Demonstration against Israeli Government in Jerusalem, July 25 2020. Photo Credit: Gershon Diner, Mehazkim NGO public domain stockpile.
The past year has been one of an almost unprecedented turmoil for Israeli politics. The small state had gone through three consecutive elections prior to the emergence of the coronavirus crisis. The latter eventually led to the forming of a unity government between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and the then leading opposition party, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. After an initially successful containment of the coronavirus outbreak, a dramatic resurgence of the virus led to the re-closure of Israeli economy, lacking any substantial economic support for struggling individuals and businesses. As the country began to face the pandemic’s resurgence, another controversy arose around the killing of Iyad Alhalak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian from East Jerusalem, by Israeli police. Alhalak’s murder investigation is reportedly nearing its conclusion with no indication of any criminal or disciplinary measures taken against the perpetrators.[i]
In the past few weeks, demonstrations against Netanyahu have taken place across the country,[ii] marking the emergence of a new generation into Israeli political sphere that is increasingly dissatisfied with the direction towards which the country has headed under Likud leadership.[iii] These circumstances could have ushered in the return of the Israeli left to power, but it appears that the political left in Israel has dissolved altogether during the last three rounds of elections. While the “Just not Netanyahu” camp did win the majority of seats in the Knesset, the various parties comprising it could not form a coalition, mainly due to the rejection of a partnership with the Arab Joint List by some of its members. Today more than ever, the Israeli left is broken up, leaderless and appears to have very little to offer to a wide public of Israelis seeking a different path for their country.[iv]
The following article posits that the Israeli Jewish left’s demise is the result of its disengagement from its biggest political asset – a coherent security agenda. That is due to an effective smear-campaign that has targeted the political left in Israel for two decades, leading to a right-wing monopoly over the Israeli security agenda, defined primarily across ethnic lines, and centered exclusively around national-security issues. The article presents core principles for a new progressive Israeli security agenda. It bases foreign policy on liberal values, committed to security through peace as well as regional and international cooperation. Domestically, it incorporates principles of human security, while addressing the crises of police brutality, Jewish extremism and violence targeted at various minority groups in Israel.
How Did We Get Here?
It is hard to even imagine now that the Zionist Left had ruled Israel for decades since its establishment under the historic Mapai Party headed by David Ben Gurion. Leftist Zionism is a broad definition for a political movement committed to the idea of Israel as a Jewish home, while advocating for social-welfare, secularism, and territorial compromise. Since 1977, excluding a short resurgence under the leadership of Itzhak Rabin and later Ehud Barak, it has never regained its strength.[v] One explanation for this trend is that the Israeli left has succumbed to years of an effective all-out smear campaign branding its Jewish members (politicians, civil society activists and journalists alike) as traitors, and delegitimizing Israeli-Palestinian political participation.[vi] Many in the Israeli centrist-left political leadership have internalized the idea that there are no longer buyers amongst the Israeli public for the two state solution, that leftist ideas are foreign, extremist and treacherous, and that the Israeli public has increasingly “moved rightwards” over the years.
Thus, the Jewish Israeli left essentially gave up on presenting an independent security agenda, even in spite of wide support amongst Israeli security experts for “leftist” ideas. For example, recent declarations by Netanyahu of his intention to annex parts of the Palestinian territories were met with very little resistance by Gantz, who even stated he will support a move for unilateral annexation.[vii] Human-rights aside, such a move according to senior Israeli security experts would threaten to destabilize the entire region and might lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and renewal of hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis.[viii] During his 2019 campaign, Gantz was careful to emphasize that he is “not right and not left,” pursuing a rather apologetic line when vaguely supporting peace-talks. He even went as far as boasting in his responsibility for the devastation of Gaza during the 2014 conflict as proof of his commitment to Israeli security.[ix] In 2018, following President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, then Labor leader Avi Gabay stated that “a unified Jerusalem is more important than peace,” diverging from his party’s official policy, and ignoring concerns expressed by progressives that the move would ignite further violence.[x] As far as the Iranian threat goes, while many Israeli experts supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA )as the only effective measure to prevent Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities, center-left politicians have consistently cooperated with Netanyahu’s claims that it endangers Israel.[xi]
As the political left continuously shrinks, its ideas remain the most popular among the Israeli population. A poll published by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in 2017 shows a 70% support among the Israeli public towards the two state solution. Approximately 60% of respondents supported an arrangement through agreement. Even during the 2020 elections, polls suggested that while support for the two-states solution has seen substantial decline, it remains by far the most popular among Israeli voters, compared to the notion of partial annexation or a single state.[xii] Other progressive and secular positions remain similarly popular among Israeli voters.[xiii] The Israeli left’s demise is therefore not demographic. Rather, a vast public in Israel with liberal and progressive world views is simply unrepresented and underrepresented in Israeli politics.
Never in its history has Israel witnessed such blatant negligence and incompetence at the very core of a government’s policies and decision-making. It is not just the mishandling of the coronavirus crisis; it is an entire worldview promoted by Netanyahu and his allies. One that justifies the subjugation of Israel’s holiest, highest priorities to the interests of a single ruler, supported by an alliance of fundamentalists and ultraconservatives. The Israeli public has voted three times in the past sixteen months believing there is absolutely nothing wrong with Netanyahu’s foreign policy or vision for Israel. Rather, the issue in each of these rounds was mainly Netanyahu’s indictment on several charges of corruption. For years, Netanyahu’s disastrous decisions have undermined Israeli security. His incitement of hatred and racism,[xiv] his intervention with internal American dynamics,[xv] his resistance to the JCPOA, his close alignment with far-right authoritarian leaders,[xvi] his promotion of a non-democratic single state,[xvii] and the nurturing of Jewish fundamentalism. Such reckless policies have been overlooked so far by the Israeli voters because their ramifications have not been felt by the majority of Jewish-Israeli public, and because the political opposition has not bothered to present any actual alternative to these policies. Now, as it becomes inevitably clear that “King Bibi” is not wearing any clothes, is exactly the time to point to the fundamental flaws in his public policies and the system that has enabled him for so long.
The Way Forward
A progressive security agenda in Israel would broaden the security discussion to address both foreign policy and domestic issues. It acknowledges that the delegitimization of pro-peace and anti-occupation views, policies and supporters is aimed at silencing the political debate surrounding these issues. It is based on the assumption that the interests of all people in the Middle East serve a basis to potential agreements and cooperation that would substantially contribute to Israeli security. These include the two state solution to end the occupation, ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and to promote partnerships with Arab countries that share similar regional interests as Israel. They also include addressing the Iranian threat through diplomatic channels by leveraging the commitment of the international community to preventing Iran from reaching military nuclear capabilities. Domestically, a progressive security agenda is centered around a shared national identity for all Israelis. Instead of cooperating with the political delegitimization of Israel’s Arab citizens, it aims to include their representatives in the political process. Rather than accepting the framing of human security issues as marginal to national security issues, it acknowledges the vast Israeli interest in addressing these issues.
The execution of a progressive Israeli security agenda depends on a Jewish-Arab political partnership. The recent elections have shown that such partnership, once unthinkable, became much more acceptable amongst both Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel. Ironically, this trend is the result of blatant attempts by the Likud government to suppress the vote of Arab citizens, while committing to the election slogan of “Bibi or Tibi”[xviii]. When faced with that choice, many Israeli voters appear to prefer Tibi. The List emerged from the 2020 elections with an unprecedented achievement of 15 seats in the Knesset. Ayman Odeh and the rest of the Joint List’s leadership expressed their willingness to support a government headed by Gantz during the elections. Polls conducted following the 2020 elections have also shown massive support among center-left voters for the idea of forming a government which includes or relies on the support of the Joint List.[xix]
Such a partnership expands the notion of security past its mostly Jewish-oriented framing in the popular media and amongst Jewish politicians. It could serve an opportunity to address security issues that are often marginalized in mainstream Israeli politics. One such major issue is police brutality against minorities. Alhalak’s killing by the Israeli police is the last in a series of similar incidents that have so far led to little public criticism or actual reform. Since the 2000 riots, 27 Arab citizens were killed by police forces. Only four indictments have been issued for these killings, leading to two actual convictions with sentences of six to thirty months. The Jewish Ethiopian community in Israel similarly suffers from over policing and police brutality. The issue is commonly attributed to the Police Internal Investigations Department, which only prosecutes a slight portion of complaints of violence by police officers.[xx]
The grim statistics are joined by an alarming rise in violence and crime afflicting the Israeli-Palestinian communities. Arab leaders in Israel claim that the Israeli government has not done enough to address the issue, calling for more investment in community and educational resources rather than police presence. As of May 2020, 26 Palestinian Israelis have been killed since the beginning of the year, adding to 91 murder cases in 2019, and 70 murder cases in each of the years 2018 and 2017.[xxi] Violence against women[xxii] and the LGBTQ[xxiii] community in Israel has also skyrocketed in recent years. Such issues, in spite of their immense public implications, rarely receive the aura of a being branded as security related.
Another issue that the right-wing governments under Netanyahu have been reluctant at best to address is the issue of Jewish terrorism. The phenomenon in its modern meaning relates to violent acts committed by groups or individuals acting on behalf of ideologies and organizations that have emerged from the religious stream of the Zionist movement, particularly the settler movement and the Kahanist stream. While the majority of Jewish terrorist acts have been committed against Palestinians, these ideologies essentially reject the notion of Israel as a secular state, as well as its democratic regime. In the past decades, Jewish terrorists have focused primarily on sabotaging reconciliation efforts between Israeli and the Palestinians. They aspire to establish a Halakhic state entirely run on principles of orthodox Jewish religion and traditions, and their primary allegiance is to God’s will, as reflected in radical interpretation of holy texts.[xxiv]
Recent years have seen a sharp increase in cases of Jewish terrorism[xxv] targeted at Palestinians in the West Bank, IDF soldiers and other Israeli minority groups. The Israeli governments in the past years have showcased double standards when addressing the issue of Jewish terrorism, if at all. Netanyahu and members of his government did condemn the horrendous 2015 terror attack killing a Palestinian family in Duma, for example. The international and domestic outrage resulting from the attack appears to have led to increased efforts to prevent, punish and deter similar cases. Yet, on the other hand Netanyahu’s government has continuously supported the very same factors contributing to the rise of Jewish extremism through the sponsoring of pre-military religious institutions teaching an extremist and fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism[xxvi] and the legitimization of key Kahanist figures.[xxvii]
To counter Netanyahu’s extreme-right destructive politics, which have directly undermined the security and well-being of large parts of Israeli society, the center-left must reclaim ownership over security issues in Israeli politics. That, by acknowledging that liberal principles of international security alone, could ensure the country’s long-term foreign policy interests, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian State and the prevention of a nuclear Iran through diplomatic engagement. Domestically, security discourse should be centered around a shared national identity, rather than a strict Jewish one and address issues that have so far been marginalized in mainstream political discourse, such as police brutality, violence targeted at minority groups and Jewish extremism. Political developments in the past years have proven that the Israeli public is ready today, more than ever, for a Jewish-Arab partnership that would allow for such a paradigm shift.
[i] Nir Hasson and Josh Breiner, “Israel Claims Security Cameras Where Police Shot Autistic Palestinian Were Not Working, “ Haaretz, July 13, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-police-say-no-security-camera-footage-in-shooting-of-autistic-palestinian-1.8991540.
[ii] Conor Murray, “Israel’s Anti-Netanyahu Protests, Explained,” Vox, Jul 23, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/7/23/21334598/israel-netanyahu-protests-coronavirus-economy-trial.
[iii] Aron Heller, ‘Coronavirus Crisis Sparks A Young Israeli Protest Movement,” Washington Post, July 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/coronavirus-crisis-sparks-a-young-israeli-protest-movement/2020/07/27/0344ba08-cfd0-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html.
[iv] Editorial, “Israel Election Polls: Support for Netanyahu’s Likud Drops, Right-wing Slate on the Rise,“ Haaretz, July 23, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/election-polls-predict-lesser-support-for-netanyahu-gantz-and-rise-of-far-right-1.9016870.
[v] Oz Aruch, “The Crisis of the Zionist Left,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, July 13, 2020, https://il.boell.org/en/2020/07/13/crisis-zionist-left.
[vi] Liat Schlesinger, “Knocked Out: How the Israeli Left Lost Its Legitimacy Within Israeli Society and How It Could Get It Back,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, n.d, https://www.israel-peace.com/knocked-out/.
[vii] YanivKubovich, “Gantz on Annexation: Palestinians ‘In Deep Shit,’ Israel ‘Won’t Keep Waiting for Them, Haaretz, June 23, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-gantz-says-won-t-keep-waiting-for-the-palestinians-to-decide-on-annexation-1.8942145.
[viii] David M. Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon,” As Annexation Looms, Israeli Experts Warn of Security Risks,” New York Times, June 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/world/middleeast/isael-annexation-west-bank-risks.html.
[ix] Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash, “The Silent Israeli General Challenging Netanyahu in The Election is Silent No More, Washington Post, January 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the-silent-israeli-general-challenging-netanyahu-in-the-election-is-silent-no-more/2019/01/29/01a2c5ee-23d0-11e9-b5b4-1d18dfb7b084_story.html.
[x] Ilyssa Tuttelman, “The Crumbling Israeli Left-Wing and Netanyahu’s Power,” The Washington Institute, May 31, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/the-crumbling-israeli-left-wing-and-netanyahus-power.
[xi] Jeffrey Goldberg,“Israeli Opposition Leader: Iran Deal Will Bring Chaos to the Middle East,” The Atlantic, July 16, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/israel-isaac-herzog-iran-nuclear-deal/398705.
[xii] Dina Kraft, “Haaretz Poll: 42% of Israelis Back West Bank Annexation, Including Two-state Supporters,” Haaretz, March 24, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/israeli-palestinian-conflict-solutions/.premium-42-of-israelis-back-west-bank-annexation-including-two-state-supporters-1.7047313?fbclid=IwAR2SYUKlxmBrVHa-jjVrdX9nWwlbFjICn1qpneuhaFmtmJTiA0olwJ4y1Kw.
[xiv] Lahav Harkov, “Right-wing bloc assails ‘dangerous’ Arab Joint List-backed gov’t,” Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Netanyahu-Arab-backed-government-is-Irans-Hezbollahs-and-Hamas-dream-608207.
[xv] Zack Beauchamp, “The Netanyahu speech controversy, explained,” Vox, March 3, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/3/2/8130977/netanyahu-speech-explained.
[xvi] Zeev Sternhell, “Why Benjamin Netanyahu Loves the European Far-Right,” Foreign Policy, February 24, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/24/why-benjamin-netanyahu-loves-the-european-far-right-orban-kaczynski-pis-fidesz-visegrad-likud-antisemitism-hungary-poland-illiberalism/.
[xvii] Eli W. Kowaz, The Israeli Right’s One-State Delusion, Israel Policy Forum, August 24, 2018, https://israelpolicyforum.org/2018/08/24/the-israeli-rights-one-state-delusion/.
[xviii] Ahmed Tibi is a prominent Arab MK and senior member of the Joint List
[xix] Meron Rapoport, “רוב מוחלט מבוחרי כחול לבן מבינים: בלי הערבים אין דמוקרטיה” [translated: “Majority of Blue-and-White Voters Understand: No Democracy Without Arabs”], Mekomit, March 23, 2020, https://www.mekomit.co.il/%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%91-%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%97%D7%9C%D7%98-%D7%9E%D7%91%D7%95%D7%97%D7%A8%D7%99-%D7%9B%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9C-%D7%9C%D7%91%D7%9F-%D7%9E%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%91%D7%9C%D7%99-%D7%94%D7%A2/.
[xx] Jeremy Sharon, “Iyad al-Halak’s killing raises concerns over police behavior towards Arabs,” Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/iyad-al-halaks-killing-raises-concerns-over-police-behavior-towards-arabs-629960.
[xxi] Josh Breiner, “Violence Is Peaking in Israel’s Arab Communities, and Criminals Aren’t Afraid of the Police,” Haaretz, May 16, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-violence-is-rising-in-israel-s-arab-community-and-falling-in-west-bank-data-shows-1.8053722.
[xxiii] Bar Peleg, “דו”ח האגודה למען הלהט”ב: עלייה במספר הדיווחים על גילויי אפליה ושנאה,”[translated: Israeli LGBT Union Report: A Rise in Reports of Hate Crimes and Discrimination], Haaretz, February 11, 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/.premium-1.8525505.
[xxiv] Ami Pedahsur and Arie Perlinger, Jewish Terrorism in Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 162-168.
[xxv] Amos Harel, “Israeli ‘Jewish Terror’ Incidents Targeting Palestinians Tripled in 2018,” Haaretz, January 6, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-jewish-terror-incidents-targeting-palestinians-tripled-in-2018-1.6809367.
[xxvi] TOI Staff, “ADL blasts rabbis for diatribes supporting racism, Hitler’s worldview,” Times of Israel, April 30, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/adl-blasts-rabbis-for-diatribes-supporting-racism-hitlers-worldview/.
[xxvii] David M. Halbfinger, “Netanyahu Sparks Outrage Over Pact With Racist Party,” New York Times,February 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/24/world/middleeast/benjamin-netanyahu-otzma-yehudit-jewish-power.html.