The Israeli Left Implodes

Danny Ben-Simon has quit. If anyone needed more evidence of the disarray of the Israeli left, this is it -- but then, no one actually needs any more evidence.

Ben-Simon became the whip of the Labor Party's Knesset delegation just five months ago. That sounds like a prominent position for a first-time Knesset member, until you remember that the once-powerful party now has just 13 representatives in the 120-seat parliament and that at least four of them have had nothing to do with Labor since its leader, Ehud Barak, insisted on joining Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government in order to become defense minister.

Before running for office this year, Ben-Simon was one of the country's most incisive political reporters. He literally wrote the book on Labor's inability to connect to lower-class voters. At a press conference on Monday, he announced his decision to quit his position as whip with a furious attack on Barak for his failure to pursue peace. The riddle is why he thought he could work with Barak in the first place.

In 1993, when Labor's Yitzhak Rabin led Israel into the peace process with the Palestinians, the party had 44 Knesset seats. The smaller Meretz Party, to Labor's left, then had 12 seats; now it has three. The political parties aren't alone in imploding. Peace Now, a protest movement that in its heyday sometimes drew hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrations, still runs a monitoring effort that provides crucial information on West Bank settlement and has filed important lawsuits against settlers. But it only manages to draw major crowds to the annual memorial for Rabin -- perhaps now a memorial for the peace movement itself.

The near-vacuum on the Israeli left is all the sadder given the new prominence of the dovish camp among supporters of Israel in the United States. J Street, the pro-peace Israel lobby, is expecting over 1,000 people at its Washington conference next week. Keynote speakers will include National Security Adviser James Jones -- a signal that the administration is happy to have J Street's public support for achieving President Barack Obama's goal of a two-state solution.

With a U.S. administration ready to pursue peace, the apparent collapse of domestic Israeli support demands explanation. One subtle clue comes from the latest Peace Index survey by Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmetz Center. It found 64 percent of Jewish Israelis back a two-state solution. What was once the view of a few courageous dissenters on the left has become a boring consensus.

Here's the rub: Sixty percent of the Jewish public doesn't believe that continued settlement building hurts the chances of such an agreement or will lead to the creation of a single, binational state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It's as if the left had convinced people that lung cancer is a terrible disease -- but not that smoking has anything to do with it. Last June, under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu announced he would accept "a demilitarized Palestinian state … alongside the Jewish state." But he has rejected Obama's demand for a settlement freeze. That position -- yes to peace as a vague principle, no to doing anything to get there -- apparently works for most of the Jewish majority of voters. The pollsters admit they don't know how people reconcile such conflicting views, though they intend to ask new questions in next month's survey to figure it out.

Here's an answer that won't show up in poll results, because people don't talk about things they don't notice: For most Israelis, the occupied territories are located somewhere beyond the world's edge. After the Second Intifada began in 2000, the army banned Israelis from visiting Area A -- the parts of the West Bank under full Palestinian control -- for their own safety. Except for settlers, Israeli civilians are unlikely to visit the other areas. They don't see how the suburban houses of the settlements have spread on the hills, how illegal outposts have sprung up between the established settlements, how the 200-foot-wide security barrier meandering through the countryside further hems in Palestinians. (The settlers look at this every day, but in their own way they are blind to it.)

Besides that, the burden of reserve duty on Israelis has been reduced over the years. In itself, this is a blessing. But reservists have played a critical role in protest movements over the years and in carrying the tidings of what the army is doing in occupied land back to families, friends, and co-workers. The unintended consequence of less reserve duty is that it has become easier to live in Tel Aviv, skip headlines about the inequities of the occupation, and go about life in a comfortable Western city.

On the phone with me this week, Ben-Simon pointed out another underlying contradiction: Many Israelis who want peace don't want the left to negotiate it. The left is widely seen as "Arab-lovers, people who give too much away." The tragedy, he said, is that "those who want peace don't have the legitimacy to make it, and those who have the legitimacy don't really want it." In 1992, Labor overcame that problem by running Rabin, a general with a tough reputation who had concluded that Israel needed to recognize the Palestinians as a people.

Since Rabin's death, Labor has hoped to reuse that formula. But Barak has proved a very poor substitute for Rabin. He won election as prime minister in 1999. But along with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he played a critical role in the collapse of the Camp David summit and the entire Oslo peace process in 2000. Rather than accept any responsibility, he described the Palestinians as unwilling and incapable of making peace. His self-justification has been an ongoing gift to the right.

As if bent on ruin, though, Labor again chose Barak as its leader two years ago. Following the party's abysmal showing in last February's general election, he dragged the party into Netanyahu's government. "He doesn't believe in giving anything to Arab, he doesn't believe in peace. … He hasn't gotten over the trauma of Camp David," Ben-Simon says. As a result, Labor is splintering. Ben-Simon won't be the last one to bolt. Even some of the party's most sycophantic politicians are fed up with Barak.

At the same time, Palestinian politics are also having a chilling effect on Israeli peace advocates. The bitter, ongoing split between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, undercuts the credibility of negotiations with Abbas: Even were he to reach an agreement with Israel, would Gaza be part of it, or would the conflict continue on that front?

Historically, one thing that has catalyzed public backing for peace in Israel is a serious initiative from outside. The most dedicated activists want Israel to take the first step, but it's easier to mobilize support when the opportunity for an agreement seems tangible. Peace Now was founded by reservists after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977 -- the culmination of American-backed peace efforts that began four years earlier, after the Yom Kippur War. Rabin was elected after the first Bush administration initiated the Madrid Process and pressured Israel to stop settlement spending.

Meeting next week, J Street's activists can do little directly about the Labor Party's self-destructive impulses or Palestinian internecine struggles. But they can show that Americans deeply concerned about Israel's future want Obama to continue his efforts to reach a two-state solution, leaning on both Israel and the Palestinians. At the moment, leadership is needed from Washington, simply because it is missing elsewhere.

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