The Israeli Left needs to step up its game

Herzog’s new diplomatic plan goes against the real interests of all those who live between the river and the sea — Jews and Arabs alike. Now it’s up to the Left to come up with a new vision based on real coexistence. 

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog at campaign headquarters on election night, March 17, 2015. His slate, the Zionist Camp, fell far short of expectations that he might unseat PM Netanyahu. (Oren Ziv/
Labor party leader Isaac Herzog at campaign headquarters on election night, March 17, 2015. (Oren Ziv/

The Labor Party committee decided last week that it was officially parting with the two-state solution. The decision was not preceded by passionate discussions, nor was it extensively covered by the media. Had Prime Minister Netanyahu and Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog not traded barbs a few days later, I highly doubt anyone would have noticed. Even more than the decision itself, the general apathy with which it was received is worth paying attention to.

I do not know if the two-state solution is dead, like everyone is so quick to declare these days. There is no real “point of no return” in politics. What is clear is that the political process that was supposed to bring us there has come to an end. The formula was based on U.S.-mediated negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Israel is not interested, the PLO represents only a portion of the Palestinian people, and the Americans are slowly disengaging from the Middle East. The carrots Israel was supposed to receive — most important among them was legitimacy and normalization with Arab countries — seem less relevant in the face of the changes taking place in the Middle East. On the other hand, many Palestinians do not believe that a demilitarized half-state on 22 percent of historical Palestine is such a great deal — and even that much seems out of reach.

We are in the first stages of a new phase in the political relations between Jews and Palestinians. On this Herzog is correct: the Israeli Left needs new thinking, the kind that will take into account both regional and global developments. The problem is that most of the major players on the left (political parties, think tanks, journalists, intellectuals) prefer believing in stagnant ideas from the 80s and 90s. Either that or they just join the Right. That is precisely what the Labor Party’s discussion looked like — a struggle between the romantics of Oslo and “Rabin’s legacy,” and those who propose outflanking Netanyahu from the right.

Thus the Labor Party adopted a plan full of internal contradictions: on the one hand Israel will complete the separation barrier, on the other hand it will announce that the barrier is not a border. Israel will freeze settlement construction outside the blocs, yet continue building elsewhere. Israel will transfer those Palestinians living beyond the wall in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority — as well as some other parts of the West Bank — but will do so “unilaterally.” The government will go to war against the settlers for a settlement freeze, but we won’t actually remove any settlements. It’s disengagement, but without the disengaging part.

There also remain more a few unanswered questions: who says the Palestinians will want to take responsibility for the territories handed over by Israel? Maybe in exchange for maintaining Israel’s security in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority will have a few demands of its own? How will Israel revoke Israeli IDs from 100,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem? What counts as a settlement bloc? Ma’ale Adumim, located just east of Jerusalem? Ariel, in the heart of the West Bank? Kiryat Arba, a suburb of Hebron? Who can guarantee that the Palestinian Authority will survive long enough to take on all these roles? And that’s before we even talk about the plan’s moral defect: two sets of laws for two populations living side by side on the same territory. Does Labor really want to advocate this idea?

Maale Adumim settlement near east of Jerusalem (
Maale Adumim settlement near east of Jerusalem (

Even politically, its unilateralism makes no sense: all the difficult steps Israel refuses to take in negotiations — in order to build trust or as a temporary solution (such as a settlement construction freeze) — it is now supposed to implement without receiving anything in exchange, without anyone taking responsibility on the other side. In short: it’s unclear what Labor’s plan is supposed to achieve, since is neither meant to be a permanent solution nor a temporary one. So why bother?

The challenge of the Left

We live in a bi-national reality: two nations under the same regime, in the same land. But only Jews have full rights across the country, while Palestinians are held under a complex system that separates them into various legal sub-categories: citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem, subjects of a military regime in the West Bank, and two million prisoners in Gaza. In the short run, this situation is beneficial to the Jewish public, which holds all the political and economic resources. In the medium-long term, this is a disaster for both nations. Instability is built-in, and violent eruptions are only a matter of time and opportunity, especially since both societies are totally intertwined in every part of the country — whether in the coast, Jerusalem, Galilee, the West Bank or the Negev.

The approach of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon — of maintaining the existing reality through military steps, alongside “goodwill gestures” for the civilian population, such as removing checkpoints and loosening restrictions on movement — worked until two years ago. Israeli citizens enjoyed peace and prosperity without being forced to give up their privileged status or evacuate land. Lately the situation has been changing: the violence and international pressure against Israel is growing. Things move slowly, but their effect is nevertheless felt. Unlike four or five years ago, when the Palestinian issue barely made headlines, today Israeli politicians are constantly talking about it.

Palestinians cross the Qalandiya checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem on their way to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the third Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, July 3, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/
Palestinians cross the Qalandiya checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem on their way to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the third Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, July 3, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/

This is where the failure of the Left lies. By “Left” I am referring to all the groups and people interested in granting equal rights to all people living between the river and the sea, whether in the framework of two states, one state, or any other solution (the other part of the term “Left,” which I do not refer to here, includes the struggle for substantive equality, through minimizing socioeconomic gaps, social justice, and a fight against discrimination, exploitation, and racism).

In my eyes, leftist thinking begins with recognizing that Jews and Arabs will continue to live together on this land. That there is a Jewish-Israeli nation just like there is a Palestinian nation, and that both have political and national rights. The Right is taking steps to strengthen Jewish supremacy: to transfer more land to Jewish ownership, to kick out Palestinians from the Knesset, to prevent the spread of the Palestinian narrative, to suppress demonstrations, to stop political organizing, and more. Whoever believes this will end well hasn’t learned a thing from history, including our own.

The endgame of the Right’s policies is clear: a war between Jews and Arabs and among Jews and Arabs, after which we will probably reach some kind of arrangement. Israel’s military and technological superiority can only delay, not prevent, the inevitable. If ISIS or some similar group manages to gain a serious foothold in Palestinian society, Netanyahu and the Right can only blame themselves, after decades of destroying every pragmatic, local political power.

The Left is meant to represent the opposite approach: because we recognize that both Jews and Arabs live here, we must find a way to fairly divide up resources, to get past the pain and mutual disappointments, to create some kind of historical justice and to patiently build a life together. Because that is the reality — there is really no other option. Those who advocate denying the rights of Palestinians (for example, through revoking residency from 100,000 people), putting more people behind walls, or kicking out Arab parliamentarians — as Labor does — are pushing just another form of right-wing thinking. That’s all. With his new plan, Herzog has not betrayed the two-state solution or the history of the Left. He has betrayed the real interests of all Israeli citizens, residents, and subjects — Jews and Arabs alike.

Building the separation barrier around Shuafat refugee camp, East Jerusalem, 2013. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Building the separation barrier around Shuafat refugee camp, East Jerusalem, 2013. (photo: Oren Ziv/

The right-wing worldview sees the situation in the Middle East as dangerous than ever, and therefore seeks to rely on power and refraining from taking necessary actions on the Palestinian issue. But the Israeli Left can have its own response to this approach. For instance, it can note that for the first time in its history, not only are there no more existential threats against Israel in a radius of over 1,000 kilometers, but nearly all the Arab armies have disappeared. It can remind Israelis that Netanyahu’s “high fences” approach does not provide a serious response to the most important challenge we face — how Jews and Arabs will be able to live together in Israel and the occupied territories. How to provide a response to the national aspirations of two peoples, how to create legal equality between all citizens and how to reach a compromise that we can live with on questions of religion and historical justice. Those who present themselves as alternatives to Netanyahu are running away from these questions for the sake of all kinds of arrangements that will allow them to maintain control over the Palestinians.

In praise of liberal forces

Even among the radical Left, which better understands the Palestinian point of view, the situation isn’t great. Many there avoid serious questions of power and responsibility for all kinds of utopian or revolutionary ideas that look especially unattractive when considering the violence and chaos that has engulfed the region.

Sometimes I feel that the radical Left has had enough of the very idea of an Israeli Left, and is developing a kind of alienation from Israeli society and its institutions, where any act aside from solidarity with Palestinians (which in itself should be praised) is no longer legitimate. I am not talking about specific issues such as refusing the draft or supporting boycotts — which in my opinion are legitimate tactics in the struggle against occupation — but rather the feeling of a common fate and responsibility for Jewish society, or the willingness to accept political compromises and partial achievements.

Israeli left-wing activists march to protest the recent incitement against "Breaking the Silence" and other left wing NGOs, in central Tel Aviv, December 19, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Israeli left-wing activists march to protest the recent incitement against “Breaking the Silence” and other left wing NGOs, in central Tel Aviv, December 19, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/

But the Israeli Left is important. It’s important because someone needs to deal with the big questions of our existence here, in an Arab region alongside the Palestinian people, from the Israeli and Jewish point of view. It’s important because the political opportunities for peace will come — perhaps faster than people think — and we might take advantage of them, or miss them completely. Let’s be clear: if the Right is the only player in the game, we will continue to see more right-wing “solutions” — such as the Gaza disengagement — that will only make things much worse. Gideon Levy was right when he reminded readers this week that the Labor Party birthed the occupation. But Labor was also the first Israeli ruling party to recognize the representatives chosen by Palestinians themselves, with whom it entered into a serious dialogue. I wouldn’t be so quick to give up on it.

If there is something to learn from conflicts that are reminiscent of ours — South Africa, Algeria, Northern Ireland, etc. — it is the significance of liberal forces in both societies at the most propitious time, and the disastrous results of eliminating the moderate camp during waves of violence. The theory according to which the Right is better qualified to make peace does not stand the test of reality or history — in Israel/Palestine or the world. We must remember that nothing is set in stone. Relations between Jews and Palestinians can stabilize, and we may also be entering a generation of mutual violence and civil war — or anything in the middle. Not everything is up to us, but the Israeli Left still has an important role in shaping this future.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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