Can Israel’s Non-Right Ever Win?

Can Israel’s Non-Right Ever Win?

It is long past time to reject expansionism, intolerance and structural inequality and define what democratic Israeli patriotism really stands for.


January 23, 2013: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Reuters/Nir Elias.)

For the vast majority of readers who tune into Israel every so often but are not obsessive about it, the country’s election on Tuesday appears to have delivered a rare moment of mild encouragement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deservedly cast as a peace rejectionist, has been weakened and the overall right-wing bloc unexpectedly lost seats, creating the narrowest margin of victory of the right over the non-right of 61–59 (down from 65–55 in the previous Knesset), when polls had predicted the margin to grow further (although describing the split this way is not a helpful guide, of which more later).

Moderate Israel has also found itself a new champion in the staggering success of newbie centrist party leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party claimed nineteen seats. If one counts Labor as being left (despite its protestations to the contrary), then the Meretz-Labor left camp has scored an impressive revival, from sixteen to twenty-one seats. By this accounting, Israel’s rightward march appears to have been stalled, at least for the time being, itself quite a feat given Israeli demographic trends (higher ultra-Orthodox and national-religious birthrates) and the debilitating disunity among the non-rightist opposition, which failed to agree on an alternative candidate to Netanyahu in this election.

This is where a pause from breathless optimism (or a read of Max Blumenthal’s take on the election) is very much in order. First of all, the right may have shrunk slightly, but the remaining and significant cohort has veered appreciably rightward. Far more of the Knesset’s now forty-three Zionist-right MKs take an overtly anti-democratic approach toward Israel’s non-Jewish minority and dissenting voices, prioritize settlement expansion and support annexation of a large part or all of the occupied territories. These views are represented in both the much-enlarged national religious Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, and within the Likud faction itself.

More important still, it is the Zionist right that will form the next government and be a clear majority of Netanyahu’s next coalition—yes, that Netanyahu. He will still be PM. But if the Zionist right is again not a majority and has lost seats, and the non-right beats the right by forty-eight seats to forty-three, why is it that a non-right government is so inconceivable?

At this point, a word of explanation is required regarding Israel’s political camps. In addition to the Zionist right and the non-right, the remaining seats needed to form a governing majority are split between the other two blocs in Israeli politics: the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim (Knesset seats: eighteen), and the largely Palestinian Arab parties (eleven).

The ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) make for more natural partners of the Zionist right—a discourse of universal rights is alien to them, certainly as applied to Palestinians, and they are socially very conservative. But the ultra-Orthodox can also switch sides. Their economic outlook more approximates that of the left—they see a role for government and social safety nets, and their greatest focus is financial benefits and allowances and a degree of autonomy for their own community (for instance, running their own education system). Anyone willing to pay that price is a potential ally. The ultra-Urthodox parties are also, strictly speaking, not Zionist. Their interpretation of Jewish law makes for an uneasy relationship with the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in pre-messianic times; this is partly why their rabbinical leaders vehemently oppose military service for their community. Other than a (not unproblematic) tendency toward intolerance and racism, and the fact that the two largest settlements (Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit) provide cheap housing near Jerusalem for the ultra-Orthodox, ideologically they are not really part of the settlements and Greater Israel camp. Territorial pragmatism and peace overtures have been justified by Haredi rabbinical authorities in the past—mostly predicated on the command to save lives and even on the need to avoid confrontation with the world—and there’s no reason why they couldn’t do so in the future.

The Palestinian parties (the nationalist Balad, the mostly Islamist United Arab List and the partly communist, partly Jewish-Arab-coexistence Hadash) are more obvious partners for the non-right, but they have never been part of any governing coalition in Israel, and the only time they were ever treated as legitimate partners for any kind of Knesset deal was by Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, after his 1992 election victory.

From the perspective of centrist Zionist Israeli Jews, the non-Zionism of Israel’s Palestinian citizens is apparently much harder to accept than the non-Zionism of the ultra-Orthodox. Yair Lapid, the new face of moderate Israel, used his first post-election appearance in front of the TV cameras to rule out forming any kind of parliamentary bloc with the Arab parties, even one that might put him in the prime minister’s seat. This reality of exclusion also helps suppress Palestinian voter turnout (up to 15 percent lower than turnout among Israeli Jews), another factor that, if it were to change, could add a handful of seats to the non-right camp.

Rabin was indeed the last Israeli prime minister to achieve overall progress with the Palestinian leadership (then led by Yasir Arafat’s PLO) and to advance equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel—and his premiership was the last time Israel was governed from the center-left. Rabin led by forming a blocking alliance with the non-Zionist Palestinian parties and a governing coalition with the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox of Shas. It was Rabin’s government, of course, that produced the 1993 Oslo Accords with the PLO. There have been negotiations since then, but never a government of the non-right that produced and implemented peace deals (the Lebanon and Gaza withdrawals, under Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ariel Sharon in 2005, respectively, were both unilateral); that governed without a strong pro-settler coalition presence; that avoided bouts of war and harsh military escalations; and that addressed domestic inequality in a serious way.

A great deal has changed since Rabin’s time. If Israel is to return to a more contested politics and to claw its way back from the zealotry and nationalist chauvinism that characterizes the new ruling right, then its non-right will have to undergo two big transformations: it will have to stand for something substantively very different, and it will have to make hard choices on strategic priorities.

First, the ideological change. The fact that other than the small and proudly leftist (and growing) Meretz party, the non-right parties (Yesh Atid, Labor, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and the now-shrunken Kadima, led by Shaul Mofaz) all insist on defining themselves as center parties, not left, and have ruled out adopting a new branding—progressive or liberal or democratic—already hints at the problem. The Zionist center too often sounds and acts like a less vicious, more huggable version of the Zionist right, bereft of its own vision or beliefs, still undemocratic for its non-Jewish citizens, and still indulgent of settlements, occupation and injustices vis-à-vis the Palestinians beyond the Green Line. It should not be surprising, for example, that Kadima MKs supported anti-democratic legislation in the outgoing Knesset.

The phenomenon on the non-right of not standing for very much also facilitates the perennial success of fad parties that appear for an election or two, accumulate quite large support and split the non-right camp, often then go into government with the right, do nothing and finally disappear. It is precisely this tradition that Yair Lapid shows signs of following (a tradition that includes the Shinui party of his father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a decade ago). Sadly, that is where the headline item of Tuesday’s election could well end.

Something unexpected is going to have to happen for Lapid to be more than a match made in heaven between an escapist public and an escapist candidate. He has demonstrated no strong or principled opposition to the settlements or occupation or support for equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Thus far, he is all about the avoidance of hard choices. Lapid launched his campaign in the settlement of Ariel—so he is for settlements, but not too much. Lapid supports a return to peace talks—but he insists on maintaining Israel’s occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, so not too much. He in part represents a pushback from Israel’s old secular Ashkenazi elite against the growing threat of being displaced by a new emerging rightist elite, with their religious and settler orientation, and by the sheer numbers of the growing Haredi community. But that same old elite never succeeded in producing a truly democratic Zionism.

It is true that one can draw some hope from Lapid’s list of new MKs (all hand-picked by Lapid himself). That list includes some people with an impressive progressive record in academia, social activism, municipal politics and the like, although predictably there is not an Arab citizen among them. But to make a difference regarding the more fundamental questions pertaining to Israel’s future will require a shift in mindset that has not been signaled.

If expansionism, intolerance and structural inequality are not endemic to Israel’s very existence, then it is time for the non-right to say so and to define what its version of democratic Israeli patriotism really stands for, and how that creates and embraces a shared political space to work with non-Zionists as full partners, whether they be ultra-Orthodox or Palestinian.

Which leads to the second big transformation mentioned above: the need to put aside or at least compromise on real disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian Israelis (over a universal military draft, for instance) in order to defeat the bigger threat of imperial overreach and democratic collapse posed by the right’s ultranationalist agenda. So far Lapid has suggested he will do the opposite, by sitting in government with Netanyahu, Bennett and the far right in order to advance a nebulous agenda framed around “sharing the burden,” which mostly amounts to pressing the ultra-Orthodox to accept military service and receive fewer state subsidies. Sharing the burden is talked about as if this “burden” were a fixed decree from above rather than a product of policies that have undermined rather than enhanced Israel’s security—policies that most of the non-right still fail to address head-on. While an alliance with the Haredim can hardly whet the appetite of a progressive, politics is, after all, about making hard choices.

The Zionist right has made its choice; it has placed “Jewish” above “democratic.” The rest of the Zionist camp has always hated to acknowledge that this combination of words—Jewish and democratic—is at all problematic. That obfuscation should have ended long ago, and it can no longer be avoided. Israeli democrats have to reinvent a vision for Israel, whether within or beyond the Zionist paradigm, and it is telling that the answer will almost certainly include making common cause with non-Zionists. For that reinvention should include a new social contract with the Palestinian and ultra-Orthodox communities alongside an unflinching pushback against the fascistic elements that have just greatly strengthened their outpost in the Knesset. Interestingly enough, such a coalition would have a significant majority in the new Knesset. The current attempts to demand more sacrifice from the Haredim, along with the anticipated Haredi struggles with the national religious sector represented by Jewish Home, make a Haredi future partnership in a non-rightist coalition more likely if such an option is on offer. Yet far from buying into the “alternative non-right coalition” logic, Lapid has rejected it and spearheads an agenda that prioritizes dealing with the Haredim. Far from being the new champion of hope for a better Israel, Lapid is currently setting himself up to be its vanquisher. In which case, is all of the above not irrelevant?

Tragically, that might be the case, and it might be too late to achieve de-occupation and an Israel that is a secure and inclusive democracy with a healthy brand of patriotic Israeliness. Pursuing the expansionist and undemocratic garrison-state option is an extremely high-risk strategy for Israel’s Jewish community and even for the Jewish world beyond. For some that might be a cause for celebration—although I highly doubt that the unraveling of Israel will be an enjoyable spectacle for anyone it touches.

But does any other outcome exist only in the realm of the pollyannish? Not necessarily. When the stakes are so high, paradigm-shifting changes can occur. Zionism is likely to either finally achieve democratic maturity or be remembered in its demise as a failed utopian project. The creative, constantly evolving, dynamic, democratic and thoroughly plugged-into-the-world aspects of Israel are not a bad starting point—and they are over-represented on Lapid’s list. And politicians too can evolve. An Israel with agreed borders, whose Jewish character is redefined, is unobtrusive, is respecting of a large Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population, while celebrating rather than corroding democratic values (themselves also part of the Jewish heritage) and that undergoes its own civil rights revolution regarding its Palestinian citizenry appears a long way off. But that transition will have to happen rather soon, or not at all: a transition that drags Israeli nationalism into the twenty-first century from its current nineteenth-century “volkist” stagnation. An Israeli patriotism that can evoke a version of its own journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” It would be a transition that Israelis would have to own, but that they alone are unlikely to generate. The nature of the Palestinian struggle for emancipation, and the extent to which that struggle challenges Israelis in meaningful ways (and Americans, Europeans and others) will have a crucial shaping influence.

And finally, one cannot absolve the United States, Europe and other outside powers from their responsibility for having pursued policies that indulge Israeli violations of international law and that fuel Israeli escapism. Handwringing in Western capitals about continued pro-settlement Israeli policies is an evasion. Alongside the failures of the Israeli non-right, the other key reason the right has been winning the argument in Israel is because there have been no negative consequences for the steady expansion of Israel’s grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If Yair Lapid—and the large centrist, urban-based middle-class sector that he represents—is to make the switch and escapist Israel is to wake up, it will be the result of smart and targeted international pressure and the fear of international isolation. Western signals of impunity and indulgence toward the occupation are the oxygen of escapism, and the off-switch for that oxygen needs to be found rather urgently.

Read Max Blumenthal’s piece on why the Israeli elections were a victory for the right.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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