“Deal of the Century”: What Now for the Israeli Left?
This webinar was conducted by Partners for Progressive Israel on March 12, 2020 and has been edited for length and clarity. The full webinar can be accessed here.
Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced a new plan for Israel and Palestine weighted heavily in favor of those in Israel who support annexation of the West Bank and reject the internationally accepted parameters for a viable two-state solution.
With unilateral Israeli annexation of a large portion of the West Bank on the near horizon, does the Trump plan mark the end of the road for the two-state solution? Must the Israeli left now formulate a new paradigm for the future?
Jodi: My name is Jodi Rudoren. I’m the Editor-in-Chief of “The Forward,” the leading Jewish journalism outlet in the United States. Before I started at “The Forward” about six months ago, I was a journalist for more than two decades at “The New York Times,” including a tour as a Jerusalem bureau chief, which is where I met today’s two wonderful, impressive speakers:
Aluf Benn is the Editor-in-Chief of “Haaretz”. He has been working there since 1989. He’s been running the place since 2011 for almost 10 years. Aluf always tells the truth as he sees it. His commentary is always based on his deep experience and is filled with sharp, fresh analysis.
Joining us also is Akiva Eldar who used to sit on the “Haaretz” editorial board and, in fact, worked at the paper for 35 years. He and Aluf know each other so well. He was the Chief Political Correspondent and US Bureau Chief among many other jobs there. Akiva is now a columnist for “Al-Monitor.”
Aluf and Akiva are two stalwarts of the Israeli Jewish left. They’ve recently had a bit of a public back and forth over President Trump’s peace plan and specifically how Palestinians should respond to it, which is one of the things we’ll be talking about today. It seems a long time since Trump announced his Deal of the Century Peace Plan back in January. Aluf, given how distracted we’ve all been by the coronavirus and our own political campaign news, I hope you could start us off with an update on what has happened since the March election and what’s likely to happen next.
Aluf: It’s still topsy turvy because the March election again ended without a clear winner. Then came the coronavirus, which was already in the background. The coronavirus crisis once again positioned Netanyahu as the national father figure. He’s running the daily press conferences in a similar way to how he ran them during the Gaza War six years ago. 90% of the news cycle today in Israel is dominated by the virus.
Jodi: Akiva, can you talk a little bit about what you think might happen next?
Akiva: As Aluf mentioned, everything is dominated by the coronavirus. There is a big hole in the budget, and now we will have to deal with people who are not able to pay their mortgages. Priorities in public discourse have changed
Jodi: This call was framed as being about the Israeli left. We have traditionally thought of the Israeli left as the Zionist left. Meretz and Labor ended up with seven seats in the March election. The Joint List is now the third-largest party with 15 seats. What does that mean for what we’ve traditionally understood as the Israeli left?
Akiva: First of all, it means that the Israeli Jewish left will have to review its agenda. What “left” means is going to change. I think one of the reasons that so many people moved from Meretz to the Joint List was that there was no Arab in a meaningful position on the Zionist left list.
But we’re here together now to talk about Trump’s plan. If Meretz will not be able to bring the conflict back to the center of its agenda—if Meretz cannot bring the occupation back to the center of public discourse—it has nothing to offer. The March election campaign was based on corruption or no corruption, and whether you liked Bibi or not. Once it’s not a discussion about Bibi’s personality, we will go back to key issues, for instance, the budget and peace. Then maybe the Israeli left will have something to offer to the discourse.
Jodi: One of the ways that the Joint List has managed to grow is by not focusing on the big questions of peace and settlements, but by talking about services for Arab communities within Israel as a primary concern.
Akiva: I think that the Joint List ought to send a bunch of flowers to Lieberman and to Bibi. It started with Lieberman lifting the threshold hoping that the Arabs would drop under it; that made them unite under one flag. A second cause of the growth of the Joint List was Netanyahu’s incitement against Arabs.
Jodi: I wonder, Aluf, maybe you could jump in here about what feels like just a complete collapse of the old left.
Aluf: Well, the complete collapse of the old left began on July 25th, 2000, when we stood listening to Ehud Barack who just came out of the Camp David Conference and told us that there is no partner on the Palestinian side. Since then, time and again there have been polls where the majority of Israelis said they would support a two-state solution in principle. However, when the same sample was asked, “will it happen?” they said, “no, it’s not practical.” If you believe in something but you don’t believe it’s going to happen, then you could say you’ve supported it because you want to differentiate yourself from the right wingers. The other issue concerns anti-religious sentiments; that was the key to the agenda of Shulamit Aloni, the founder of Meretz.
Akiva: Yes, the mother of Meretz.
Aluf: She was a staunch anti-clerical politician, but that line was appropriated first by the Lapids, the father and the son, and then by Lieberman. Now we have a secular right winger fighting Shas while the left is saying, “well one day we’re going to need Shas, and an alliance with Shas is not as bad as one with settlers.” Since the end of the Second Intifada, the cost of the status quo to the Israeli public—even with the occasional interruptions from Gaza—has been minimal.
Further, the right wing since 2009 has focused on fighting the Israeli Arab society, in part to prevent any resumption of a left-wing government dependent on the Arab voting bloc.
Clearly the achievements of the Joint List are phenomenal. They’re seen as a strong political entity. I think this is the unintended consequence of the most important thing that the Netanyahu government did: advancing the Nation-State Law almost two years ago. This law helped pull the Arab society into the mainstream.
It has been said that the political debate in Israel today is between the right and the far right. Are you more Jewish or more democratic? If you’re more democratic, then you support the anti-Bibi cause.
Jodi: Aluf, I’m glad you brought up that moment after Camp David because I want to get back to the question of the Trump Peace Plan. You wrote this very provocative piece saying that Palestinians should surrender unconditionally, just as Germany and Japan did at the end of WWII.
Aluf: This is what Trump is demanding; it amounts to unconditional surrender and accepting to be the poor neighbor of Israeli-controlled areas in the West Bank in return for some economic development.
Jodi: What I meant to say is that it does not feel as if it’s the end of the Palestinian movement in the way that a lot of people thought it would be after Camp David. Tell us more about what you think unconditional surrender would mean. Could it lead to a stable future going forward?
Aluf: I think that the major surprise that happened was that for many years, the Israeli peace camp, and apparently the Palestinian peace camp as well, were built on American pressure to drive Israel out of the territories. I think nobody anticipated an American government that would outflank this Israel from the right and basically issue a plan saying that the Palestinian National Movement is a fake and that it should forego its historic narrative and instead follow the dictates of Netanyahu.
You can find copy-pasted paragraphs from Netanyahu’s writings in the Trump Peace Plan. Here’s my question to the Palestinian leadership: when you rejected the Camp David offer 20 years ago—assuming that over time, you would get a better proposal—you believed the offer was insufficient. The same is true regarding offers you received in Taba seven months later and then from Olmert in 2008. Looking back, was it smart to say no at the time, because what you have now is double or more the number of settlers and much less international support? In the meantime, other problems in the Middle East have surfaced. When you currently have millions of refugees from Syria, who cares about the refugees of seven decades ago? We can all adhere to the Geneva plan of 2003 and say, “this is the only possible peace plan.” How do you reconcile it with the existence of an armed, Hamas-led Palestinian enclave, run as a dictatorship in Gaza, a regime that is not going anywhere?
Jodi: Right. Which brings us I think, Akiva, to the question that I feel like every conversation really circles around, which is whether the two-state solution is still at all viable now or in the future. Is it really dead?
Akiva: If you look at the polls, the majority of the Israeli support a two-state solution. They are not in love with it, but they have chosen it over the option of a one-state solution or the status quo. We lost eight years during Obama’s presidency. If we had President Carter or President Bush, we would certainly be better off. It was Bush who said to Prime Minister Shamir, “you have to choose between loan guarantees and promoting settlements.” Shamir said, “I can have it both ways,” and he lost the next election. There is a red line that the Israelis won’t cross viz a viz the U.S.
I think that the majority of Israelis, the mainstream and of course the Left, are winning. Sharon was the one who disengaged from Gaza and part of the West Bank, What we need is a kind of Sharon-type leader. Let’s say, Bibi Netanyahu would decide today to do what Olmert did, move all the way to the left and say, “maybe the only way to fight the corona is to get out of the territories because we can’t control the borders.” I believe that the Israeli left has a good product in its hands, but their marketing is very poor. Netanyahu has learned how to market himself and to market a fake agenda. The real agenda belongs to the Israeli left.
Jodi: Given the official division of the Palestinians and the weakening strength of the PA and PLO leadership, what can you say about the Palestinian prospects currently?
Akiva: What I think is that the Palestinian made a mistake in ‘88. They accepted Resolution 242 and Arab they gave up the PLO Charter and military action against Israel. They gave up on 1948 issues. What they got in return was opening a dialogue with the Reagan Administration. Their assumption was that they will get 22% of the mandatory Palestine, and Israel will be happy with 78%. At that time, settlements were not a major issue. Back in ’88, there were a few thousand, perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 settlers. Now, time has worked against the Palestinians because the majority of Israelis have been born into the occupation. How many Israelis even remember the pre-’67 lines?
Look at the Arab Peace Initiative that has been waiting for us since March 2002. No Israeli cabinet even discussed it seriously. The Initiative offers regional peace. It seems we can live with the status quo. But what happens 20 years from now? Even now there is a non-Jewish majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. What do we do with it?
Jodi: Aluf. how responsible is the Jewish left to include Palestinian voices?
Aluf: The question from an Israeli point of view is whether the Joint List will become a new platform for Jewish-Arab cooperation. Akiva said that Netanyahu has the unique opportunity to do whatever he can in the peace process because he enjoys this kind of overarching political authority in Israel. He achieved that authority by refusing to move an inch.
Jodi: Here is a question from listeners: Since you think Israel would not start a fight with US, do you think that if Democrats win in November, there would be a chance to change the dynamic for two states?” Would you expect Palestinian attitudes to change if Biden were elected?
Aluf: Well, first of all, what we know from the past is that American governments always like to rewrite previous American administrations’ plans for the Middle East. We know that, even grudgingly, they accept unilateral Israeli acts. Regarding annexation, in my opinion, the time to watch is prior to November. Bibi will support annexation as a kind of gift from Trump to his evangelical base and to many of his Jewish supporters. He would not be giving it to Netanyahu for his own election, but rather for the sake of his own. If Trump is defeated, I don’t believe that a Biden administration–especially after the current devastating economic crisis–will take office and the first thing he’ll do is try to reawaken the dream of a two-state solution. I’m not saying that it’s dead, I’m just saying that it’s not going to be high on a new U.S. agenda.
Akiva: I think there is a consensus in the Jewish community in the United States that we need to separate from the Palestinians, that we need to get a good divorce lawyer before we get a rabbi to get married, I think that the new American president will not have to invent a new wheel. It’s all there. There are the Clinton parameters, and there is the Madrid process. It’s a bipartisan issue, and it will be very easy to bridge the two sides of the aisle.
Jodi: Another questioner notes that in Europe the expression a “Jewish and Democratic” state is very worrying because every ethnic connotation weakens any sense of a constitutional or secular democracy. Does Israel run the risk of slipping into an ethnically pure state? I was going to add that I think the vast majority of American Jews believe that Israel should be both a Jewish and democratic state.
Aluf: Well, the position of the Joint List—especially of one of its components—is that it cannot reconcile itself to Israel being both Jewish and Democratic; a Jewish state, by its nature, privileges one part of society, even if it’s the majority… Several years ago there was a survey of Israeli public opinion. 79% of the Jewish respondents said that in a Jewish state, Jews should have more rights than non- Jews. In practice, this is the way things have been in Israel for over 70 years, and it’s very difficult to change. Apparently, if there’s going to be a Jewish Arab Party in the future, its platform would speak to a Democratic state with a Jewish public face, but not one that declares itself a state controlled by Jews as an ethnic group.
Akiva: I think at the end of the day, Israel will have to decide whether it wants to be a state of all its citizens, or just a Jewish state. There is an inherent paradox in the Zionist idea: it says, equal rights to everyone but Jews have extra rights. Arabs don’t have the right to self-determination. First of all, I believe that once we find a solution to the Palestinian problem, it will be easier for the Israeli Arabs to decide if they are part of Israel or part of the Arab world. We are walking on a very thin line here with being both a democratic and Jewish state. In the last 10 years, we had a Prime Minister who was walking on it like an elephant in a china store. What we will need is a Prime Minister who will rewind what has been done in this regard.
I remember that when Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni were ministers of education, there were Peace Studies in the schools. Now, it’s more about Jewish heritage. Students are taught there is only one narrative.
Jodi: There is a question about a confederation model.
Aluf: At the end of the day, the big question is who is calling the shots with regard to security. Who is guarding the border? We’re not short of plans and maps and ideas of cooperation. The big question is the political will to act, and we know that the risk of civil war is not imaginary. The issue of confederation is 10 steps beyond having the ability to take this and other risks. What’s the incentive? We’ve been hearing that the occupation is not sustainable for 53 years now.
Akiva: Arafat said more than once that he is willing to consider confederation if he would get an independent state for even one day. Then negotiations would be between Israel and Palestine, two equal states.
Jodi: We forgot to say at the beginning that Americans For Peace now is a co-sponsor of this conversation, along with Partners for Progressive Israel, and I want to thank both of them. I am going to give Akiva and Aluf one minute each to say any last licks.
Akiva: I want to thank my friends in the Jewish liberal left-wing Jewish constituency, and I hope that you will send a clear message to the next president and Congress. Keep in mind that a two-state solution has to be the basis for support of Israel. Congress will be willing to hear from you about it.
Aluf: Thank you for the invitation, it was a good chance to see my longtime mentor and friend Akiva, and I have not yet had the chance to congratulate you, Jodi, on your move to “The Forward.”
Jodi: Thank you both so much.
Thanks to Leonard Grob, Vice-President of Partners’ Board of Directors, for editing and condensing this discussion. The full video is available on the Partners’ website here.
Leonard Grob is a retired Professor of Philosophy and a Vice-President of Partners.