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Why There’s Hope for a Progressive Agenda in Israel

Maya Haber
November 3, 2017

by Maya Haber

AT THE END of almost every lecture I give, someone in the audience describes the miserable state of the Israeli left -- the Labor Party’s failure to offer a progressive alternative to Netanyahu, the rightwing attacks on human and civil rights organizations, and the increasing racism against Arabs and Ethiopians -- and asks: Is there hope for a progressive agenda in Israel? For peace? These questions are often followed by another: Is there anything we, progressive Americans, can do to advance a left agenda in Israel?

Yes, there is.

To explain my answer, I take my audiences on a trip down memory lane. In 1992, the first time I ever voted, Meretz, Israel’s social democratic party, won 12 Knesset seats. Over the next three years, Yitzhak Rabin would sign the Oslo accords, reach a peace agreement with Jordan, and negotiate with Syria. At that time, my IDF army unit was working on a just and fair distribution of water resources between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, and Syria. We believed the conflict was about to end. And the Israeli right seemed dead in the water. Three years later, after Rabin’s assassination, the Israeli right was at the lowest point in its history. At university, I knew students who removed their kippas just to avoid being identified with the religious right.

The crisis facing the right in the mid-1990s was similar to, perhaps even worse than, the crisis facing Israel’s left today. But the right refused to accept defeat. Even before Rabin’s murder, the right had devised a strategy to win back public opinion. It was hardly novel. It was taken right out of the American conservative playbook. The Israeli right realized that winning hearts and minds required serious engagement with policy, training leadership for public service, and conducting campaigns against their political foes. The right in the 1990s poured its energy into building ideological infrastructure: think tanks, policy proposals, leadership training, and media. Ironically, it was an updated approach to what the international left had been doing until the 1960s.

The Israeli right’s success gives me hope. It’s an almost blasphemous thing to say, I know. But we on the left can learn from their example, and return to our roots, by adapting their model. This is what it takes to win again.

SHORTLY AFTER Rabin’s electoral victory in 1992, the right realized that the Israeli public had rejected its Greater Israel plan. Most Israelis, both then and now, don’t want to live in an apartheid state. The Right realized that it needed an alternative strategy, a roundabout way to build public support. Jewish American conservatives came to their aid. The result was nonprofits like the New York-based Tikvah Fund. Tikvah exemplifies the Israeli right’s successful strategy that not only helped propel it to power, but kept it there for most of the last twenty years.

The Tikvah Fund was created the same year that Rabin won the election. Its board includes prominent American neoconservatives like William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, and Arthur Fried, the former managing director and CFO of Lehman Brothers. Roger Hertog, Tikvah’s chairman, served as the chairman of the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute, and sat on the board of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In 2010, Philanthropy magazine described Hertog’s philanthropic approach as “interested most of all in the power of ideas, the people who conceive them, the institutions that transmit them, the young minds that receive (and re-conceive) them, and the social capital they can generate. And, as he did in the business world, he’s willing to be patient with his money.”

Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary and longtime Hertog friend, added: “Roger thinks of philanthropic endeavors as investments. The return he expects is long range.” Indeed, Hertog has drawn praise in rightwing circles for showing “how philanthropy can go beyond being merely tactical—the relief of immediate want; the provision of bricks and mortar—to become truly strategic.” As Prof. Nissim Calderon observed, these philanthropic “investments” in Israeli politics were designed to move 20-30 Knesset seats -- between 17 to 25 percent of Israel’s parliament -- from the center-left to the parties that make up Netanyahu’s coalition.

The Tikvah Fund’s strategy has proven effective. The goal was to infuse Israeli politics with neoconservative ideology, train political leadership, and provide a media platform from which to attack the left.

[caption id=“attachment_64894” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Roger Hertog with Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In 1994, the Tikvah Fund established the Shalem Center as an Israeli version of the American Enterprise Institute. Much like American think tanks, the Shalem Center’s research informs policymakers, educates the public, and trains future policymakers in its worldview. Since its founding, the Shalem Center has served as a revolving door for positions in the Israeli government. Some of its past fellows include: thought leaders like Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and current Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office; former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon; and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

According to activist and scholar Amnon Portugali, “The Shalem Center imported American neoconservative and neoliberal ideas into the political and social discourse in Israel, as per the model of American rightwing think tanks, and its activity constitutes a classic paradigm of the way these American institutes operate, integrating strategic thinking and a neoconservative perspective with neoliberal social and economic policy.” “When the Shalem Center was founded, it was considered a marginal phenomenon in the Israeli intellectual arena,” Portugali said. “Today there is no research institute with as much influence on the Israeli government as the Shalem Center.”

Alongside think tanks, the Tikvah Fund also began funding rightwing media. But unlike the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, it did not expend a fortune financing a free Israeli newspaper. Rather, since 2012, it has spent $200,000-$400,000 on the website Mida, an Israeli version of Breitbart News. Mida publishes articles denouncing political correctness, welfare policies, and “the liberal media’s” campaigns against Netanyahu and Trump. It imagines itself to be part of a Jewish conservative tradition of thinkers, and insists, for example, that Theodor Herzl was really a neoliberal entrepreneur.

But Mida’s main successes have been in orchestrating smear PR campaigns against left-leaning organizations like the New Israel Fund, Molad: the Center for the Renewal of Democracy, and Breaking the Silence, among others. Mida seeks to portray leftist organizations as fifth columnists, i.e., traitors, by identifying foreign sources of funding. One of its articles reads:

Since time immemorial the fight against the ‘occupation’ has verged on subversion against the State. The actions of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Peace Now and their like flirted with the dark side of international Israel hatred. It’s sufficient to examine the list of donors to Breaking the Silence, most of whom also stand behind the BDS campaign [sic], to understand [the real motives of the fight against the occupation].”

In other words, Breaking the Silence activists can argue that they are former combat soldiers who have Israel’s best interests at heart, but their donor list supposedly reveals their real, hidden motives. Regardless of how baseless its smear campaigns are, Mida has effectively penetrated mainstream media to delegitimize the Israeli left. Today every interviewer asks peace activists: “Who funds you?”

IRONICALLY, though we know that neoconservative Americans have been funding Ran Baratz, the founder of Mida, no one asks Baratz who pays his salary. In 2015, by the way, Netanyahu appointed Baratz, who had called President Barack Obama an antisemite, as his media tsar.

In short, the Tikvah Fund has been effectively supporting the construction of rightwing political infrastructure closely associated with Netanyahu and his governments. Given these dire circumstances and the uphill battle ahead, why do I nevertheless think there is hope for a progressive agenda in Israel?

Simply put, the Israeli left finds itself in a much better place than the right was in the mid-1990s. Polls consistently indicate that most of the Israeli public supports a two-state solution, social-democratic economic reforms, and religious pluralism. On top of that, the left has laid down in recent years the building blocks of a new and potent political infrastructure. Progressive Israeli organizations, like the think tank Molad, the Yigal Allon Educational Center, and the Social Economic Academy are investing in education, leadership training, and informing policymakers. Project Sixty-One, one of Molad’s arms, publishes short, sharp texts alongside brilliant political posters “exposing the public to what the Israeli right is trying to hide.”

Much like the right in the 1990s, the Israeli progressive camp now understands that in order to make Israel a better place, it needs to gain power. They have identified the vulnerabilities of the right and have started fighting back.

It’s exciting to see the change and hope in my political home. But learning from neocons like Roger Hertog and the Tikvah Fund, I know that it’s time American progressives start thinking of “philanthropic endeavors as investments.” Like them, we, too, should invest in Israeli politics, maximizing the impact of our contributions.

Maya Haber teaches Contemporary Israeli Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.