The common wisdom on what is sometimes called the “Disappearing Zionist Left” seems to be that Israel is heading rapidly down the path blazed by such luminaries as Orban and Kaczynski, maybe even Erdogan and Putin. One Ha’aretz columnist says Israel’s already a dictatorship. While I am as dismayed as anyone else on the Left about the results of the April 9 election, I beg to differ with that analysis, at least as far as the next decade or so is concerned. Further than that, my crystal ball is too dim.
There’s little question that this new government will be the most rightwing in Israel’s history, surpassing Bibi’s immediately past coalitions – unless, for some reason, Bibi chooses the ‘national unity’ route, which no one expects. Nevertheless, the fact is that, at least as of this writing, the far Right suffered in this election from a plethora of choices, and thus only one of its three parties made it into the Knesset, the hastily assembled “Union of Right Wing Parties.” While I wouldn’t argue too strenuously that they don’t have fascistic inclinations (itself the vaguest of terms), they will be at most 6 members of a probable 65-member coalition (unless Bennett and Shaked reach the threshold, which seems unlikely). In any case, they are not the master politicians; Bibi is. And I counter Yossi Verter, who claims “In no Western country, not even Italy, could a person who is allegedly a serial lawbreaker, on his way to trial and possibly to jail, be elected to the highest office in the land”, with the fact that I would take Bibi’s moral character over Trump’s any day, and twice on Saturday.
Moreover, while Bibi would not be in the running for Jeffersonian democrat of the decade (I can’t think of any current leader who would, in fact), he has been in office for 10 consecutive years now and no one with either a straight face or historical memory could seriously term his rule dictatorial. Compare Israel today with the benevolent hegemony that Mapai exerted over the country in the 1950s (especially over the Arab sector, under military rule). Or any of the authoritarian regimes and parties now popping up, monthly it seems. Obviously, I am referring only to ‘Green-line Israel’, not to the millions of Palestinians under Israel’s control, who have little say in what is de facto their government.
I don’t dispute that Bibi’s last government, especially, has eroded civil liberties, limited judicial independence, and harassed leftwing NGO’s, among other despicable actions. But exactly while Bibi has been in office, a number of other once democratic countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, have become illiberal democracies or, arguably, illiberal semi-dictatorships. Israel is nowhere near that. Where are the arbitrary arrests on trumped-up charges, newspapers closed down, political parties banned, or even (as in the US, which is still a democracy), significant numbers of citizens denied the right to vote? Not in the Israel of 2019. And my guess is that won’t be part of the Israel of 2029, either.
Bibi, as part of his desperate campaign to corral every vote he could, indeed announced two days before the election he would annex parts of the West Bank. As a ploy to attract rightwing votes, it may well have worked superbly, taking from Bennett and Shaked’s New Right and Feiglin’s Z’hut the votes necessary to cross the threshold. But we have yet to see whether it was anything more than a ploy. Would anyone: left, right, or center really be surprised if Bibi finds a way to wriggle out of carrying that out, using whatever excuse is near to hand?
We on the Left rightly call Bibi out for his manifold sins of preventing any peace process with the Palestinians. But we are less attuned to those on the settler Right who complain that Bibi has refused to allow new settlements and limited building in existing ones to a trickle of what they’d like to see, let alone annex settlement blocs, a major goal of the Right forever. Bibi has been either praised or damned for his caution, rarely for his impulsiveness. This is a man with a lengthy track record of rarely crossing red lines. To our dismay, he played Obama beautifully, never going so far as to create an open break with him, and getting a munificent 10 year memo of understanding that increased the previous military grants substantially.
We also await an “Ultimate Peace Plan” that (presumably) will eventually be unveiled that may ask for some Israeli concessions. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bibi is bound to have major difficulties in both complying with Kushner’s peace plan and satisfying his far-right coalition partners. If Bibi is at all true to form, he will preserve the American alliance above almost anything. The Israeli public will not support alienating the US in order to please the most extreme part of the settler lobby.
This is in no way, shape, or form an argument for complacency on the Left. On the contrary, the near-complete decimation of the Israeli Left as a political force shows that neither standing fast on its principles without adjusting to a changing world (a la Meretz) or abandoning them completely (a la Labor) does anything positive for the success of a political party. Rather, the Left must use this defeat as an urgent call to figure out how to get its message across without abandoning everything that makes it Left. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but brainstorming and serious think-tanking must certainly be part of it. This is already going on but should be increased substantially, including American-Israeli cross-fertilization.
Where do we go from here? The Israeli Left can only envy the ferment going on across the pond in the US. The surprise wipeout of 2016 produced the successes of 2018 and the serious hopes for 2020. One doesn’t have to approve of everything going on in the American Left to hope that some of its fervor and ferment can be exported to Israel. As has been frequently pointed out, there are clear similarities and symmetries connecting Trump and Bibi. Perhaps the antidote to them may benefit from some cross-fertilization as well.
Paul Scham is President of Partners for Progressive Israel; Associate Research Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and Executive Director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.