The Decline of the Israeli Left

Big political movements that once mobilized support for a two state solution are now falling into decline.

Naomi Chazan leaned forward in the arched lobby of Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel. "If we want to chart the decline of the Israeli left, we should take 1992 as the starting point," she said. In the years since, the Labor Party has lost 31 of its 44 seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset, and the historically pro-peace Meretz is down from twelve seats to three.

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Chazan should know. One of the founders of Meretz, and later one of its leading Knesset members--from 1996 to 2003 she was a deputy speaker of the Knesset--she still serves as the chair of Meretz's party congress. Wearing another hat as president of the New Israel Fund, she has watched the decline of Israel's progressive and pro-peace movement from close at hand.

I spoke with Chazan in early March. At the time, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was in the middle of the inter-party negotiations usually needed to form a governing coalition in Israel. Later that month he convinced Labor leader Ehud Barak to serve as defense minister, despite the fact that the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which had won fifteen seats by campaigning for mandated loyalty oaths from Israel's 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, was already firmly inside Netanyahu's coalition. Barak's decision caused further tensions inside Labor, pounding yet another nail into the coffin of the party that until 1977 dominated the country's political scene. But even before he joined Netanyahu's conservative government, Barak stood accused by leaders of Israel's peace movement of bearing considerable responsibility for the movement's decline. In their telling, the betrayal started in early October 2000, when Barak emerged from the ruins of the last-minute peace talks at Camp David and announced that Yasser Arafat had quite gratuitously turned down Israel's "generous offer." Israel, he reported, had "no partner for peace."

Barak had been elected prime minister just over a year earlier, on a strong pro-peace platform. In that election he accused the incumbent--the same Netanyahu--of having wasted Israel's chances of reaching a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, and he promised, if elected, that he would conclude one "within six to nine months." He carried into office the hopes of large numbers of Israelis, who then as now appeared to trust his judgment. His October 2000 statement expressed the frustrations of many of them, and thus was devastating to the movement for peace.

Within weeks of those Camp David negotiations, other participants pointed out that the take-it-or-leave-it offer Barak had made to Arafat was far from generous--and that Arafat's response was far from a flat-out rejection. But the damage had been done. The broadly anti-peace trends that Barak unleashed with his October declaration have dominated Israeli politics ever since.

After Barak lost to Ariel Sharon in a February 2001 election for prime minister, he left the Labor leadership and went off to make a fortune in Israel's booming arms industry. Six years later, in the wake of the disastrous 2006 war on Lebanon, Labor forgave Barak his past political failures and petulence, reanointed him party head, and catapulted him straight into the post of defense minister in Ehud Olmert's government.

In that post he worked hard with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to plan and wage last December's brutal war on Gaza. As for Chazan, when we talked in March she said there had been

a tremendous amount of infighting and head-rolling inside Labor and Meretz since the election. Labor can't even be considered 'left' any more, and Meretz is ambiguous. . . . We will have to rebuild the whole [progressive] movement from the bottom up. We will have to redefine the vision--no, actually, to define it, well, for the first time.

• • •

Certainly Ehud Barak has played a singular role in the demise of Israel's left and its peace movement, but other dynamics contributed, too. Conversations with the leaders and thinkers of the peace movement suggest at least four somewhat-linked factors that, over the years, dampened the movement's appeal.

First, many peaceniks used to argue that the costs to Israel (financial and otherwise) of maintaining sole control over the occupied territories would be unsustainable over the long or even medium term. (Now that U.S. taxpayers have borne the costs of maintaining an occupation in Iraq, we have a more vivid idea of how high they can be.) But the establishment of the Oslo-derived Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 significantly changed that calculus. Nearly all of the occupation's administrative costs and a good portion of security-related costs are now met through European aid donations to the PA. And since Israel controls the shipment of all goods into and out of both the West Bank and Gaza and can use the territories as a captive market, many economists and aid experts argue that the money now flows in the opposite direction.

Second, the value that Jewish Israelis place on being able to build good relations with their Palestinian neighbors and the rest of the Muslim world has greatly diminished. Recall that in the heady days of the (largely nonviolent) first intifada, 1989-93, and during the early years of the post-Oslo period, Israel and the occupied territories were awash in handsomely funded "getting to know you" projects. Israelis and Palestinians who had previously known each other only as enemies or--prior to 1989--in the context of extremely unequal employment relationships came to see their once-feared neighbors in a much more multi-layered way. Many Israeli participants in these projects, who for decades had felt cut off from and shunned by their neighbors in the Middle East, were hopeful that building good relations with the Palestinians would win them wider acceptance by, and integration into, the region in which they lived.

That excitement receded over time, especially in the wake of the suicide bombings that Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionist groups undertook against civilian Israelis in the mid-1990s. The outbreak of the much more violent second intifada in September 2000--and the Barak pronunciamento that followed hard on its heels--destroyed just about all the excitement that remained. Soon after Ariel Sharon took office in 2001, he announced his plan for a barrier that would simply "wall off" the whole Palestinian problem from the daily lives of Israelis.

Since then the wall's effectiveness has been subject to debate. Most Israelis judge it to be very successful, while a few point out that it is still incomplete and that by using homemade mortars or rockets, Palestinians in the West Bank--as in Gaza--could, if they chose, pop projectiles over the top of it into Israel. Indeed, for many years now Gaza has been far more completely walled off from Israel than the West Bank, so the existence of the wall cannot, on its own, account for the lack of attacks from the West Bank. While the wall has played some part in preventing attacks, the operations the IDF has continued to mount against hostile networks even deep inside the West Bank have also made a large contribution, as have the parallel actions of the U.S.-trained Ramallah security forces. Neither of those factors is present in Gaza. (Both have, however, deeply affected political attitudes among West Bankers. Palestinian pollsters report that support for Hamas has risen in the West Bank in recent months, and now unambiguously outpaces support for Fatah, once the clear political leader there.)

Despite those arguments, most Israelis deeply believe in the wall's efficacy, not least because it embodies the desire many of them have to simply turn their backs on their Palestinian neighbors--and on the whole of the Arab and Muslim world beyond.

One day in March, I had lunch with Yossi Alpher in a café in Herzliya, one of the string of opulent suburbs that spread north from Tel Aviv. The affable, U.S.-born Alpher is a former Mossad agent who 25 years ago turned into a moderate, realpolitik-motivated peacenik. For the past few years he has been co-editor of Bitter Lemons, a web-based forum for the exchange of ideas among Israelis and Palestinians. "After what happened at Camp David in 2000, the notion of a 'warm peace' doesn't have much incentive for Israelis," he said.

Look, Israelis have become much more focused on Europe and the U.S. in recent years. Large numbers of Israelis nowadays commute on a weekly basis to jobs or businesses in London or Copenhagen. Then, there are all those whose parents or grandparents came here earlier from Eastern Europe--from Poland or Romania or wherever. Now those countries have become part of the E.U., and their passports have become much more valuable. So anyone who can has been going back to re-register their citizenship rights in those countries and get their passports. Those are the kinds of foreign connections that Israelis now value. Why on earth should they bother with the Palestinians or that other troublesome entity known as the 'Arab world'?

Sitting with Alpher on the airy, bougainvillea-shaded terrace of Herzliya's Café Cazé, it was easier to imagine ourselves in one of the sun-washed cities of France's Côte d'Azur than in one of the stressed communities of the West Bank, less than ten miles away. Elsewhere, veteran peacenik Moshe Ma'oz told me dourly: "The majority of Israelis who favor a two-state solution do so because they hate Palestinians, not because they love them."

The third factor in the peace movement's demise was the reframing of its own demographic argument. In its simplest form, this argument advocates separate states because "one day soon" Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. In fact, this may have happened already. For many Israeli peaceniks, the demographic argument lent urgency to their call for a peace agreement that would withdraw Israeli control from many heavily populated parts of the West Bank.

Even in its pro-peace form, this argument is problematic: it summarily disenfranchises the great portion of the Palestinian people--now numbering five million or more--who live outside Mandate Palestine and who are prevented by Israel from returning to their ancestral or actual homes inside it. No peacemaking effort can be successful without the buy-in of the vast majority of the refugees themselves. The argument also implies that it is acceptable to keep a significant number of Palestinians living under the burden of military occupation so long as Jewish Israelis outnumber them, but the moment that Palestinians become a numerical majority, some significant moral change occurs.

Despite its flaws, the demographic argument for peace retains considerable traction among pro-peace organizations in the United States, including avowedly "progressive" organizations such as J Street. Inside Israel, however, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and other political forces have put the argument to new uses. Their version is: "If the demographics prevent us doing what we want on the ground, we will change the demographics." As the British-Israeli political analyst Daniel Levy recently observed: "We have to recognize that Liebermanism is a bastard child of the whole way the Israeli peace movement has used the demographic argument for so long."

Zionists have traditionally described demography-altering proposals as "transfer," but the rest of the world typically calls this ethnic cleansing. Few in Israel still speak crudely, as they once did, about rounding up Palestinians in trucks and sending them across the border. Nonetheless, during the recent election, Lieberman expressed support for establishing a truncated Palestinian state that would incorporate some of the Palestinian-populated areas of Israel that abut it. Palestinians in those areas would summarily lose their Israeli citizenship, and thus be "transferred" administratively, if not physically.

There may be other, more subtle, demographic strategies. Jonathan Cook, a British journalist who has reported from Nazareth since 2001, argues in Disappearing Palestine that Israel has deliberately encouraged the voluntary emigration of Palestinians from both Israel and the occupied territories by making life there unbearable through "the ever more sophisticated systems of curfews, checkpoints, walls, permits and land grabs." Hard figures on the levels of emigration are difficult to come by, but, according to my observations, nearly all families now living in the West Bank and Gaza have numerous members who have moved away during the 42 years of Israeli occupation. Israel forbids most such emigrants from returning except for short visits.

Finally, the argument that an independent Palestinian state would immediately become a "Hamastan"--either chaotic and ungovernable, and therefore a source of continuing violence, or controlled by Hamas, and therefore a source of continuing violence--has eroded support for a peace agreement.

The Hamastan argument usually runs something like this: "We withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005; Hamas took over there; look at the violence and chaos that ensued! How can you expect us to repeat that in the West Bank?" It has proven very potent inside Israel. But it ignores, most notably, that the unilateral way in which Sharon undertook the 2005 withdrawal strengthened Hamas by enabling it to claim that its policy of resistance, rather than negotiations pursued by PA/Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas, had forced Israel's hand. A speedy and generously negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank would likely look very different.

The Hamastan argument also ignores the fact that while Israel withdrew its military and settlers from the Gaza Strip, it has retained complete control over Gaza's access to the outside world as well as other key aspects of Gazan life. Since 2006 Israel has imposed a tight blockade on the Strip. (And since the end of the recent war, Israel has prevented the entry into Gaza of even the basic materials needed to rebuild the thousands of homes and other structures the IDF demolished there.) The United Nations, the United States, and other governments have all judged that under international law Israel remains an "occupying power" in Gaza.

When Israeli officials argue to outsiders that the emergence of a Hamas-dominated government in the West Bank would be intolerable because Hamas uses unprovoked and gratuitous violence, or because Hamas's supporters and leaders are inherently evil, violent, or primitive people, they are also being disingenuous. They ignore the long record of Israel's own lethal use of violence against Gaza in the years between 2005 and 2008, a record that has been amply documented by the United Nations and by Israeli human rights groups such as B'tselem.

Hamas's continued capacity for violent resistance and its refusal to adopt Abbas's compliant, warm-and-fuzzy approach to peacemaking have made the idea of a Hamas-ruled state a hard one for many Jewish Israelis to accept. But within Israeli society (if not the political leadership), there is considerable realism in attitudes regarding Hamas. Many Jewish Israelis understand the reciprocal--indeed, grossly asymmetrical--nature of the violent exchanges that have been maintained across the Gaza-Israel border since January 2006, and have expressed appreciation for the restraint that Hamas has shown during periods of (never negotiated, but sometimes reciprocal) cease-fire with the IDF. For some years now, a small majority of Israelis have even favored government talks with Hamas, though the influential poll regularly conducted by Hebrew University's Truman Institute showed that this percentage dropped between December and March from 55 percent to 50 percent. In March 69 percent of Israelis still supported the idea of their government dealing with a Hamas-Fatah unity government.

It is also important to note that Israeli opinion polls (like Palestinian polls) still show marked, though slowly declining, support for a two-state outcome. The problem is that the big political movements that once mobilized this support in national politics are all in various states of decline.

• • •

How far has the peace movement fallen? One benchmark for comparison is the war that Sharon and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin launched against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982. In September of that year, Lebanese Falangists, operating (as Ari Folman's brilliant film Waltz with Bashir reminds us) with extensive support from the Israeli military, undertook a two-day massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis--as much as 20 percent of the population at the time--took to the streets in outrage, forcing the government to establish the Kahan Commission, which recommended serious sanctions for Sharon.

By contrast, pollsters found that 94 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the recent war in Gaza. Veteran peace activist Daphna Golan, who teaches human rights law at Hebrew University, recalled the anguish and isolation she felt during the Gaza war, especially in the face of widespread pro-war activism among Hebrew University students. Golan said university authorities did not respond to her complaints about posters she described as "extremely racist" hung at the entrance of the Givat Ram campus.

Even the Meretz Party, launched successfully in 1992 on an explicitly pro-peace platform, supported the Gaza war in its early days--as did the writers David Grossman and Amos Oz, icons of the peace movement. By the fifth day of war, all agreed that Israel had "done enough" and should stop the assault. But their initial support legitimated the whole war in the eyes of admirers at home and abroad.

Chazan told me that Meretz's "lack of clarity" on the Gaza war was one of the proximate causes of its poor showing in the February polls. "But that's not the deep cause," she argued.

The deep cause is that the idea that there is 'no partner for peace' remains powerful here in Israel. And deep down, not many people here have been prepared to consider changing the kinds of flawed basic parameters on which the whole post-Oslo peace process has been built.

• • •

Israel's once-impressive national peace movement may now lie in ruins, but a variety of smaller pro-peace initiatives grow like shoots of hope for the future. Some are perennials, like Uri Avnery's venerable "Gush Shalom" movement, which continues to publish weekly the clear-sighted political analyses of its 85-year-old founder, a former Knesset member and long before that an Irgun fighter.

Other Jewish Israelis--and Palestinian citizens of Israel--are making new efforts at nationwide pro-peace organizing, and many of them are approaching the task in ways that do not directly engage the ongoing "high politics" of war and peace. They work in the numerous excellent organizations devoted to human and/or civil rights, such as B'tselem and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Nearly all these activists have a rich understanding of the link between the rights work they do on the ground and a broader peace agenda.

A relatively new organization called Zochrot ("Memory," in its feminine form) takes another approach, doing "Nakba education" among Jewish Israelis. The Nakba--"Catastrophe"--is what Palestinians call the events of the war that accompanied the founding of the State of Israel in 1948: the expulsion of more than 70 percent of its Palestinian residents; Israel's refusal to allow those refugees to return after the war, despite UN resolutions demanding it do so; and Israel's subsequent expropriation or destruction of property the refugees left behind. For Palestinians everywhere, the Nakba remains an essential reference point of shared peoplehood.

Israel's hard-line Jewish ethno-nationalists are profoundly troubled by any mention of the Nakba. At the end of May, Yisrael Beiteinu introduced a bill that would criminalize the holding of any public events to mark the annual commemoration of the Nakba. After the proposal received some backing from the government, Eitan Bronstein, the Israel-born executive director of Zochrot, argued that the proposal "reflects growing trepidation in Israel about the inevitable encounter with the Palestinian Nakba and the understanding that the Nakba is a foundational part of Israeli identity."

Most Jewish Israelis who can remember 1948 associate it primarily with the exultation they felt over the establishment of their state. Many find it hard to acknowledge publicly the great harm that development inflicted on others. Today, the majority of Israelis--who were born after 1948, or who immigrated to the country after that date--have little knowledge of, or interest in, what happened to the Palestinians that year. Bronstein is convinced that Israelis need to take responsibility for repairing as much of the harm as possible--including by embracing the Palestinian refugees' right of return. But first, he says, Jewish Israelis need to gain a much broader understanding of what happened to Palestinians that year.

Seven or eight times a year, Zochrot organizes a field trip for interested Jewish Israelis to a different site of Palestinian displacement. At each location, experts, who may be Jewish or Palestinian Israelis, share what they know about the village's life before its depopulation, what happened to its people in 1948, and the cycles of destruction and expropriation the village suffered thereafter. Then, participants erect informational signs indicating where key landmarks like the village's mosque or school once stood.

Zochrot's curriculum is taught only in Hebrew. "It is among Jewish Israelis that we need to do this education," Bronstein said. "When Palestinians come to the negotiating table and talk about refugee rights, including the right of return, Israelis have no context for that and often consider it a quite unreasonable demand."

Bronstein noted that talking about the Palestinian refugees' right of return is considerably more taboo in Israeli society than talking about finding a way to share Jerusalem with a future Palestinian state. "If we truly implement the right of return, it would make a big change here," he said. "It would mean the end of having a state for only the Jews. Many people here are concerned about what would be 'lost' in such a process. But we are more concerned with looking at the positive aspects of building a new, more inclusive basis for citizenship."

Initiatives like these are signs of hope for the future--but as of yet, they are far from constituting a mass movement.

• • •

On Barack Obama's second day in office, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jointly appointed the first high-level U.S. envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace issues in many years: George Mitchell. Mitchell served as Senate Majority Leader from 1989 through 1995, successfully mediated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between Britain and the Irish Republican Army, and in 2000-2001 chaired the commission established by President Bill Clinton to investigate the causes of the Palestinians' second intifada.

Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Mitchell have all stated that a final-status, two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a clear and pressing American interest. During Mitchell's three trips to the Middle East in his first three months as envoy, he stayed mainly in listening mode. He, Obama, and Clinton have all reiterated U.S. support for the two-state formula and called for a complete halt to any further construction in Israel's settlements. But by the beginning of June they still had not made any concrete moves toward securing a two state-based peace agreement. Nor had they done anything to hold Israel accountable for its continued construction in the settlements. Netanyahu recently endorsed the two-state goal, but demanded complete Palestinian disarmament and reiterated plans for building in the settlements.

In March 2009 there was a respectable level of support (51 percent) among Jewish Israelis--and 66 percent among Palestinian Israelis--for a two-state outcome. These findings mirrored polls taken in January among Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza, which found 54.8 percent of respondents also expressing support for a two-state outcome.

Given that the popular base exists in each society for the two-state outcome, it would seem that determined and smart actions by the Obama team could further that goal. However, transforming popular sentiments into a politically effective constituency requires political movements or parties in each society that are ready and able to do the necessary organizing. On the Palestinian side, there is only one political movement that is both able and--currently--willing to do this: Hamas. When Hamas entered the elections for the PA's legislative council in 2005, it signalled its adherence to many of the principles of the two-state outcome.

As for Fatah, the large amount of U.S.-mobilized aid that has been poured into that party's coffers since 2006 with the intention of strengthening it vis-à-vis Hamas has instead merely accelerated the trend toward corruption and clientelism that the movement has long harbored. The aid flow has actually hastened the disintegration of Fatah's internal decision-making structures to the point that it is now just about unable to make any strategic decisions at all. If the Obama administration is to succeed with the two-state goal, it will need to enroll Hamas into the campaign. But the White House still refuses to talk to Hamas unless Hamas accepts the three conditions the Bush administration defined for any such contacts: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and affirmation of adherence to all agreements previously reached by the PA leadership. (The United States has placed no analogous preconditions on dealing with any Israeli parties, no matter how extreme their positions.)

In Israel the situation is more complex. Kadima, the ill-defined "centrist" party founded by Sharon and Olmert in 2005, is currently in opposition--though with 28 seats, it is actually the largest single party in the Knesset. Kadima's leader, Tzipi Livni, refused to join Netanyahu's government precisely because of his opposition to the two-state goal, which has since been tempered slightly. (Her decision made the entry of Labor into the coalition even more anomalous. These two parties may now engage in a broad ideological do-si-do, with Labor moving to the right and Kadima to the left.) Livni and Kadima will almost certainly remain committed supporters and organizers on behalf of the two-state solution. As a strange hybrid that includes ministers across the political spectrum, Kadima may lose some of its right faction over Livni's position on the Palestinian question, but it might also gain some grassroots members of Labor infuriated by Barak's decision to join the government.

Kadima and Labor's organizational turbulence is but one element of a larger change in Israeli politics over recent years: the growth and consolidation of the right and the significant weakening of the older Zionist left. It remains to be seen whether even such an accomplished peacemaker as George Mitchell can pluck success out of this rancorous context. Building a strong constituency for peace within the U.S. political system will give him a good start. Several signs suggest this might be possible. President Obama is still popular; he, Mitchell, and Clinton command considerable respect nationwide. New pro-peace organizations have emerged within the U.S. Jewish community and have become increasingly effective. The war against Gaza last December may have been popular in Israel, but in the United States it provoked more and speedier criticism--even among Jewish Americans--than any previous Israeli war of choice.

But Obama and his team will need to move fast. Currently, there is not even any pretense of a peace process. Even Mahmoud Abbas, a most pliant man, has refused to resume the talks he broke off with Olmert at the beginning of the war in Gaza--until Israel promises to freeze settlement activity. Netanyahu, a lifelong supporter of the settlers' project, shows no sign of bowing to that demand.

The settlements continue to grow, even in the ever-combustible streets of downtown East Jerusalem. For this and related reasons, a small but growing number of peaceniks in Israel judge that it is already too late to win a two-state outcome. These people--political scientist and politician Meron Benvenisti, historian Ilan Pappé, and others, including numerous Palestinian Israelis--are now calling more forcefully than ever for a unitary, binational state in the area of Mandate Palestine that would be equally a home for all its citizens, Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking.

Will it come to that? It may. The collapse of Israel's once-powerful peace movement makes a workable two-state outcome much harder to achieve. That goal--which guarantees Israel's survival as a specifically Jewish state--might still, just, be within reach. But its attainment might ultimately owe more to Hamas's support for the project than to the legacy of Israel's pro-peace forces.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation.