Tel Aviv — The post-Sabbath demonstration in Jerusalem’s Zion Square this week was a metaphor for the political wilderness that the Israeli “peace camp” finds itself in these days.
Many held blue and white placards reading “Zionists Aren’t Settlers” and “Stop Settling.” Others held up banners of the dovish group Peace Now.
“Tonight the peace camp is starting to wake up and stand tall,” said Eldad Yaniv, a sponsor of the demonstration and the co-author of the provocative manifesto, “The Nationalist Left,” which attempts to reclaim patriotism on behalf of Israelis who support withdrawing from the West Bank and dismantling settlements.
But despite the sweeping declarations, the demonstration attracted only 2,000 protesters. A spokeswoman for the settler leadership council dismissed the demonstration as an “expensive party with free beer and a singer or two” — proof of the left’s irrelevance to average Israelis.
“The left is looking in bad shape if we don’t regard Kadima as part of it,” said Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin, referring to the political party of opposition leader Tzipi Livni. “The grip of the Likud and the parties to the right on the political center is clear.”
After a decade of decline culminating in a landslide during the 2009 Knesset vote — when many votes were lost to the centrist Kadima party — and after many of its political luminaries resigned from the parliament to pursue private projects, many Israeli peace activists are involved in an extended process of soul searching.
Amid a post-ideological Israel in which many in the electorate have most soured on the chances for peace with the Arabs because of failed negotiations, those that remain on the left are searching for a new doctrine, new parties and a new vehicle to connect with the grass roots.
Leftists are faced with the irony that as they have fallen out of favor with the voters. Their age-old political demand — the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — has actually been accepted in principle by a majority of Israelis and was even adopted last year by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem is, that most Israelis don’t trust the left to carry it out.
“The Zionist left is trying to carve out a new vision to recapture the people who used to vote for Labor and Meretz — the people who were alienated because they didn’t feel there was a Palestinian partner; as a result, the left became too identified with non-Zionism,” said Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and a participant in the discussions.
Still, the “Nationalist Left” manifesto — a pedantic monograph penned by Yaniv, a lawyer and activist, and Shmuel Hasfari, a playwright — is probably the most prominent of several simultaneous attempts at redefinition. Beyond the demonstration, proponents have been crisscrossing the country to make their arguments in parlor groups and on public panels that leftists shouldn’t apologize — not for supporting a Palestinian state or not for remaining patriotic.
In another manifestation of possible leftist revival, weekly demonstrations have resumed in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarakh. The protest, which is aimed against Jews who want to create an enclave in an old hotel owned by American Irving Moskowitz, have drawn many popular figures on the left, such as novelist David Grossman and former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.
Meanwhile, activists from left-wing political parties like Meretz and the Greens have been holding discussions about joining forces.
Gadi Taub, a Hebrew University communications professor and a political commentator, has signed on to the campaign and spoke at the rally.
“Israeli political discourse divided the public between those who are sensitive to human rights and those who are nationalists. We say the nationalist argument and the human rights argument converge. And they converge on ending the occupation,” Taub told The Jewish Week.
“Our insistence is that we are the real Zionists. Zionism is based on the recognition that all people have the right to self-determination. If we do not leave [the Palestinians] alone, we will lose our own vehicle for self- determination. The Jewish state is dependent on Palestinian self-determination.”
Taub argues that Israel’s right wing is heading toward a bi-national state by keeping Israel mired in the West Bank.
In the left’s new/old vision, the central policy prescription regarding the Palestinians is another unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank.
Taub says that Israel shouldn’t wait for the Palestinians to agree to a peace treaty so as not to be held “hostage” to a “radical” Palestinian positions, such as an insistence on the “right of return” to historic Palestine. The step of withdrawing to Israel’s security fence would turn Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank into a “border dispute,” he argued.
That’s a risky proposal at a time most of the Israeli public blames the country’s most recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon on the unilateral withdrawals there.
“Are we to let the ship of Zionism sink on the rocks of the occupation, just because [Palestinians] have a few Kassam rockets? This is crazy,” Taub said.
After dominating the state’s politics until the 1970s, the Zionist left today controls a paltry 13 percent of Knesset seats. Explanations abound for that state of affairs. Many agree that the left has failed to address the growing social inequality in Israel at time when the country has won recognition as a modern Western economy.
In addition to the sour mood regarding peace prospects, Mossi Raz, a former Knesset member from Meretz, said demographics play a factor: the number of settlers has tripled since the early 1990s and more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived, few of whom vote for the left. What’s more, votes from Israeli Arabs have shifted from the Zionist left to the Arab parties.
Taub asserted that human rights groups on the left have given the movement a bad name by allegedly contributing to the campaigns of critics of Israel. He drew a comparison with the radical leftists in the U.S. in the late-‘60s who became anti-American.
That position puts the “Nationalist Left” at odds with other leftist groups that have voiced criticism against Israeli policy. Baskin said he attended the rally on Saturday night, though he takes exception to the criticism of human rights groups because it is “anti-democratic.”
Despite the gloomy forecast for the near term, Hebrew University’s Diskin stressed that it is still too early to declare the death of the left.
“Suppose that people become convinced that there is some chance for an agreement and the government goofed,” he said. “These things are fluid in Israel.”
The Nationalist Left manifesto can be found at www.fas.org/irp/dni/israel-left.pdf.
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