By Paul Scham
Different commentators have different ways of dealing with shocking – though not particularly surprising – news, such as that of the recent Israeli election in which, as most reading this will have long since gleaned, Bibi Netanyahu has been returned to power. That would be bad enough, but this time it is with an essential part of his coalition the “Religious Zionism” party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben- Gvir, the former seeking to create a religious/nationalist theocracy, while the latter trails a long history of anti- Arab provocations, including a conviction for inciting to riot. Their party also contains the “Noam” faction, which regards LGBTQ+ rights as an existential danger to Israel. It would almost be funny if not tear-worthy that Netanyahu is now seen by many as the sole adult in the room, whose presumed overriding goal – making his long-running prosecution for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust just disappear – seems petty by comparison. Indeed, former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton, wrote an article advocating that he should be granted his wish, in the hope that he would thus be incentivized to form a more moderate coalition. That is almost certainly not to be.
Two well-informed N.Y. Times columnists had opposite – though both equally negative – responses to the election results. Tom Friedman, representing what I think could be called the gewalt school, tells us that “the Israel we knew is gone.” Brett Stephens, whose columns I read with interest and respect – and not infrequently some grudging agreement – denies that Israel faces any imminent problem of going fascist, pointing out that in France 41% of the electorate voted for Marine Le Pen in the runoff, compared to Religious Zionism’s 11% – and France is hardly going fascist. For all my respect for Stephens, however, I think he should have noted that Le Pen and her party will not be a critical part of the France’s government and that she has not become a minister, let alone receiving the Defense portfolio, which Smotrich wants, nor Internal Security, which Ben-Gvir covets. At this point it seems likely that Ben-Gvir will get his heart’s desire while Smotrich won’t, but the ministerial shuffling is still going strong as I write this.
Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, whose insightful weekly column I invariably read with interest, paints a scenario in which Bibi hews to his usual comparatively moderate course, avoiding or shedding his radical partners, though Koplow adds the significant caveat that he doesn’t believe it himself. Between them, these four extremely well-informed commentators seem to have already covered a large part of the quick-reaction field.
I, on the other hand, temperamentally tend to take the long view, the much-abused privilege of the academic. As someone who would have voted for Meretz had I been in Israel, I am pained that it missed the minimum threshold for entering the Knesset by a few thousand votes, just over .1% of the total, and its fate is now highly uncertain. However, I do note that the left worldwide, including the moderate variety which Meretz and I identify with, as well as the more radical, often anti-Israel forces that we don’t, has lost its way since the 1990’s, including in those countries in which it has eked out some victories in recent weeks, such as Brazil and the US. In the former, it wasn‘t an ideological victory, while here at home, the greatest Democratic vote-getter was Donald Trump, without whose shambolic and threatening presence we might have done much, much worse. I am far from the only hard core Democrat who recoils from the identity politics too much in evidence on the progressive wing of the party. Neither identity politics nor “stopping the right” is desirable as a long-term strategy.
The Israeli Left suffers from this world-wide malaise, compounded by the uniquely Israeli issue of being on the cusp of being both “Zionist” and strongly advocating Arab-Jewish unity and equality. My IH colleague Ron Skolnik – for decades a close and astute observer of the Israeli left and especially Meretz – shows in his article on p. 6 – how Meretz has long straddled both worldviews, but has now fallen between them. An important inheritor of the legacy of the Israeli left is thus hors de combat just when it is needed to help rally the country against the most dangerous and powerful resurgence of the racist and theocratic right in the history of the country.
While I am absolutely supportive of the traditional mantra of the Israeli moderate left that Israel should be both a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens, it is now becoming even harder to maintain that on an ideological level. My perfect party would maintain that mantra from the rooftops, but I’m afraid it would not find a critical mass of Arab Israelis to enter on the ground floor. It is ironic and unfortunate that Mansour Abbas’s “Islamist” Ra’am party, which actually increased its Knesset representation in this election, is on the political right on many hot- button matters (notably LGBTQ+ issues), because its pragmatic acceptance of the Jewish nature of the state has been a significant ray of hope in these generally dark times. Unfortunately, I don’t see a similar pragmatism on the left among Israel’s Palestinian citizens that would enable Meretz, or a successor party, to finesse ideology and to campaign as a genuinely Arab-Jewish party against the right and for the traditional left goals of peace, equality, and social welfare.
Obviously, Israel cannot wait till the global left sorts itself out and comes up with a post-Marxist ideology that expresses its 21st century values; hopefully one that does not demonize Israel. Rather, the Israeli left now needs urgently to find a way how to organize, coalesce, and ideologically equip itself in order to become part of the urgent struggle against the far right and its new official manifestations.
Paul Scham is the director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland (UMD), a professor of Israel Studies at UMD, and a non-resident scholar at MEI. He is also the President of Partners for Progressive Israel.