Left out: Israel’s liberals find themselves isolated and lacking influence and power

Opinions in Israel are becoming increasingly nationalistic, reflected in the growing prominence of those who won’t countenance a two-state solution at all. So what might the future be for the Israeli left?

Right- and left-wing Israelis clash at a rally in Tel Aviv last month calling for an end to the occupation and for a ceasefire. Andrew Burton / Getty Images
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As Israeli warplanes were pounding the Gaza Strip a few days ago, the portly, elder Israeli politician Reuven Rivlin confidently approached the podium facing Israel’s parliament. After a hotly contested battle for the presidency, one that exposed rampant corruption among senior Israeli politicians, Rivlin secured his spot as Shimon Peres’s replacement to become Israel’s 10th president. Despite his staunchly right-wing views concerning the solution to Israel’s crisis with the Palestinians, Rivlin received a standing ovation as he was inaugurated in front of the country.

With almost no concrete opposition from the left, Rivlin’s appointment confirms that Israel is one step closer to making official the one-state reality that exists on the ground. In Israel’s parliamentary democratic system, power lies firmly in the hands of the prime minister, leaving the position of the president as a largely ceremonial and symbolic one. At a time when ­Israel’s secular left is on life support, with nationalist sentiment sweeping a country in the grips of war in Gaza, Rivlin’s accession to the presidency is a profound symbol of Israel’s desire to control the Palestinian territories forever.

“I would prefer for the Palestinians to be citizens of this country,” Rivlin reportedly told the Greek ambassador to Israel last year, “rather than divide the land.” With statements like this, Rivlin has positioned himself as a leader of an increasingly popular Israeli movement to reject the two-state solution once and for all. While these voices have always existed under the surface, the Israeli government tried to subdue them to convince the international community that it was ready to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith about the division of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. The reality on the ground, as Israel’s occupation closes in on its sixth decade, is a de facto one-state solution, where rights are administered on the basis of ethnicity in a wholly unequal manner.

Israel’s secular left, which formerly held massive peace rallies in Tel Aviv and provided dark hope that Israeli civil society had the power to exert political pressure on its leadership to reach a two-state solution, has lost most of its political clout over the past several years.

Under the leadership of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ­Israel has increased settlement activity in the West Bank, while entrenching an infrastructure of control that extends to all of the territory from the river to the sea.

“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” ­Netanyahu said just under a month ago, as the Gaza conflict raged.

At this point in Israel’s short but violent history, both the Israeli prime minister and president are firmly on record stating that a two-state solution is not viable because of security concerns, or the fact that Israel simply doesn’t want to give up the biblical heartland of the country.

Years of fruitless negotiations have produced an Israeli political establishment that is openly antagonistic towards the two-state solution framework, which, with the outbreak of violence in Gaza, is difficult for the country’s PR handlers in the foreign ministry to contain.

“At the very least, Rivlin is now in the position to legitimise one-state discourse in at least two ways,” says Dimi Reider, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “First, by emphatically legitimising and embracing settler communities and maybe even reaching out to Palestinian ones – making settlement eviction and partition appear a lot less self-evident as a path forward.”

The rightist narrative of the conflict has taken such a strong hold that it is no longer safe for left-leaning Israelis to even protest on the streets of Tel Aviv. The upper echelon of Israel’s political establishment, attempting to build on the rhetoric for political gains, is largely to blame for this dire ­situation.

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, for example, recently led calls to boycott businesses owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel who protested against the attacks in Gaza. Groups of young Israeli rightist militants have been roaming the streets, wearing shirts inspired by neo-Nazi logos, and chanting “death to leftists and death to Arabs”. When these groups engage in violence, against either leftists or Palestinians, they are barely held accountable for their crimes.

Tel Aviv’s famed liberal intellectuals face intimidation from family, friends and peers for demonstrating basic empathy and remorse for the thousands of civilians killed in Gaza. As the major 2,000-strong Tel Aviv rally for peace in Gaza last month demonstrated, never before in Israel’s history has it been so dangerous to publicly call for peace with the ­Palestinians.

“What is new this time around is that it is unsafe for Israeli Jews to protest,” says Neve Gordon, a professor of political science at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. “For instance, in the past I would take my children to protests in Tel Aviv. I can no longer do this since the right-wing are extremely violent. Ultimately, my children are safer in Beer Sheva, despite the rockets, than in an ­anti-war protest in Tel Aviv.”

The factors leading to the crippling of the secular left in Israel by the dominant nationalist sentiment have been a long time in the making. For one, Israel never really lived up to its stated desire for a two-state solution. During the Labor governments of the 1990s Israeli settlement activity, for example, increased on the land slated for a Palestinian state. Over the past 20 years, Israel has worked tirelessly to sever the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. It is no coincidence that the latest round of violence in Gaza began just two months after Hamas agreed to a unity government that would mend Palestinian infighting and bring Gaza closer to the West Bank.

Despite a well-documented unwillingness to cede territory and reformulate its control over Palestinian life in the occupied territories, Israel invested heavily in a handsome PR campaign designed to show the international community that it was interested in a two-state solution. While international civil society accepted this with varying degrees of scepticism, Israel's liberal leftists and its supporters around the world, who often call themselves liberal Zionists, accepted this PR strategy wholeheartedly. As Jonathan Freedman recently noted in The New York Review of Books: "For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two-state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket."

It is this contradiction that doomed the Israeli left and is now difficult to conceal. Zionism as an ideology has always been difficult to reconcile with liberalism. This is all the more profound in wartime, when nationalism seemingly paralyses every sector of Israeli society with a sink or swim mindset.

“The Jewish left has been dwindling for years because the demarcation lines are becoming clearer. It is becoming more and more difficult to be both a Zionist and a leftist, even a Zionist and a liberal. Most people choose Zionism over a left politics. But this is part of a long process,” says Gordon.

The latest Gaza conflict, coupled with a new willingness of Israel’s leadership to speak honestly about their long-term ambitions in the Palestinian territories, means that talk of a two-state solution and a viable partner in Israeli society that can help push the government to make painful concessions is out of the window. The message to the international community from Israel’s leaders is unequivocal: the occupation cannot and will not be ended; Hamas will administer Gaza and the Palestinian Authority will administer the West Bank – both under the shadow of Israeli security control. Talk of a two-state solution in any meaningful sense remains illusory; the status quo will be enforced – by military force if necessary – for the foreseeable future.

The demise of the Israeli left was already crystal clear when thousands flooded the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in the summer of 2011, chanting that the people demand social justice, without mentioning the Palestine issue.

While liberal Israelis have focused on their own economic freedom and the reformation of Israeli society, hardline rightists in the Israeli government have entrenched their power in the political system. When the dust settles on this summer’s violence in Gaza, Israel will be left with a PR problem that its experts will be unable to control: a battle over equal rights in the one state that extends across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Joseph Dana is a regular contributor to The Review.