The Israeli Left Needs a Better Game Plan

Ari Shavit’s piece in Haaretz does a nice job of showing that the Jewish “brotherhood” is the mirror image of the Muslim Brotherhood (and other Islamists) in the Arab world. As religious fundamentalists, their most extreme position thus far is that it’s better for soldiers to be martyred rather than hear a woman singing. In such a process they are chipping away at the modern, secular institutions of the state.

Even more dangerous is the emergence of that hybrid creature, the hardal. For a long time, the religious Zionist community—dati leumi, and its political manifestation, Miflaga Datit Leumit or Mafdal for short—and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community—the haredi­—did not get along. The former’s belief that Zionism was not a blasphemous attempt to remove God from the equation of Jewish history was anathema to the haredi, the most extreme communities of which opposed the very existence of the state of Israel.

But beginning in the 1970s, some religious Zionists became more radicalized in their attitudes toward settling the territories. As they also became closer to the haredi in their levels of religious observance, many haredi, who in the past didn’t involve themselves on policy toward the territories, have come to see holding on to them as a necessity. Many Orthodox families are moving there, because of the cheaper cost of living; many believe that if Jews are already living there then their lives must be protected; and many seem to have accepted the old religious Zionist narrative that Zionism can part of God’s plan.

The ability of the religious to control the policy agenda is an oddity. Its population is small (about 10% self-identify as haredi, and 10% as Orthodox, while almost 50% self-identify as secular); its political powers are hemmed in by its minority position (in the current Knesset, 19 seats out of 120); and civil authority takes precedence over religious authority in numerous areas. For instance, even where religious laws are hegemonic, such as in marriage, the state will still recognize civil marriages performed outside the state.

But the ability of religious groups to assert their priorities has been strengthened by two processes in particular: One, the major secular parties cannot cooperate with each other. The national unity governments of the 1980s were an exception, and only came about after Likud and Labor were sufficiently alarmed at the reach of the religious parties. So they would rather bring the religious parties into government coalitions than compromise with their opponents on the other side of the political spectrum.

Two, the behavior of the (secular and dovish) left in Israel has been politically problematic, both on foreign policy and on Israeli identity. It’s not entirely the left’s fault: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin took away the one person whose military and hawkish credentials could not be questioned but who could claim total legitimacy for the left’s goals and appeal to those beyond the left. And the failures of Oslo—the fault of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and the Arab states—have scarred Jewish Israelis and made them more suspicious than ever before.

This, in turn, has made support for settlements a default position; at best, the issue of support is more complex than the left allows for. Although polls show diminishing support for the settlements since the first intifada and the onset of the Oslo process, in June 2011, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 70% of Jewish Israelis would not support the removal of all settlements even for a full peace agreement with the Palestinians, while only 26% would. That latter figure rises only if major settlement blocs can remain with Israel.

But the left has not accommodated itself to these changed realities. Much of it, particularly on the hard left, continues to rail against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, but in the process calling into question the very notion of Zionism. To many Israelis, those policies might be problematic but still necessary, but questioning the relevance of Zionism as a Jewish national movement—in the face of the global Israel-as-an-apartheid state and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movements—is just plain dangerous.

By focusing primarily on the Palestinians—their plight, their needs, their demands—the left in Israel has taken itself out of the political game. Jewish Israelis don’t want to hear this—they either have their own problems (witness the J14 protests and the unwillingness to incorporate demands for justice specifically for Palestinians) or they are doing well and don’t need to consider the conflict anymore, like they did during the Second Intifada.

It is said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. These struggles over policy toward the territories are reflected back into domestic issues of identity, where the left is similarly seen as weakening the very identity of Israel as a Jewish state—indeed, not caring at all about such a thing—and the right is seen as valiantly defending it against a global delegitimization campaign. This opens the door to passivity among non-religious in the face of religious incursions into the public sphere.

I don’t believe most Israelis accept the creeping Orthodox fundamentalism. But the only way to change the balance of political forces in Israel is to reassert a credible secular and dovish political platform that can appeal to the bulk of the secular public. It might be Machiavellian, but in politics, principles only go so far. Israelis are smart enough to know a credible alternative when they see it. As of now, there isn’t one.

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One thought on “The Israeli Left Needs a Better Game Plan

  1. Very interesting. Are there any compelling centre-left politicians on the horizon who might articulate a credible alternative? Or are we just waiting for the existing leaders to push through?

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