The Democracy Conference hosted by the Ha’aretz newspaper was a veritable “who’s who” of all those involved in the left-wing spectrum of Israeli politics: heads of NGOs, politicians, civil society leaders, and journalists. Like the Amos Oz lecture that I attended last week, it was over-attended by a stereotypical breed of liberal Israeli, most of which were over the age of 60, along with a smattering of younger activists from Meretz and other left-leaning parties.
What that says about the state of Israeli democracy is beyond the purview of this single blog post; it could mean everything or absolutely nothing: that this is the last generation to remain fully committed to a liberal, democratic, peace-seeking Israel, or simply that the younger people had more interesting things to do that day. I’ve learned that reading into every minor detail when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or of Israel in general, is likely to end in either tears or frustration–or both.
The panels that day ran the gamut, from interviews with numerous politicians, to discussions about the independence of the Supreme Court, to the perennial question of whether or not Israel’s Jewish and Democratic dual identity can be reconciled. As such, trying to sum up each and every speaker’s thoughts would be virtually impossible in this space. Instead, I’ll touch upon one of the highlights of the conference.
|Jewish Home candidate and radio host Shimon Riklin
Alongside a number of left-leaning personalities on a panel discussing freedom of speech, sat Shimon Riklin, a Knesset candidate for the Jewish Home Party, and a radio broadcaster on the settler-run Gali Israel. His main goal on this panel (which was by far the most interesting and entertaining to watch) was to decry what he perceived to be the demonization of the right, and particularly of the settler movement, by the left-wing media, painting the settlers as an almost persecuted sector of society. This naturally elicited jeers and derision from the audience, especially in the wake of the ugly, borderline antisemitic video put out only days before by the Samarian Resident’s Council, depicting leftists as self-hating accomplices to a Nazi Europe.
Riklin’s reaction was fascinating because it was difficult to tell whether or not this siege mentality was a cynical ploy, or a sincere cry of frustration. If the former, then it could very well be that Mr. Riklin was trying to deflect attention and criticism from the far-right’s mounting incitement against the left. But something tells me that there was a genuine feeling of defensiveness on his part. This, despite the fact that the far-right and the right has managed to leverage its power over the years, creating an image far more powerful than is reflected in their actual numbers, and creating what is perceived to be an insurmountable obstacle to a peace accord. Yet, as both former Likud MK Dan Meridor and journalist Eva Illouz pointed out during the event, the right in general has not grasped the reality that it has been in power for quite some time, and has steadily viewed every criticism of its policies as some sort of existential threat. Where does this disconnect come from?
To be sure, it would be dishonest to take Riklin’s claims that the settlers are routinely depicted as Nazis by the left at face value. The hypocrisy of such a statement notwithstanding, the left has never been guilty of such ugly, flagrant displays of demonization. But there’s no doubt that the left has helped contribute to this feeling of ill-will in a number of ways. Without wanting to defend the settlement enterprise, I nevertheless believe that the left has discredited any and all utterances by the settlers, even when some concerns were, and are, relatively benign. Even the likes of Rabin, hardly a traditional leftist, dismissed the genuine attraction that the settlers (and indeed, many moderate Israelis) had to places like Hebron; but one can feel reverence for these sites without accepting the horrific form of control that Israel has imposed on its inhabitants, or demanding that Israel maintain eternal sovereignty over the area.
Additionally, one would be hard pressed to deny that the disengagement from Gaza was handled insensitively, given the utter indifference towards the fate of those evacuated from their homes, many of whom, even today, languish in makeshift homes. To reiterate: this is not meant as a defense of the settlement enterprise or of settlement ideology. It is simply a recognition that the settler community is, whether we care to admit it or not, a part of Israel that cannot be excised or wished away. Ami Ayalon, a former Shin Bet chief and co-founder of the Blue White Future movement, has discussed at length the notion of using carrots rather than sticks, first to entice settlers with financial incentives to move back within the Green Line, and then to make them understand that their home is within the sovereign, internationally recognized borders of the state.
There will certainly be a number of hard-core, dyed in the wool activists whose ideology will compel them to remain, even in the face of immense pressure from the public and government itself; but many, I believe, are likely to be more pliant. However one views Riklin’s performance, whether as dishonest posturing or something else, there’s no doubt that the settler movement (as well as the far-right in general) exploits these perceptions to further its goals. It’s in the best interests of those in genuine pursuit of a peace accord to refrain from providing them with any more ammunition.