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Is the Left Israel’s Most Endangered Species?

Ron Skolnik
March 18, 2015

Likud's Slogan: It's "Us or Them"

by Ron Skolnik

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents.

1759190616WHEN BINYAMIN NETANYAHU SPOKE to Likud party activists in December 2014 to energize them for the grueling current election campaign, he framed the contest as one that pitted his Likud not against any particular party but against “the Left” as a whole. Netanyahu repeated the battle cry in January, declaring ominously, “We have to win these elections because we know exactly what the Left would do” if it came to power after March 17th. Just in case the message failed to penetrate, in February Netanyahu took to Twitter to rule out forming a coalition with any “Leftist” elements.

His choice of the term “Left” — “smol” in Hebrew — as a constant refrain was anything but haphazard. A practiced politician and consummate rhetorician, the Likud party leader has a solid grasp of how various words and phrases resonate among the Israeli public, and he knew full well that depicting his chief political rivals as “smolanim” was red meat for large numbers of Israelis, not only among his far-right base.

One need not be a public relations guru to know that “Left” and “Leftist” are more than just neat political categorizations in Israel. In popular parlance, they serve, as often as not, as derogatory terms, employed to stigmatize the person or group so described, and to attribute to them one or more fatal flaws in the spheres of policy, socio-cultural demeanor, and/or personal character.

There are parallels in American politics, of course. To discredit his critics in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would counterpose “liberals” to “real Americans,” and his successor George H.W. Bush would speak of the “L word” to suggest that liberalism was a worldview that Democrats were ashamed to admit to in anything louder than a whisper. Cross-cultural comparisons can be prone to oversimplification, however, and the analogy here between Israel and the U.S. goes only so far. Whereas the ideological rift between American conservatives and liberals now runs primarily through questions of taxation and spending, cultural diversity, and the role of government in society, in Israel the almost-exclusive basis on which “Left”and “Right” labels are applied in the media and the public mind has, for decades, been the position one takes in the debate over national security — that is, over war and peace with the country’s neighbors, especially the Palestinian Arab people.

Other topics, including questions of religion and state, economic inequality, or women’s rights, do arise and have significance in Israel’s national discourse, but no other single issue establishes the same dichotomous “Us versus Them” effect that the Likud has hammered away at in the recent campaign. While “leftism,” depending on the context and audience, can be derisive shorthand for any number of negatives — haughty “eggheadism,” godlessness, support for Soviet-style centralized control, even patrician birth and economic privilege — the term’s two predominant associations are: 1) spinelessness on issues of national security; and 2) ethno-national disloyalty.

Seen in this light, “Leftist” in Israel can sometimes be closer in connotation to the long-ago American political epithet, “Commie,” of the early 1950s. Both terms were used by a society anxious over a palpable external threat in order to discredit unpatriotic “enemy sympathizers.” Those who are left-of-center in Israel are thus described variously by senior rightwing officials as “collaborators” with the Palestinians, “Arab-lovers,” “germs,” “enemies of Israel,” and “traitors who must be persecuted.” Netanyahu categorizes them as “anti-Zionists.” In kinder moments, the Right describes the Left as “grovelers” before the international community, “weak and submissive” in the face of terrorism.

Leftists are also depicted as rather questionably legitimate “members of the tribe.” In October 1997, for example, a first-term Prime Minister Netanyahu was caught on microphone disparagingly telling an influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi that “the members of the Left have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” This past February, a West Bank settlers’ organization amplified that message, producing an inflammatory video that presented Leftists as mercenary spies working at the behest of a Nazi-dominated present-day Europe.

UNDER THIS CONSTANT BARRAGE of delegitimization by the Right, progressives have been in hasty retreat from the Leftist label over the past generation, according to public opinion expert Tamar Hermann. A poll conducted just days after Netanyahu’s 1997 affront, for example, found that 32 percent of respondents self-identified as Leftist, compared to 37.5 percent Rightist and 20 percent Centrist. The Left’s size has dropped dramatically since, and according to a variety of recent polls, only 10 to 15 percent of Israelis now assign themselves this tag. Though the number of Israelis who say they “lean” left rises a tad when “Center-Left’ and “Center-Right” are added as categories, the overall trend is clear: A great many Israelis have either abandoned their leftist orientation or now feel too uncomfortable to admit to such views. (By way of comparison, the number of Americans self-identifying as “liberals” is currently at 24 percent, a two-decade high, according to Gallup, with “moderates” making up 34 percent and “conservatives” 38 percent of respondents).

Sadly and ironically, the rightwing assault on Leftism has received a boost from many of the same leaders whom the Right wishes to tar with this label. Shelly Yachimovich, for example, the Labor Party chair between September 2011 and November 2013, famously declared during an election campaign that Labor “is not a leftist party and never was. It was a centrist party.” Understanding that the voting public’s trust in the Palestinians was nearly nonexistent and that it regarded support for peace as naïve at best, she explained apologetically that her party’s two-decade pursuit of an agreement with the Palestinians had been “out of pragmatism and not out of some romantic dream.”

Yachimovich’s successor, Yitzhak Herzog, has likewise distanced himself from any overt leftist markings, and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party and another sharp critic of Netanyahu, also made sure to define his party as centrist. Fashionably dismissing the Left — a label he gladly cast upon the rival Zionist Union slate (the new amalgam of Herzog’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Ha’Tnua party) — Lapid insisted that Israeli voters’ only real choice in 2015 was “between Center and Right.”

Bucking the trend, Meretz has actively embraced the leftist moniker. After a failed 2009 election campaign in which it, too, fled to the center, downplayed its pro-peace credentials, and was punished by its voters, Meretz, under new leadership of Zehava Galon in the 2013 campaign, decided to change tack. Seeking to turn a rightwing slogan on its head and convert it into a rallying cry for its supporters, the party adopted the slogan, “Smolanim Habaytah!” Literally meaning “Leftists, Homeward!,” the phrase is chanted contemptuously by rightwing activists to demand that supporters of peace and equal rights “go home.” When deployed by Meretz, of course, the slogan became a call to the party’s base to “come home” to its natural political representative. Maintaining this brand, the party continues to refer to itself as Israel’s “True Left.”

Meretz’s goal to restore a leftist esprit de corps is commendable, but its use of a “circle the wagons” message suggests that its hardcore base is looking to find refuge from a hostile society more than to influence that society. The party’s grassroots efforts have similarly been directed more at shoring up the support of its traditional voters than breaking new ground. In playing upon the Left’s image as an embattled minority, Meretz has inadvertently reinforced that image.

ALONG WITH “LEFT,” the associated term “shalom,” peace, has also become a four-letter word from which would-be Centrists steer clear. Labor’s Yachimovich infamously chose to ignore issues of peace and occupation during her 2013 campaign, hewing to a strictly domestic socioeconomic agenda — housing, cost of living, education — in the belief that too close an association with the Oslo peace process made her and her party unelectable. Although Herzog, who unseated her as party chair, had vowed to return Labor to a more activist position on the issue, his platform entirely omitted “shalom” (as well as the words “Palestinians,” “agreement,” and “two states”), stressing instead the fight against terrorism, the mending of relations with the United States, and the protection of Israel’s civilians and soldiers against potential war crimes charges. Yesh Atid committed the same terminological omission, and chose instead to focus its attention on corruption, the cost of living, government waste, and bringing the ultra-Orthodox sector into the army and labor force.

The extra-parliamentary sphere has seen similar hesitancy. Leaders of the mass economic protest movement of 2011, from which Labor and Yesh Atid have drawn much of their support, demanded “social justice” but strategically avoided applying the concept beyond the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories. While some have argued optimistically that consciousness-raising is a gradual affair and that ultimately the Israeli people will come around to social justice’s universal meaning, this transformation has yet to materialize.

Even some of those still vocal about achieving an eventual two-state arrangement with the Palestinians are unwilling to use the word “shalom.” Blue White Future, for example, an organization describing itself as “committed to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and headed by prominent figures with Labor Party ties, makes no mention of the word in its “New Paradigm for the Israeli-Palestinian Political Process.” In the same spirit, it seeks to avoid stigmatization by assuring potential supporters, in boldface type, that, “We are not Left, Right, or Center.”

Like-what-youre-readingNor is there a visible effort to challenge the Right’s absolute rejection of Palestinian President Abbas as a potential partner for talks. During the current election campaign, Tsipi Livni, a moderate who served as Israel’s chief negotiator under the outgoing government until being sacked by Netanyahu, blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the 2013-14 Kerry Initiative. Blue White Future’s co-chair, Gilead Sher, while not exempting Netanyahu from criticism, depicted Abbas as being “unwilling to [hold] credible negotiations” and blamed him alone for the failure of his 2008 talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Channeling the distrust and despair of many Israelis, Blue White Future dismisses the chances of diplomatic progress, and calls instead for “constructive unilateral steps” towards a two-state solution.

NOT ALL HAVE ABANDONED the Left label or the peace discourse. Notable in the parliamentary arena, besides the social-democratic Meretz, is Hadash, a self-avowed socialist party that was the first to call for a two-state solution nearly five decades ago. Hadash, which draws the vast majority of its support from Israel’s Arab citizens, is running in the current elections as part of a three-party electoral alliance called the “Joint Arab List.” In the NGO sector, a variety of groups including Peace Now, the Geneva Initiative, and the Israel Peace Initiative remain active, in addition to an array of organizations, such as B’Tselem and Gisha, that pursue a human rights agenda. These groups, however, represent a small minority of Israelis — a fraction that can shrink almost to zero amid the din of war, as polls taken during the summer 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza illustrated.

Some supporters of the self-defined centrist camp defend their tactics by referring to the “electability” factor. They point to polls indicating that almost three-fifths of Israelis describe themselves politically as Center-Right, Center, or Center-Left (in that order). And they are suggesting during the current campaign that “Left” and “peace” have become such toxic terms in Israel that only a bait-and-switch approach could now be successful. In order to dethrone the Right, they argue, one needed to build support via safer bread-and-butter issues, where Netanyahu is most vulnerable, while maintaining a vague national security posture and a standoffish demeanor toward the Palestinians. Once the immediate goal is achieved, they hint, the newly-won government power will enable real progress on the peace front.

What the “closet peaceniks” might be overlooking, however, is that the real opponent is not Netanyahu or any other party or candidate, but the rightwing narrative in its entirety, which is built on a solid foundation of insecurity, pessimism, and fear.

Although Israel might be holding on for now, the argument goes, doom lurks just around the corner. No one can be trusted. So while the European Union has welcomed Israel as an associate member, for example, Netanyahu’s ally, Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, has insisted that Europe wants Israel to “commit suicide.” Invoking the Passover haggadah, Netanyahu himself reminded Israel’s Jews last year that “In every generation enemies rise up to destroy us.” Jewish Israelis tend to agree: According to an August 2-14 poll, a vast majority have adopted the belief that “the whole world is against us.” And with senior Israeli officials describing Palestinian moderates like Abbas as “diplomatic terrorists” working hand-in-glove with Hamas, is it any wonder that 42 percent of Jewish Israelis now believe that Palestinians harbor genocidal aspirations toward them? Or that 63 percent feel the Palestinians seek to conquer Israel, according to a December 2014 poll? (Palestinian perceptions of Israeli intentions offer a mirror image.)

In short, while the tactic of failing to challenge the dominant narrative might conceivably win “centrist” candidates more votes in the near term, it is also an abandonment of the difficult task of restoring the public’s faith in the possibility of a better future. That public will eventually have to be prepared for the wrenching, painful decisions its leadership needs to make in order to put peace and the end of occupation back on the national agenda.

Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.