efforts to seek monetary compensation in court for damages resulting not only from actual BDS activities but even from those who simply declare their support for boycotts.
Israeli law defines boycotting as “intentionally refraining from entering into cultural, business, or academic connections with an individual or other entity solely due to affinity with the state of Israel, one of its institutions, or territory under its control in a way that can cause cultural, economic, or academic damage.”
Because it specifically singles out as illicit any boycott aimed at those with an “affinity with the state of Israel,” the law is unabashedly ideological and intended to punish only one way of thinking in Israel. Thus, for example, a right-wing boycott of a left-wing group would not be subject to the strictures of the law, because such a boycott would be motivated not by the former’s “affinity with the state of Israel” but by its criticism of Israeli policy.
But refusing to buy the products of, say, a pretzel baker located in the Barkan industrial zone in Samaria, or a winery on the Golan Heights, or refusing to associate with an academic or cultural institution in the city of Ariel are considered illicit acts of damage because these boycotts are motivated by a desire to protest “affinity with . . . territories under [Israel’s] control.”
The law is so problematic on its face that a minimally healthy left-wing opposition could have succeeded in blocking it. Although the left has failed over the years to persuade the Israeli public of the urgency of ending the “occupation” of territories in Judea and Samaria that came into Israeli control after the 1967 Six Day War, an effective opposition should have been able to muster the requisite critical mass in the Knesset—through power of persuasion and a basic recognition of its own political legitimacy—to block a law that specifically targets the left’s right to organize peacefully.
The law was widely criticized on the right as well. Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset and a passionate disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the intellectual founder of the Israeli right, opposed it. So did Israel Prize Laureate Ruth Gavison, who argued that from a legal perspective there is no contradiction between Israel’s uniquely Jewish legislation—such as the Law of Return—and its self-definition as a democracy. In the United States, even the Zionist Organization of America’s president, Morton Klein, spoke out against it. “Such boycotts against Israeli institutions should be publicly condemned by officials, the media, and others, and not be made illegal,” he said in words he later modified to speak more gently of it. “We do not support it being made illegal to boycott.”
Thus, the ease with which the coalition managed to pass the bill testifies to not only the strength and stability of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, but also how woefully ineffectual the Israeli left has become politically. And judging from a survey conducted by Dahaf, a leading pollster, a few days after the law was passed, the left has failed to convince the wider public of its own legitimacy: a full 51 percent of Jewish Israelis said they supported Elkin’s legislation.
All in all, if what is meant by left and right in Israel is determined primarily by political affiliation with peace-camp doves or security-minded hawks, the Israeli left is in terrible shape. Dwindling electoral support for the classic left-wing Zionist political parties—Labor and Meretz—and indifference to attempts to create a new party to the left of centrist Kadima seem to form the inescapable reality of contemporary Israeli politics. Recent polls indicate that support is on the rise for right-wing parties advocating a more hawkish position on security matters and exhibiting less willingness to give in to Palestinian demands. And the left, which tends to differentiate itself in Israel’s one-issue political universe as more forthcoming on Palestinian demands for territorial compromises and readiness to “end occupation,” continues to lose ground.
Even the huge grassroots social-activism protests that swept the nation this summer failed to improve the left’s political standing. Though it tried, the left failed to harness the groundswell of socioeconomic discontent and transform it into a push for political change. The Israeli economy suffers from numerous endemic ailments. It is significantly more difficult for the average Israeli to earn the money needed to buy an average-priced house than it is for the average American, European, or Australian to do so in his own country. But the majority of Israelis understand that economically right-wing measures, such as cutting red tape, encouraging competition, and reducing taxes, offer the best solutions. No one has seriously considered a return to socialism. In fact, even Israelis who identify with the left on defense and diplomacy issues tend to be conservative when it comes to economics. For instance, Ha’aretz, a daily that is identified with the Israeli left more than any other newspaper, is nevertheless staunchly pro-free market and anti-big government in its economic outlook.1 What has happened to the Israeli left, which dominated politics for the first three decades after the establishment of the Jewish state and which returned to power in 1992 to implement the Oslo Accords?
Its dwindling popularity is clearly not due to a lack of support in the media, the entertainment world, and the intelligentsia. Thanks largely to their prominence in Israeli society and the sympathy they receive in both the local and international news media, left-wing activists with minuscule popular support are more than successful at getting their message heard outside Israel’s borders. And yet, it is the right that has been consistently gaining political power. Why?
One answer has to do with the changing demographics of Israel. Some three-quarters of about one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel as early as the late 1980s voted in recent elections for either the Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu (the party of Avigdor Lieberman, now foreign minister and the most powerful FSU Jew in politics). Early attempts at creating a centrist, broad-based party representing such immigrants (such as Yisrael Ba’aliya, under the leadership of Natan Sharansky) foundered. They are allergic to anything that smacks of socialism and attracted to Lieberman’s patently nationalist message, no-nonsense rhetoric, and strong leadership as head of what is, in essence, a one-man party. Another demographic trend is the brisk natural growth of the predominantly right-wing religious population; because of them, Israel has the highest birth rate in the West by far.
The obvious cause of the left’s decline is the nation’s profound concern about security, as a recent reckoning within Meretz indicates. In the wake of the 2009 elections, which left Meretz with only three Knesset seats (down from an all-time high of 12 in 1992), an inquiry committee was appointed to determine the reasons for its humiliating flop. Party leader Haim Oron’s purported lack of charisma was duly noted, but so was the ineffectuality of the campaign’s message, which had focused on an economic platform of “social responsibility.” That theme was rendered utterly irrelevant by the much more pressing existential threat presented by thousands of rockets and mortar fire launched from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—and by Operation Cast Lead, the incursion into Gaza in December 2008, only five weeks before the February 2009 balloting.
But one crucial cause for the Meretz electoral disaster was not addressed: the Israeli left’s inability to come to terms with Palestinian extremism. Israeli overtures for peace during the Oslo Accords era were met with a series of suicide bombings perpetrated primarily by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but with broad support from Palestinians and practical aid from the ostensibly “moderate” PLO under Yasir Arafat.
In 1999, after three years with Netanyahu as prime minister, Labor enjoyed a short revival under the leadership of Ehud Barak. But Barak’s offer to cede more than 90 percent of Judea and Samaria and all of Gaza and split Jerusalem was rejected outright in the summer of 2000 by Yasir Arafat, who responded by launching the second intifada. Armed Palestinian attacks, often with weapons provided within the framework of the Oslo Accords, and waves of suicide bombings that targeted Israeli citizens in cafés, buses, and other public places made it abundantly clear that there was no partner for peace.
The Palestinian people might have been frustrated that the Oslo Accords did not lead quickly enough to Palestinian political autonomy and that Israel continued to build in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. But why, asked the vast majority of Israelis, did their purported partner resort to bloody, Islamist-inspired terrorism?
In response, the left continued, in a self-destructive leap of faith, to preach the centrality of the “peace process” even when all empirical evidence seemed to point to the futility of negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that embraced thanatocracy and a distorted national narrative of victimization and shame that could never accommodate a Jewish state—no matter its borders.
Benny Morris, once a staunch supporter of the left and a member of a historian’s group critical of the Zionist movement, explained his move to the right in a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz:
My turning point began after 2000. I wasn’t a great optimist even before that. True, I always voted Labor or Meretz . . . and in 1988 I refused to serve in the territories and was jailed for it, but I always doubted the intentions of the Palestinians. The events of Camp David and what followed in their wake turned the doubt into certainty. When the Palestinians rejected the proposal of Barak in July 2000 and the Clinton proposal in December 2000, I understood that they are unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.
Morris’s blunt realism could have represented a new way forward for Israel’s left. But to this day, many of his former comrades have refused to come to terms with the brutal reality of Palestinian rejectionism, effectively ignoring or explaining away developments that undermine their worldview. There was the 2006 Palestinian elections in which 6 out of 10 Palestinians voted for Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. There was the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was remarkably unforthcoming in 2008 to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching concessions on Jerusalem, territories, and Palestinian refugees. And there was this May’s reconciliation agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas, which has paved the way for terrorists who include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in their official charter to play a central role in a governing coalition.
And still, the left clings to the belief that it is eminently possible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian political leadership. In what appears to be a feat of collective cognitive dissonance, the left has attempted to manipulate recent history to justify its political position. In a lengthy piece in Ha’aretz in March plugging a new initiative, the playwright-journalist activist Boaz Gaon declared that the “no partner” accusation leveled against the Palestinians was and is a conscious lie. In reality, claimed Gaon, based on interviews with several former advisors to prime minister Ehud Barak, the “no partner” concept was nothing more than PR spin. Conceived in the wake of the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David talks with Yasir Arafat, it was a myth used to protect Barak from taking the blame.
Gaon is no gadfly. He is, in fact, a driving force behind the Rubinger Forum—a grassroots initiative utilizing social media to bring together left-wing businessmen, artists, journalists, and activists to rehabilitate the left. In their effort to rewrite history, they have found a weird common ground with the right. For just as the right has argued that the cause of the second intifada was Barak’s effort to appease Arafat, the left now argues that the cause of its own destruction was Barak’s effort to appease right-wing Israeli voters.
The normally good-mannered Haim Oron, the Meretz chairman, blamed Barak for “delivering the greatest blow to the left by engraving in the public mind the idea that there is no Palestinian partner.” In a farewell interview that appeared in Ha’aretz marking the end of his 23-year career in the Knesset, Oron said that Barak “pushed the Palestinians into negotiations without preparation, out of a desire to breach the abyss in two hasty steps—which was impossible at the time. He then declared that there is no one to talk to, and since then his motto has been ‘If I didn’t succeed, then no one will.’”
Thus, for Gaon and Oron and others like them, the Palestinian turn to terror didn’t destroy the peace process. Barak’s “spin” did—because it pushed Palestinians into a corner and left them no choice but to launch waves of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.
If that peculiar notion wasn’t enough to explain the deterioration of the left’s standing with Israeli voters, their peculiar behavior might be. In their desperate insistence on viewing Palestinians as a partner for peace, prominent left-wing politicians have resorted to drastic means. Oron and Labor’s Amir Peretz, a leading contender to head the party in the next elections, have been regularly visiting the terrorist Marwan Barghouti in prison, where he is serving five consecutive life sentences for the murder of four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk. Barghouti was a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and founder of the Tanzim, the military arm of Arafat’s own faction, Fatah. Both the Brigades and Tanzim were responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent Israelis during the second intifada. Numerous Palestinian witnesses have tied Barghouti to terrorist activities. And yet Oron and Peretz see in Barghouti a “moderate” Palestinian leader, a quasi-Mandela figure who has the potential to make peace with Israel. Oron’s good friend, the novelist Amos Oz, even asked Oron to hand Barghouti a copy of his novel A Tale of Love and Darkness in Arabic translation, and Oz added a personal dedication reading: “This story is our story. I hope you read it and understand us better, as we attempt to understand you. Hoping to meet soon in peace and freedom.”
Zionist left-wing parties such as Labor and Meretz are often lumped together in the public’s mind with post-Zionist or non-Zionist movements. Until now, such criticism lacked nuance, as those parties have continued to support the existence of a specifically Jewish state. But that may be changing. Faced with dwindling electoral support and with Kadima positioned directly to their right ideologically, some in the Zionist left have even begun considering political partnerships with organizations and individuals on the radical left, including Arab parties that do not attempt to hide their contempt for Zionism.
At a conference held earlier this year by Peace Now in Tel Aviv, former Labor MP and education minister Yuli Tamir called for a broad coalition to be formed in advance of the 2013 elections. The coalition would group “all parties to the left of Kadima” in a single bloc, even the Communist Hadash party, which includes Arab Israeli political movements that promote a binational state and the dismantling of Zionism.
Gaon’s Rubinger Forum comprises not only members of Labor and Meretz but also activists in the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity group, which challenges the basic tenets of Zionism. In addition to holding weekly demonstrations in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood against the eviction (under both district and Supreme Court order) of several Arab families, the group advocates taking away the Jewish Agency’s special status as a government-sponsored body promoting aliya, openly challenges prioritizing Jewish over Palestinian settlement in Israel, and has called to revamp the Law of Return so that it does not discriminate against Palestinians. Others associated with the Rubinger Forum, such as the Anglo-Israeli journalist Bernard Avishai, have taken similar positions completely out of touch with mainstream Israeli opinion.
Even on the Zionist left, the promotion of Palestinian rights and the ending of “occupation” seem to have eclipsed the promotion of Zionism itself. Labor and Meretz have essentially abandoned the dominant role played by the old left in collective Zionist endeavors. Perhaps the most striking example is the change that has taken place in the Israel Defense Forces. Through the early 1980s, secular kibbutzniks, moshavniks, and others affiliated with the Zionist parties of the left dominated the IDF’s command. But in the past three decades, since the First Lebanon War created the first real ideological division in the country when it came to questions of military service, a gradual transformation has taken place. The crocheted kippah preferred by the religious Zionist community—whose leaders and educators unabashedly promote Jewish patriotism and a willingness for selfless service to the country—is conspicuous in its numbers at officers’ training graduation ceremonies.
Although kibbutzniks and moshavniks (religious and secular) continue to have disproportionately high representation in combat units, the left as a political movement is now seen primarily as a critic of the IDF. One week into Operation Cast Lead—launched to stop Hamas’s constant barrage of rocket and mortar fire on Jewish settlements in the south from Hamas-controlled Gaza—Meretz withdrew its support for the defensive measure and later became the only non-Arab party in the Knesset to call for an external investigation independent of the IDF into purported “war crimes.”
This was tantamount to political suicide. The IDF continues to be largely a “people’s army,” and a large percentage of the Israeli population is intimately familiar with it either because they or a relative or loved one served in it. It enjoys the highest levels of trust among Jewish Israelis. According to an annual “trust survey” conducted in 2010 by the Israel Democratic Institute, the IDF ranked highest: 81 percent of respondents said they fully or to some extent trust the IDF, while only 54 percent trust the Supreme Court and 41 percent the police.
The story of the demise of the Israeli left is also a story about how the right has gradually appropriated some of the more practical aspects of the political platform of the left, in particular the two-state solution. A strong majority of Jewish Israelis now supports a two-state solution—provided it leads to real and lasting peace and a complete resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis accept that keeping their state both Jewish and democratic is possible only if millions of Palestinians living on the West Bank and in Gaza have their own autonomous state. They believe integrating and naturalizing Palestinians and providing them with voting rights would upset the Jewish majority, which is already challenged by the 1.5 million Arab Israelis who make up slightly more than 20 percent of the Israeli population. Annexing the West Bank and Gaza without fully integrating Palestinians would be perceived by the world as apartheid. Most Israelis, therefore, accept the idea that the only solution is the creation of two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish.
The Likud as well as Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu (both of which are Likud spinoffs) have adopted the two-state paradigm, even as they have successfully portrayed themselves as more hawkish than Labor or Meretz on security matters. As Daniel Ben-Simon, a former journalist and present Labor MK put it, many Israelis who want peace don’t want the left to negotiate because they perceive the left as a party of “Arab-lovers, people who give too much away.”
The two-state solution, originally proposed in the early 1970s by pillars of the Labor party such as Yigal Allon, is a consensus opinion among Jewish Israelis precisely because it is based on the need to preserve Israel’s unique nationalism, which requires a strong Jewish majority. The UN partition plan of November 29, 1947, creating two states side by side, was so warmly accepted by David Ben-Gurion and the rest of the mainstream Zionist leadership precisely because it helped ensure a durable Jewish majority in the portion of land designated for Jews. And although the Zionist leadership never adopted a policy of population transfer for local Arabs during the War of Independence—as Benny Morris proved in his 2008 book 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War—the fact that hundreds of thousands did leave or were forcibly expelled during the War of Independence turned out to be essential for the success of the nascent Jewish state.
Mainstream Zionism has always called unabashedly for maintaining Israel’s distinctively Jewish character. And it was always widely understood that to accomplish this, Israel needed an enduring Jewish majority, which would ensure that the state’s Jewishness would be based on democratic rule. State policies such as encouraging exclusively Jewish immigration or discouraging intermarriage by empowering an Orthodox chief rabbinate to govern marriages and divorces could never have been implemented without a clear majority of Jews supporting such policies for precisely this reason.
Mainstream Zionism has never been dedicated to the establishment of a universalist democracy on the American model. The basis of Israel is that it serve as a homeland for the Jewish people—and, as it happens, serving as such has led to the creation of a melting pot not all that dissimilar to the United States, except for the fact that its ingredients are part of the same faith tradition. And since the founding, immigrants to Israel have come to accept the central tenets of political Zionism as conceived long before most of them were born: exclusively Jewish immigration should be encouraged; the Jewish people’s historical homeland is rightfully in the biblical land of Israel; maintaining political self-determination backed by a strong military will help ensure Jewish continuity in the face of anti-Semitism and the threat of assimilation.
There were movements that strayed from the central tenets of mainstream political Zionism. Pre-statehood binationalists, such as Hashomer Hatzair and Brit Shalom, who hoped to avoid a clash with the Arabs and were willing to play down the nationalist aspects of Judaism for the sake of peaceful coexistence, melted away. Canaanites, who hoped to eliminate the religious aspect of the new Jew’s identity and transform the Israelis into another “indigenous” people disconnected from the Diaspora, dissipated. “Territorialists” such as Yehuda Leib Pinsker—the author of Autoemancipation who called for the creation of an autonomous state for the Jews in any place but Israel (most famously, he suggested Uganda) to escape the Holy Land’s tremendous religious, historical, and cultural baggage—are now nothing more than a hard-to-answer trivia question.
All these movements were attempts to radically normalize the Jewish condition—to find a way to escape Jewish particularism—but they failed to garner significant support. Similarly, the contemporary left in Israel seems bent on pursuing normalization but has failed to convert a significant number of Israelis of their cause.
The left’s antagonism toward a Jewish presence beyond the Green Line—whether in Jerusalem or in Judea and Samaria—reveals a certain callousness, not shared by the Israeli mainstream, to the overwhelming religious, cultural, and historical resonance of this land.
Its obsessive focus on ending “occupation” is rarely if ever accompanied by expressions of remorse over sacrificing the heart of Israel’s historical homeland. What’s more, the left evinces complete insensitivity to the tremendous suffering caused by making judenrein territories where 700,000 law-abiding, tax-paying, patriotic Israelis now live.
Indeed, all of this is strangely reminiscent of the “territorialists” and their trepidation over establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Just as they feared that the Land of Israel’s specifically Jewish resonance would doom chances of normalization, so do many on the left seem to wish to escape the cultural, religious, and historical weight of their own nation’s traditions.
In the wake of the Six Day War, when sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, the Wailing Wall, and Shiloh fell into Israel’s hands, many on the left observed with trepidation the euphoria that swept the country. They rightly predicted that the Jewish people’s return to these places after nearly two millennia of exile would arouse religious sentiments and strengthen a uniquely Jewish national identity, ruining chances of transforming Israel into a “normal” liberal democracy.
The left’s wishes for normalization and an end to “occupation” are not only impossible, but would spell Jewish self-destruction from the inside. And yet the vast majority of Jewish Israelis identify with, and want to protect, the “Jewish” aspects of Israel—which include all its national symbolism, from flag and anthem to national holidays and “Jewish” legislation, such as the Law of Return, which guarantees immediate citizenship to any Jew who wishes to take on the burden and responsibility and joy of being an Israeli.
As we have seen, the Israeli left’s ongoing political deterioration has many causes: demographics, an unrealistic perception of the Palestinian leadership, and the success of the right in appropriating the more practical aspects of left-wing thinking, most notably the adoption of the two-state solution. However, its single greatest mistake has been its abandonment of the founding principles of the State of Israel itself. Until the left recommits itself to Zionism, it will remain politically impotent.