To win, the Israeli left needs to learn from Bibi

Like Netanyahu, who harped on Iran, ISIS, and the Arab citizens voting in droves, the left has a bunch of fears that it can stoke and channel in its favor. All it needs to take its gloves off and go down to business.

By Elie Podeh

A campaign billboard for Netanyahu’s Likud switches to a billboard for Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Camp. (Oren Ziv/
A campaign billboard for Netanyahu’s Likud switches to a billboard for Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Camp. (Oren Ziv/

The Knesset election results have put the left on the defensive. It has since had to explain why it lost, and the blame was placed on the usual suspects: An ineffective campaign, a lack of charismatic leadership, abandoning peripheral and low-income populations, demographic trends in Israeli society, and more.

The truth of the matter is that the left has been on the defensive since 1977, when the right rose to power. In the first years of independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion famously said he would consider any coalition “without Herut and Maki,” effectively demarcating the boundaries of political legitimacy – without Menachem Begin’s Revisionist right on the one hand, and without the radical Left in the form of the Israeli Communist Party, on the other. Years later, when Likud appropriated the term “national camp,” it was similarly meant to delegitimize their political rivals as not sufficiently “national.”

The importance attached to branding was reflected in the Labor Party’s decision, before the last election, to change its name to “the Zionist Union.” It didn’t signal an ideological change, but rather a response to the right, by way of saying: we are Zionists, too. This apologetic step, however, backfired. Not only did it alienate Arab voters, it was also seen as another act of groveling before the nationalist right.

The main error of the Zionist Union was its equivocation on key policies. Evidently, the use of non-radical messaging was meant to attract centrist and right-of-center voters. This pattern was particularly evident in the Zionist Union’s cryptic positions on the Palestinian question.

Another mistake was their inability, or unwillingness, to address the Israeli public’s genuine fears. Benjamin Netanyahu was able to cultivate concerns over Iran, al-Qaeda, ISIS and Arab Israelis voting en masse for anti-Zionist parties. The equally ominous danger presented by a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was nearly absent from the Zionist Union’s campaign, even though Hamas and the Palestinian Authority weren’t among Netanyahu’s bogeymen.

Yet, the prospect of a third intifada breaking out against the backdrop of a political deadlock is real; the risk of diplomatic, economic and academic boycotts by the international community is not imaginary; Israel is already perceived by many as a pariah state, and the use of the term “apartheid” to describe the occupation is gaining traction in the world.

In the absence of a bona fide peace process, the Israeli government must prepare for a multinational diplomatic onslaught, which will hurt the country’s economy and invalidate its legitimacy. This is the real concern that should bother Israelis. None of it was emphasized in the campaign.

It would be wrong to continue groveling and apologizing for positions that are supposedly not “nationalist” enough.  The left needs to move beyond its customarily conciliatory, civil dialogue and adopt a pugnacious discourse. The principal goal should be to highlight the inherent dangers of continuing with the status quo.

Most strikingly, past and present kingpins of the defense establishment (as was illustrated in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”) support a far-reaching Israeli initiative, whether based on the Arab Peace Initiative, the Clinton Parameters, the Geneva Initiative, or a combination of those. And yet, despite the enormous influence of the senior Israeli defense establishment, its position is totally disregarded on this issue.

The explanation for this is probably more emotional than rational. Research shows that people do not rush to change their positions; however, the bombardment (again, a term taken from military discourse) of contradictory information over time will lead to a change in attitudes.

Only this could convince Israelis that indeed they have someone to talk to on the Palestinian side; that there are moderate elements in the Arab world who wish to end the conflict; that a political solution will remove the fear of ostracism and international isolation, and will allow fair and equal distribution of resources, which will be reallocated from the settlements to the periphery.

These messages are not obvious. If 70 percent of Israelis, according to polls, have never heard of the Arab Peace Initiative, then there is a fundamental flaw in the dissemination of information to the public.

In conclusion, what the left should adopt is “aggressive direct dialogue.” “Let’s talk dugri [frankly],” Netanyahu memorably told Mahmoud Abbas from the United Nations speaker’s podium in 2011. Judging from Netanyahu’s behavior at the time, this request was far from honest. But the left should speak “dugri,” because this is a language that the Israelis understand.

And if the “dugri” language includes references to existential fears, as Prof. Gad Yair of the Hebrew University shows in his book The Code of Israeliness, it will not fall on deaf ears. Some will argue that the adoption of a militant discourse is play into the hands of the right; however, when survival is at stake, the end sometimes justifies the means.

This is one of the lessons to draw from the last elections. While simultaneously adopting an aggressive direct dialogue, the left, in the broadest sense, should close ranks. Factionalism, based on personal as well as ideological differences, has always divided the left.

Despite the election results, the last word has yet to be said in the struggle for ending the occupation and reaching a solution based on a two-state paradigm. Anyone who believes that a change in the status quo is desperately needed to stop the ostensibly inevitable march toward a one-state reality, must join in the struggle. No doubt it will be a long journey, but this should not deter those believing that this is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Professor Podeh teaches in the Department of Islam and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He is a Board Member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. The article was originally published in Hebrew in Ha’aretz.