‘Duel Review’: What Happened to the Israeli Left?

Two reviews, separately written, analyze the factors behind the chronic weakness of the Israeli Left.

The Left’s Weaknesses are the Source of its Potential / Naomi Chazan

The decline of “the Left” in Israel has in recent years become the subject of a growing fascination that borders on obsession. A constantly expanding body of literature, ranging from scholarly studies and popular analyses to political tracts and calls to action, has been devoted to this topic. Despite the diversity of perspectives that they mirror, all these works share a similar assumption: that there is a close connection between the deadlock in the quest for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the palpable weakness of progressive forces in Israel, and the decline of democracy in the country.  

Two recent, and markedly different, contributions to this genre are Tzvia Greenfield’s Collapse—The Disintegration of the Political Left in Israel, and Avi Shilon’s The Left-Wing’s Sorrow: Yossi Beilin and the Demise of the Peace Camp.  Both grapple with the erosion of the left-of-center in Israel; both seek to explain its diminishing influence; both point to the (quite distinct) implications of these deleterious currents; both, in their own different ways, leave their readers with a myriad of unanswered questions.

Avi Shilon’s The Left-Wing’s Sorrow explores the causes for the diminution of Israel’s “Left” through a close, sympathetic yet critical, portrait of a man in many respects the paradigmatic example of Israel’s liberal Zionist establishment, as well as arguably the key player in the Oslo Process—Yossi Beilin. Drawing from previously unpublished documents in Beilin’s personal archives, Shilon links the demise of the Labor-led political left in Israel to a fundamental disjuncture between the broad-based substance of Israeli progressivism and its incorrigibly aloof social image.

Yossi Beilin’s story is emblematic of the second generation of Israel’s Labor leadership. It is one of immense talent and inordinate blindness, of unusual creativity coupled with raw political expediency; in brief, an admixture of great promise and profound tragedy. Shilon’s rendition of one of the most decidedly self-effacing and reserved political figures in Israel’s political history is as captivating as it is telling.  For him, Beilin’s story provides a window into what was, what went wrong and, significantly, what may still be.

Shilon documents how, following the Likud’s rise to power in 1977, a group of young politicians, under the patronage of Shimon Peres, emerged as a new vanguard in the deposed Mapai-Avodah. This group, known as the “Gang of Eight”, included Beilin, Avraham Burg, Haim Ramon and Yael Dayan; their principal goal was to update the priorities of the founding fathers of the State of Israel and adjust them to the changing times. Shilon shows that their precipitous rise through the ranks was a response to the displacement of the Mapai-era socialist and secular Israeli solidarity by a Likud-led Jewish solidarity, which had successfully coupled nationalism and economic liberalism with traditional identities and communalism.  Blind to the role played by religion in the building of Likud and its anti-establishment base (although Beilin himself had an Orthodox upbringing and was a product of state religious schools), the group promoted an alternative vision of peace, anchored by security, social democracy and liberal values. Indeed, Beilin himself, as director-general of the Ministry of Finance under Shimon Peres, played a key role in Israel’s transition into a globalized, neoliberal economy in the mid-1980s.

Nevertheless, for Beilin and for his colleagues on the liberal-left, the main vehicle for the opening of Israel during the last two decades of the 20th century was the effort to secure Israel’s standing in the region by moving beyond the Egyptian-Israeli treaty and signing a peace accord with the Palestinians and Jordan. In order to do so, the Labor party had to maintain its proximity to power—this explains its willingness, over the years, to enter coalitions with the Likud. From the outset, these moves were couched in terms of realpolitik, and mostly lacked a clear, value-based, alternative vision of Israeli society and aspirations.

It is not always clear which story Avi Shilon is most interested in telling: that of the indefatigable Yossi Beilin, of the causes for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or of the collapse of the Zionist Left in Israel.

With praiseworthy clarity and skill, Shilon devotes separate chapters to the initial efforts to forge a peace with Jordan in the mid-1980s; the development of ties with Palestinians by Beilin and his colleagues in the Economic Cooperation Foundation (a think-tank he established, to interact with Palestinians on the ground and with the then-outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization); the return of the Labor party to power in 1992; his role in the Oslo negotiations; and finally, the implementation of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government, signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Beilin’s shadow—directly and indirectly—falls everywhere.  
In this compelling and eye-opening chronicle (even for those steeped in the intricacies of these events), Shilon highlights several crucial factors that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords. These include the uniqueness of the international constellation that developed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; the failure of the Likud at the 1992 polls; the incredible political acumen employed to capitalize on these developments; and the ability to translate the desire for peace into a plan acceptable to all the main players.   

He also analyzes in detail some of the flaws of the Oslo framework. For one thing, the vision of peace was predicated on Israeli control of both the process and the outcome. The framework itself failed to elaborate a clear concept of the nature and features of peace, or to specifically define the contours of the preferred two-state solution (which rested more on separation than on reconciliation, on the future at the expense of resolving the historical roots of the conflict); the decidedly flawed notion that an incremental approach to a permanent settlement would provide both communities with sufficient time to accommodate themselves to their dramatically shifting relationship. The last of these flaws enabled spoilers from both sides—who saw the Oslo process as a disaster—to use violence as a way of undermining public support for the process. Eventually, the distance between the spirit that drove Oslo’s architects and the immediate concerns surrounding its implementation expedited its defeat.

Shilon depicts the internal debate over Oslo as the embodiment of the struggle for Israel’s identity.  It superimposed a tangible ideological cleavage upon a preexisting social one, and in the process magnified both.  Nothing exemplifies this internal tension more than the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995 and the still-charged debate over its meaning.  In the aftermath of Rabin’s death, the confrontation within Israel was “stripped of its guiding values.” The subsequent return of the Likud to office, under Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, led to the breakdown of Oslo.

The death blow was delivered at Camp David in the summer of 2000 by Ehud Barak. In his rush to end the conflict, he effectively buried the process set in motion by Oslo, not only by discrediting his Palestinian negotiating partners, but also by politically crippling—some would claim irreparably—its main advocates.  

The Labor party and the Zionist Left have never recovered from the collapse of the Camp David summit (from which, significantly, Beilin’s guiding hand was noticeably absent) and the subsequent loss of the critical yet elusive political center. Despite repeated efforts to regain this support, including two significant initiatives by Beilin himself (first with the ill-fated Geneva Accords in 2003, and then as leader of the left-wing Meretz party between 2004 and 2008), the political right has continued to gain tremendous political traction over the last two decades. With Beilin’s withdrawal from the formal political stage in 2008, his motto of “try and try again” has yielded to widespread alienation and frustration in progressive quarters. The consequence is the reinforcement of the right-wing forces that rode to power on the back of the failure of the Oslo Accords, Beilin’s flagship project.

It is not always clear which story Avi Shilon is most interested in telling: that of the indefatigable Yossi Beilin, of the causes for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or of the collapse of the Zionist Left in Israel. What is not in doubt is that the three subjects are intertwined.  Perhaps this is why Shilon, with all his insightful self-criticism, does not share the deep pessimism that has come to permeate the country during the last decade. He still sees a role for the political Left, and so leaves the reader with cause for optimism, but also with a dilemma: to choose between a renewed and open Liberal Zionist two-state vision (as currently proposed by Beilin); to opt for an Israel as a state of all its citizens; or to carve out some other alternative, democratic and just, that would appeal to broad segments of Israeli society.   

Tzvia Greenfield, briefly a Member of Knesset for Meretz and a prolific journalist, attempts to pick up where Shilon left off. Collapse is a sprawling polemic which examines the options offered by what Greenfield identifies as the post-Oslo Left, following the dispersal of its political base. She places the blame for the virtual obliteration of Israel’s progressive camp on the shoulders of its own extremist fringes. She attributes this demise to the split, over the last two decades, between the “old” Left, which promoted a two-state solution and still votes for the Labor party or Meretz, and a new “radical” post-colonial and post-Zionist Left, that has shed its Jewish trappings and now favors a democratic binational state.  Greenfield then proceeds to argue that the replacement of the old elites who founded the state by advocates of a radical multiculturalism devoid of historic roots has completely marginalized progressive forces in Israel – not only in the political and socioeconomic realms, but also in the more sensitive spheres of religion and identity. In her eyes, by relentlessly attacking the expanding moderate center, these groups are directly responsible for undermining the legitimacy and viability of the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and – by extension – for perpetuating right-wing ultra-nationalist rule.  

This is a simplistic, rather myopic view of the rhythm and dynamics of Israeli public life in recent years.  It gives inordinate weight to the writings of a small group of scholars (including Adi Ophir, Uri Ram, Ariella Azoulay and Yehuda Shenhav, all initially associated with the intellectual journal Theory and Criticism) and endows them with unwarranted political clout.  By disregarding the range of opinions held by these academics and by flattening their positions into a stereotypical mold, Greenfield sets up a series of straw men, whom she then proceeds to attack as the proponents of policies she disagrees with, such as the pursuit of an updated socialism, the redefinition of Israel as the state of all its citizens, and the drift towards a one-state solution.

In long, rambling, frequently redundant and sparsely documented chapters (no bibliography or index are appended; footnotes are exceedingly sparse), Greenfield constructs a blistering indictment against the far-left, whom she holds responsible for killing Israel’s Zionist Left. The result is an uneven, slanted and meandering exposition of the frailties of Israeli progressives, unfortunately subsuming some potentially interesting insights – especially on matters of identity and politics – beneath a barrage of repetitious verbiage. (The second part of the book consists of three disconnected digressions, on the crisis of the global Left, the influence of Arendt’s banality of evil on intellectual life in the country, and Israelis in Berlin).  

Far from providing convincing explanations for the weakening of the opposition – such as the in-fighting she bemoans and, at the same time, exemplifies – Greenfield’s book does a disservice to many of the “old” Left values and programs she exalts. By belittling the heterogeneity of ideas and actions on the left-of-center and the importance of its underlying pluralism, she plays into the hands of precisely those political forces on the right that she seeks to unseat, giving them additional ammunition to entrench their hegemony.  Her book is disappointing not only because it is unsatisfying intellectually, but also because its author – blinded by her distaste for certain positions and personalities on the Left, and her conviction that only the (highly ambiguous and undefined) center can salvage the country – ends up discrediting Israel’s progressive camp in its entirety.

After reading these books, one cannot but feel both confused and challenged. What defines the Israeli Left, other than opposition to the current religious-ethnocentric-nationalist paradigm? This conundrum is inescapable because its foundational values have been blurred; its members differ in their social and political expressions; its diversity often occludes its commonalities; and its multiple weaknesses overshadow its considerable political potential.  The challenge today, more than ever before, remains how to transform the prevailing polarization and fragmentation – which enables populism and illiberalism to flourish and causes democratic life to wither – into a pluralist vision and a cohesive strategy that can make the quest for justice, equality and freedom into a working reality. Without such a guiding charter, not only the future of the Israeli Left, but the future of Israel, remains unclear.

The Left’s Split Personality / Ben-Dror Yemini

Criticism of the Israeli Left is as old as the Left itself, if not older.
It is sometimes unclear who and what the Left is, and what it takes to be considered a Leftist. But the criticism is voiced nonetheless: when it turns harsh, it is immediately met with a defensive pushback, the critics labelled as McCarthyite and fascist. In recent years, this hysterical backlash has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. This characterizes, for example, the unparalleled hatred that some sectors of the Left show towards Ehud Barak, the last Labor prime minister. They will never forgive him for his “no partner” remarks after the Camp David summit in July 2000, which put the lid on prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Surprisingly, Barak himself has since adopted these calumnies, that were previously the exclusive purview of the radical left, and voices them today with increasing vigor.

Two newly published books seek to analyze the state of the Israeli Left. Collapse – The Disintegration of the Political Left in Israel, by Tzvia Greenfield, focuses on the Left’s journey leftwards, digging itself deeper into self-righteous despair at the expense of offering an effective alternative to the Right’s stable—albeit expedient—rule. Greenfield accuses the Left of attempting to redress the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians by creating a greater injustice, in the form of denying Jews their right to self-determination. The Left-Wing’s Sorrow: Yossi Beilin and the Demise of the Peace Camp, by Avi Shilon, for its part, uses the biography of the man most associated with the peace camp to narrate the history of the Israeli Left. Relying in part on Beilin’s personal archive, Shilon’s thoroughly researched book is also an indictment of the Left’s attempts to impose universal values on Israel’s traditional Mizrahi populace.

The themes running through these two books are demise and collapse. Both are fascinating to read, soul-searching in orientation, steeped with facts. Despite this, they are—sadly—both disliked by the Left, because denial is the habitual knee-jerk reaction to soul-searching. No need for soul-searching here, they say; we’re wonderful.

The story of the Israeli Left is my own personal story as well. I was there. In the 1980s and 1990s, I signed virtually every petition, participated in every event. I travelled to Tunis, even before the Oslo Accords were signed, and met with Yasser Arafat and other Fatah leaders, including Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti (who remained a friend until his detention, in 2002, for multiple charges of terrorism). It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These friendships lasted for years. But even then, I suspected that the Israelis’ perception of peace was very different from the Palestinians’. We wanted compromise and reconciliation—in other words, two states for two peoples. They wanted justice, meaning the right of return (of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper, which would mean the elimination of the Jewish state. But when I started to express second thoughts, as early as the 1990s (not about the urgency of ending the occupation, but about the Palestinians’ intentions), I was met with a Bolshevik-like inquisition, which no-one expects.

Nevertheless, I continued to see myself as a member of the peace camp into the 2000s. The Palestinian rejection of first Barak’s statehood offer at Camp David, and later of the Clinton parameters, deepened my doubts. Irrespective of the content of these overtures, the Left chorus sang in unison: Israel is to blame. Barak’s “no partner” comment became a stick with which to beat him, not the Palestinians. How dare he claim that the fault is not 100 percent Israel’s? This philosophy, whereby the underdog is always right, has long permeated the Israeli intelligentsia, who has, in turn, worked tirelessly to exonerate the Palestinians.

The 2001 World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, was a milestone. Against a supposedly anti-racism backdrop, manifestations of Israel-hatred reached unprecedented heights. Letting off their anti-Zionist rage, so-called civil society organizations conveniently ignored the two-state solution. The conference was a bigoted charade intended to damage Israel and undermine its very existence.

Greenfield, a former Member of Knesset for the left-wing Meretz party, recounts a board meeting of the civil rights organization B’Tselem, of which she was an executive member. It was the summer of 2000; Barak and Arafat were negotiating at Camp David.  After discovering that Arafat had compromised on the Right of Return, a group of activists stormed the meeting. He had no right to compromise on this inalienable right, they maintained. Arafat never compromised on the Right of Return, either then or later: when he did voice the his intention to do so his statements were nebulous and half-hearted, a tactic meant to please his listeners more than a statesmanlike attempt to resolve the conflict. But the activists were by no means a recalcitrant and disgruntled fringe group; two then-senior board members, Prof. Anat Biletzki and Prof. Oren Yiftachel, were avowed proponents of the Right of Return fantasy.
Israel’s Left is unique insofar as it is a mixed bag of socialists and capitalists committed to one cause: The end of the occupation. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere around the world, it has no sizable working-class component; hopes for a coalition of the oppressed Palestinians and the Jewish underclass have never materialized. Be that as it may, a Left worthy of its name has never existed in Israel. It is a big tent, encompassing a variety of ideologies and worldviews.

The problem is that, overtime, the radical wing—less Zionist, often overtly anti-Zionist—has become increasingly dominant. That this should set the alarm bells ringing is at the heart of Greenfield’s essay. Predictably, Collapse came under fire for this very issue. Haaretz columnist Ravit Hecht wrote earlier this year: “Greenfield overestimates the influence of a tiny fringe group [within the Left], and in this sense colludes with the Right’s attempts to demonize the Left in its entirety.” Incidentally, this is exactly what the Left, via organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, does to Israel in its entirety: they highlight infrequent cases of abnormal behavior among soldiers, and collude with attempts to delegitimize Israel. In any event, Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not fringe groups. They are established organizations, enjoying the support of much of the Left and funding from the New Israel Fund.
While Greenfield’s Left turned the human rights discourse into an anti-Israel one, Shilon’s Left focused on peacemaking. In his indefatigable commitment to achieving peace, Beilin embodied the central aspiration of his constituents. Many talked the talk, but Beilin was one of the few who walked the walk. Beilin was the driving force behind  every diplomatic initiative, from the Track Two London Agreement of 1987—the first attempt by an Israeli official to address the Palestinian question by diplomatic means—until Likud’s return to power in 2001. He conceived and essentially led the Oslo Accords, the Beilin-Abu Mazen document, the momentous Camp David summit (which produced the Clinton Parameters), and finally the Taba Summit, during the twilight of Barak’s premiership.

A Left worthy of its name has never existed in Israel. It is a big tent, encompassing a variety of ideologies and worldviews.

But today’s Left is very different from Beilin’s. As Shilon writes, Zionism was Beilin’s fuel. He was motivated by the imperative to guarantee a Jewish majority in Israel, which the continued occupation of the West Bank would prevent. A binational state, Beilin believed, would be neither democratic nor Jewish; and certainly not liberal. Greenfield’s protagonists, on the other hand, are not driven by Zionism. For quite a few of them, Zionism has become a profanity. It is synonymous with ethno-nationalism, jingoism, and—for some—with colonialism and racism as well.

In this respect, the two books together paint a panoramic picture of the Left’s decline. The Left-Wing’s Sorrow tackles the Left of yore, the one that sought peace. This Left now blames the Right, mistakenly, for its failure. However, Palestinian intransigence is to blame, not the democratic choice of the Israeli people. In fact, polls show massive and consistent support among Israelis for a two-state solution which would necessarily entail withdrawal from more than 90 percent of the West Bank. The Left’s failure to recognize this, by blaming the Right, is the source of its woes.

Collapse focuses on today’s Left, which has substituted peace for “human rights.” By focusing the debate on human rights, today’s Left keeps the old Left at bay, because the debate seldom remains in the confines of legitimate criticism of Israel and the occupation. It often spills over into outright anti-Zionism – promoted not only by the radicals who stormed the B’Tselem board meeting, but also by organizations like Combatants for Peace, who openly profess their support for the Right of Return, and Breaking the Silence, who travel the world claiming that Israel routinely commits war crimes. This is not how reconciliation is reached, this is how Israel is demonized. This is how Palestinian rejectionism is stoked. This is how moderate Israelis are pushed to the Right. And, above all, this is how the Left condemns itself to irrelevance.
The famed novelist Amos Oz is a case in point, and a tragic one. Time and again Oz, one of Israel’s leading intellectuals, has spoken about the need  for Israel to separate from the Palestinians—even, if need be, through an unhappy divorce of convenience. Even centrists, not to mention leftists, can easily subscribe to this view. But just as there isn’t only one  Left, there isn’t only one Oz. There is a Greenfield-type Oz, who hails radical groups like Breaking the Silence as his heroes and sits on the board of B’Tselem; and there is a Shilon-type Oz, who believes in peace. Oz, just like the Left that emerges from Greenfield’s and Shilon’s books, has a split personality. One part of him is firmly Zionist, another flirts with anti-Zionism.

By doing so, Oz is a fly in the ointment for Greenfield’s critics. Far from representing a “tiny fringe group,” Oz is a corporeal manifestation of the leftist mainstream. Greenfield quotes Amos Schocken, publisher of Haaretz, as saying that the radical Left differs from the Zionist in that it prefers one state to a two-state solution. However, this distinction is no longer valid: Even partisans of the two-state solution feel increasingly under pressure from the less Zionist, effectively anti-Zionist, “adamant” and “determined” Left.
The fault lines are no longer between Right and Left; they lie now between a Zionist camp, committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel, and a nationalist-anti-Zionist coalition—who advocate for a binational state, or a state of all its citizens, or Greater Palestine/Israel, or for delivering “historic justice” by recognizing the “Right of Return.” This coalition includes the right-wing Jewish avant-garde, who call for a Jewish “right of return” to Judea and Samaria, and the non-Zionist Left as welll as Palestinian nationalists who call for a Palestinian right of return of its own. The French call this phenomenon “les extrêmes se touchent” – the place where two ends meet; in our case, the two ends are ideologically opposed to a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.
Though failure is the theme of both books, let us not despair. Definitions are secondary to substance, and in Israel there is overwhelming support for the main tenet of Zionism—a Jewish and democratic state, achievable only by separating from the Palestinians. For this majority to return to power, it needs a different leadership. Greenfield believes Yair Lapid is the answer. Perhaps he is. More important, consecutive polls show that up to 10 right-wing MKs have relied on swing voters; the Left’s main challenge, in my opinion a quest of historic importance, is to flip them over.

To this end, the Left needs to take Greenfield’s and Shilon’s analysis seriously. Rather than focus on where they are wrong —and they are sometimes wrong —the Left needs to focus on where they are right. And this they often are.

*Tzvia Greenfield, Collapse – The Disintegration of the Political Left in Israel (Hebrew), Yediot Books, pp. 318.

*Avi Shilon, The Left-Wing’s Sorrow: Yossi Beilin and the Demise of the Peace Camp, Dvir, pp. 444. 

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