The Need for a Center Left Political Alternative in Israel

Since the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, if not earlier, there has been no center left in Israel.  Of course, there has been something referred to as “center left” but that was only relative to the so-called right of the Likud, Kadima, Shinui, Yesh Atid, and defunct parties whose name I forget.  Former prime minister, Ehud Barak managed almost single-handedly to destroy the center left, which had supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, and which  had viewed moderate Israelis and Palestinians as partners for peace against the extremists of both sides.  With Barak, even before the total collapse of the peace process, the motivation for a settlement with the Palestinians was to separate the populations, to keep the West Bank and Gaza under direct security and indirect economic control of Israel, and to grant limited autonomy to Palestinians.  Barak’s views differed little from  Netanyahu, which explains in part  his ability to serve as Defense Minister in Netanyahu’s government.

The Barak Doctrine was simple: separation from the Palestinians (“We are here; they are there”); Israeli  security and economic control over the West Bank and Gaza; limited Palestinian autonomy with Israel’s security being contracted out, in part,  to the Palestinian Authority.  Israel would help facilitate, or at least would not stand in the way, of Palestinian economic growth in areas that did not threaten the Israeli economy.  The difference, perhaps, between Barak and Netanyahu was the extent of expansion into the West Bank they thought possible.  Both were willing to allow settlements even outside the settlement blocs to grow without taking steps to curb them.

The Barak Doctrine should now be known as the Herzog Doctrine; in fact, I cannot see any difference between them.  From Barak’s Labor Party to Herzog’s Zionist Union, there has been a consistent vision of the status quo and the endgame; the party’s criticisms against the right have generally been more of style than of substance.  Herzog has often criticized Netanyahu for alienating Israel’s allies, and for his relying on the extreme right wing.  Instead of presenting the Zionist Camp as an ideological alternative to the Likud and the other right wing parties, he has presented himself as a more effective political leader than Bibi.  He will do what Bibi would like to do, only better – because he will do it with the understanding of the US and Europe.

It is the failure of the Zionist Camp to offer a center left alternative that has led people like Haaretz’s owner, Amos Schocken, to suggest that only international intervention will preserve the state of Israel.  Were there to be a center left, even were it to be in the opposition, Schocken would not have written his powerful piece.

So one should not blame the leftwing activists, intellectuals, and journalists who call for international intervention, or who display Israel’s human rights abuses for all the world to see, for the demise of Israel’s center left.  That is getting the story backwards.  Were the Zionist Camp to offer a party around which people could rally – not because the party doesn’t like Bibi and the rightwing, but because it doesn’t  like his vision and his policies – then there would be an address for political action within Israel.  Even the so-called extreme left would support it, as it supported Rabin in the early stages of Oslo.

Can there be a center left political alternative in Israel?  Some people think that it is not possible.  I am not sure, but I don’t think giving up on it  is a good idea.  For the Palestinians to achieve even partial liberty, for the current phase of the Occupation to end, there must be a political constituency in Israel that articulates a different vision from that of the Likud and its various imitator policies.

Personally, I cannot accept the ideology of even a reformed, progressive, Zionist Left.  But I can recognize its practical importance in the evolution of Israeli thinking towards the Palestinians.  So any steps that are taken to create a real ideological and political alternative to the anti-Palestinian Center should have the support not only of the Zionist Left, but of all people who want justice for the Palestinians.

This is not a time for ideological purity.  There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation, and bringing justice and security to the Palestinian people.  For this to happen, there must be at least three things: a strong Palestinian movement; a strong Israeli political movement advocating for change; and international incentives and pressure, including boycotts and sanctions.  These three groups will have different aims, and they certainly will not be coordinated.  For example, the Israeli political movement cannot and should not call for international intervention.  But it has the obligation of warning  the Israeli public of that intervention.

There has to be an Israeli political movement that is truly center left.  I don’t know how or whether that will come about.  But I can tell you right now, I will support it, despite any skepticism I may have.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on January 22, 2016, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume).  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.

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