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We need a center-left political alternative in Israel

This is not a time for ideological purity. There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation.

By Jeremiah Haber

Labor chairman Isaac Herzog (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor chairman Isaac Herzog (Photo by Activestills.org). Instead of portraying the Zionist Camp as an alternative to Netanyahu, Herzog presents himself as just a more efficient leader with the same policies.

Since the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, if not earlier, there has been no center-left in Israel. Of course, there has been something referred to as “center-left” but that was only relative to the so-called Right of the Likud, Kadima, Shinui, Yesh Atid, and defunct parties whose names I forget. Former prime minister Ehud Barak managed almost single-handedly to destroy the center-left, which had supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, and which had viewed moderate Israelis and Palestinians as partners for peace against the extremists of both sides. With Barak, even before the total collapse of the peace process, the motivation for a settlement with the Palestinians was to separate the populations, to keep the West Bank and Gaza under direct security and indirect economic control of Israel, and to grant limited autonomy to Palestinians. Barak’s views differed little from Netanyahu, which explains in part his ability to serve as defense minister in Netanyahu’s government.

The Barak Doctrine was simple: separation from the Palestinians (“We are here; they are there”); Israeli security and economic control over the West Bank and Gaza; limited Palestinian autonomy with Israel’s security being contracted out, in part, to the Palestinian Authority. Israel would help facilitate, or at least would not stand in the way, of Palestinian economic growth in areas that did not threaten the Israeli economy. The difference, perhaps, between Barak and Netanyahu was the extent of expansion into the West Bank they thought possible. Both were willing to allow settlements — even outside the settlement blocs — to grow without taking steps to curb them.

The Barak Doctrine should now be known as the Herzog Doctrine; in fact, I cannot see any difference between them. From Barak’s Labor Party to Herzog’s Zionist Union, there has been a consistent vision of the status quo and the endgame; the party’s criticisms against the Right have generally been more of style than of substance. Herzog has often criticized Netanyahu for alienating Israel’s allies, and for his relying on the extreme right wing. Instead of presenting the Zionist Camp as an ideological alternative to the Likud and the other right-wing parties, he has presented himself as a more effective political leader than Bibi. He will do what Bibi would like to do, only better – because he will do it with the understanding of the U.S. and Europe.

Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog meets with EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini in Jerusalem, May 20, 2015. (EU Photo)

Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog meets with EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini in Jerusalem, May 20, 2015. (EU Photo)

It is the failure of the Zionist Camp to offer a center-left alternative that has led people like Haaretz’s owner, Amos Schocken, to suggest that only international intervention will preserve the State of Israel. Were there to be a center-left, even were it to be in the opposition, Schocken would not have written his powerful piece.

So one should not blame the left-wing activists, intellectuals, and journalists who call for international intervention, or who display Israel’s human rights abuses for all the world to see, for the demise of Israel’s center-left. That is getting the story backwards. Were the Zionist Camp to offer a party around which people could rally – not because the party doesn’t like Bibi and the right wing, but because it doesn’t like his vision and his policies – then there would be an address for political action within Israel. Even the so-called extreme left would support it, as it supported Rabin in the early stages of Oslo.

Can there be a center-left political alternative in Israel? Some people think that it is not possible. I am not sure, but I don’t think giving up on it is a good idea. For the Palestinians to achieve even partial liberty, for the current phase of the Occupation to end, there must be a political constituency in Israel that articulates a different vision from that of the Likud and its various imitator policies.

Personally, I cannot accept the ideology of even a reformed, progressive, Zionist Left. But I can recognize its practical importance in the evolution of Israeli thinking toward the Palestinians. So any steps that are taken to create a real ideological and political alternative to the anti-Palestinian Center should have the support not only of the Zionist Left, but of all people who want justice for the Palestinians.

This is not a time for ideological purity. There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation, and bringing justice and security to the Palestinian people. For this to happen, there must be at least three things: a strong Palestinian movement; a strong Israeli political movement advocating for change; and international incentives and pressure, including boycotts and sanctions. These three groups will have different aims, and they certainly will not be coordinated. For example, the Israeli political movement cannot and should not call for international intervention. But it has the obligation of warning the Israeli public of that intervention.

There has to be an Israeli political movement that is truly center-left. I don’t know how or whether that will come about. But I can tell you right now, I will support it, despite any skepticism I may have.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist.

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    1. Wayne

      “We need a center-left political alternative in Israel. This is not a time for ideological purity. There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation”

      We have been hearing all that since after the murder of Rabin. Where is what is expected of the Arabs in all of your thinking? Do you even know what the Arabs really want? Have you asked them? Do you think that what the Israeli left want and what the Arabs want are the same “peace”? Have you done any research on the troves of available Arabic material on the subject of what the Arabs want and cannot live without? Do you think that the Arabs are children who do not know what they want and that whatever the Israeli-left thinks and says is what the Arabs want is what the Arabs want? Who do you think you are … “Abu Ammar”, perhaps? Finding out the answers to these and other questions will definitely help you and possibly change your mind. Maybe the only thing the left needs is a good dose of reflection, self criticism, the courage to admit it has been wrong all along about Arab intentions, a heartfelt excuse to the people of Israel and a promise to change course. In one word: reality-check. More of the same failed approach which is “it’s all Israel’s fault. The Arabs are not in whole or even in part responsible for anything”, accepting money from hostile entities and countries and begging for foreign intervention to bring Jews to their knees, etc, is what is destroying the left. The left seems suicidal, but does not realize it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Hannibal

      “We need a center-left political alternative in Israel. This is not a time for ideological purity. There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation”

      Be careful what you wish for, because if you leave the safety and comfort that leftist “Ideological purity” provides you, you risk discovering what the center-right, the majority of ordinary Israelis and recently Yitzhak Herzog have realized long ago: the truth, which is that “peace” aka the Israeli-left as embodied in Rabin, Barak, Olmert and Herzog on the one hand and, on the other hand, “peace” aka the Muslim-Arab are different and mutually exclusive! When both sides say “Occupation”, they mean two mutually exclusive things. When both sides say “two states” they mean two mutually exclusive things. When both sides say “peace” they mean two mutually exclusive things. Two states for two peoples: a Jewish state and an Arab state are not possible, because at least the Arabs want “all or nothing”, contrary to their public declarations. We hear them say that they are willing to accept the “67-lines” as a first step to the real goal: end of the Jewish State (e.g. here http://www.timesofisrael.com/fatah-official-palestine-alongside-israel-is-just-a-phase/ ). This is an open secret in Israel and the Arab world. They want a “peace” agreement without peace, they refused to- and will never sign any agreement stating “end of conflict and end of all claims” and they also make demands on “refugees”, territorial concession and Jerusalem that cannot be met by any “center-left” government – no matter how “truly center-left”.

      That is the simple truth. Therefore, be satisfied with the safety your “Ideological purity” (which you did not define what it entails in terms of the peace process) offers you. If you abandon that safety net, you will discover the truth and become miserable: lack of “Center-left political alternative”, is not the problem, because there have been several of them that have been tested recently WITHOUT success – several times (Barak/Yossi Beilin, Ehud Olmert, etc.). If Barak/Olmert/Herzog do not represent “truly center-left”, pls. tell us who does and what the policies and goals of the “truly center-left” are. You missed that part in your article, professor!

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Great posts. Both posts sum up the reality of the Israel Palestinian Arab conflict directly and to the point.

        Excellent posts, Wayne and Hannibal. One wishes that you’d be wrong but unfortunately you are SPOT ON!

        Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      The eerie propagandistic emptiness of the attacks of ‘Wayne’ and ‘Hannibal’ are easily grasped by realizing that each refers, relentlessly, to a monolithic strawman, “the Arabs,” while drawing at one and the same time not a similarly crude picture of “the Jews” but of a finely nuanced “Israel” complete with all sorts of shades of Jewish individuals, leftist, rightist, in complex competition deserving analysis. The colonialist overlord disdain for the natives could not be more clear. I have no doubt the occupying ancient Romans referred to “the Jews”–those strange Sicarii terrorists who stab people in the streets–with the same racist, lumping disdain, while carrying on about all sorts of fascinating distinctions between their leftists and rightists and the alternative center left in Rome.

      As for their, to be kind, unexamined assertions about a “Jewish state,” Noam Sheizaf has really dismantled the whole apparatus of justifications behind those assumptions:

      Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Yes we are just imagining Hamas. Well over 50% of the Palestinian Arabs voted for Hamas in the last elections. And yes, we are also imagining the PLO charter which has still not been amended despite their written promise to amend it. What does that imply? It implies that they still aim to destroy Israel. Heck, that’s what the charter says! Why should we disbelieve what the PLO themselves say in their charter?!

        So, Hamas and the PLO say they want to destroy Israel. What percentage of the Palestinian Arabs do they represent? Over 90%, but Benny says we are generalising. Okey, dokey, if Benny says it it must be so … (NOT!!!).

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Same misleading claptrap about charters over and over. You, who love to say that Jews will behave so differently once “we have peace,” that all the discrimination will magically melt away once “they sign a peace deal” (on your surrender terms) never accord Palestinians the same dispensation. You never grant that they too will behave differently. Because you are a racist. Who, like Hannibal and Wayne, accord Jewish persons human complexity and depth and capacity to change and respond, a potential that you obstinately refuse to accord Arab persons. This gets back to what Bruce told you on the other thread, that you dismissed.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            You mean you just want us to have faith? Hope for the best? Trust your Palestinian Arabs that they have changed? And make ourselves more vulnerable than we already are? All of that contrary to all evidence which is in front of our eyes?

            I may as well ask you, why don’t you throw yourself under a train and hope that everything will turn out ok? Would you do that for me, Benny-leh?

            While you are at it, take Weiss with you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh you know me. Doveryai no proveryai.

            Such feigned helplessness and passivity!
            If you put one one-hundredth of the energy and innovation and resourcefulness you put into the occupation into a final agreement based on 67 lines you could do it in a very short time. No question.

            Your comments about me, Weiss, and the train is a milestone that signals to me increasing desperation and futility in the face of the lessons laid out here by Dahlia Scheindlin:

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            What? You don’t want to risk throwing yourself under the train? You have no faith that things might turn out ok and you won’t die?

            But you want us to have faith in your Palestinian Arabs? Over 50% of whom voted for Hamas and most of the rest for the PLO whose charter still calls for our destruction. You want us to hand land back to them and go back to the 1967 boundaries?

            What kind of a person are you Benny? You don’t make risky decisions for yourself but you preach that we should risk the lives of OUR loved ones?

            You are a bit of a hypocrite, aren’t you Benny?

            Reply to Comment
    4. Weiss

      The Fascists have tilted the political spectrum so far to the Right that the Left is now in the CENTER…

      … This is the real existential threat which is destroying Israel FROM WITHIN.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        WEISS:”… This is the real existential threat which is destroying Israel FROM WITHIN.”

        If it’s true, you should be happy Weiss coz you hate Israel so much.

        Yet I sense unhappiness in you. So it can’t be true eh?

        Reply to Comment