The power of the Israeli left has waned, but belief in the need for what it long championed—territorial compromise—has become a majority position
This is the first in a two-part series.
Israel’s left-wing parties, primarily Labor (but also the farther-left Meretz), were dealt a mortal blow by Yasser Arafat’s rejection of the two-state compromises successively offered by Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, in July and December 2000, and by the Palestinians’ violent follow-up, the launching of the Second Intifada. If there is no Palestinian Arab peace partner, then what’s the point in voting for peace-mongering parties? All Israel’s left-wing parties are selling is pie in the sky.
Clinton settled into a comfortable retirement, but the Israeli left failed to recover from the events of 2000. The Labor Party, which since 1948 has traditionally received between one-third and one-quarter of the votes in each general election and often formed and led Israel’s coalition governments (1949-1977, 1984-1986, 1992-1996, 1999-2001), emerged from the February 2009 general elections with about 11 percent of the vote (13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset or parliament) and is currently a junior partner (though Barak is defense minister, a key portfolio) in the very right-wing coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Even the ultra-right-wing Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, enjoys a stronger parliamentary base (15 seats). Meretz has three.
But there is one major respect in which the current political map inaccurately reflects Israeli public opinion and its ideological and political underpinnings. Most Israelis, to judge by nearly every opinion poll, want peace with the Arabs based on a “territorial compromise,” meaning granting Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank (the desired fate of East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its sacred sites, is more problematic); most Israelis have tired of ruling the Palestinians. These positions have been prompted by historical events and demographic realities. But also, in some measure, by the drumbeat of peace movement activities over the decades since Israel’s conquest of the territories in 1967.
Spokesmen for Gush Emunim, the nationalist-religious movement that has driven the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, used to portray themselves as the “patriotic” response to the “extremists” of Peace Now, the leading Israeli peace organization founded at the end of the 1970s. Nothing riled Peace Now activists more. They saw themselves as law-abiding, reasonable, even mainstream figures, whereas Gush Emunim—which often operated outside the law, serially ignored, circumvented, and defied government orders, and, during the 1980s, spawned a terrorist underground—was deliberately confrontational in tone and Messianic in purpose.
And here, according to Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at Israel’s Open University and the author of the new book The Israeli Peace Movement: A Shattered Dream, lies one of the key reasons for the peace movement’s ultimate ineffectuality. The peaceniks and the left “talked” a lot and persuasively—logical and sane to a fault. But they had little effect on government policy or on facts on the ground. They failed dismally to block or even limit the settlement enterprise or to successfully pressure successive Israeli governments to make peace with the Palestinians on the basis of territorial compromise.
The hard settler right, on the other hand, “acted,” ultimately pulling along often-reluctant politicians to do their bidding. Gush Emunim succeeded in establishing a series of faits accomplis. Jerusalem today is ringed by massive Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. Territorial compromise, and peace, seem as far off as ever.
But there are two things wrong with Hermann’s picture. First, Israel’s peace movements, which she describes in great detail and with perspicacity and insight (her book nicely complements Mordechai Bar-On’s history of the Israeli peace movement, In Pursuit of Peace), have had a substantial, if sporadic, impact on Israeli policy and Middle Eastern realities. Peace Now helped push the first Begin government to make peace with Egypt in 1978-1979; the movement’s founding document—the so-called “Officers’ Letter” of 1978 (some of whose 348 signatories were actually privates and non-commissioned officers)—and its first, massive demonstrations influenced the government and had a part in preventing the peace talks from collapsing. More recently, the relentless agitation of Arba Imahot (Four Mothers) and other groups affected public opinion and helped persuade Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government to withdraw from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
But perhaps more importantly, the peace camp’s central message, that Israel could not forever lord it over another people and that the right’s dream of Greater Israel was dead, eventually was accepted by the majority of Israelis, including most Likudniks. Of course, historical episodes, primarily the First and Second Intifadas (1987-1991 and 2000-2004 respectively) and demographic realities (higher Arab birth rates) played an even more significant part in affecting this sea-change in Israeli public opinion. But the constant patter of the peaceniks’ message, that Israel had to withdraw from the territories to save itself, morally and physically, also had a role.
Second, it was not the shortcomings or failures of these dozens of peace organizations, as Hermann implies, that resulted in the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This result was mainly due to Palestinian rejectionism and intractability. There was never, as there still is not, a credible, serious Palestinian partner for peace with Israel, not before 1948, and not since. In the years 1920-1948 no Palestinian leader would contemplate either a bi-national, one-state arrangement with the Jews based on political parity or the partition of Palestine into two states, one for the Jews, the other for the Arabs. Indeed, in 1937, the Arab leadership flatly rejected the two-state solution, proposed by the British Peel Commission, which would have given the Zionists only 17 percent of Palestine. The pre-eminent Palestinian national leader during the 1930s and ’40s (and arguably in the 1920s as well), Haj Amin al Husseini, rejected all talk of compromise and consistently advocated substantially reducing the number of Jews already in the country (i.e., by mass deportation, or worse).
Nothing has changed since. The 1950s were a hiatus, while the Palestinians licked their wounds from 1948. But when they re-emerged politically under Yasser Arafat and Fatah/the PLO in the 1960s, and during the following two decades they flatly rejected all talk of a two-state solution, preferring the replacement of Israel either in one fell swoop or in stages by a Palestinian Arab state, possibly to include a small Jewish minority.
During the 1990s, the PLO played a devious, two-faced game of extracting concessions while pretending it had an interest in an eventual two-state solution, which, when offered by Barak (July 2000) and Clinton (December 2000), it promptly rejected. Since then, the ascendancy of Hamas, a fundamentalist organization dedicated openly to anti-Semitic principles and to the destruction of Israel and empowered formally by the general election of 2006 as the leading political force in the Palestinian territories, has assured the rejectionist trajectory of Palestinian political ambitions.
In other words, the Israeli peaceniks and their ragtag collection of parties and associations (Hermann usefully lists more than 100 of them in Appendix 1—but Peace Now is the only large one among them) were essentially in the business of shadow-boxing: from HaOlam Hazeh editor Uri Avnery in the 1950s on, they would issue manifestos and meet in European hotel lobbies with dissident Palestinian officials (who were later invariably gunned down by less peace- or at least dialogue-minded fellow Palestinians), sign on for this or that conciliatory initiative—and all for nothing. There was no real partner with a solid constituency across the divide, not the mendacious Arafat, who sought Israel’s destruction with all his heart and soul, not the Marxist George Habash of airplane-hijacking notoriety, and not the fundamentalists, who sought nothing more than to cast out the infidels and impose Sharia law over all of Palestine.
Given this reality, Israel’s peace movement—and Israel’s peace-minded political leaders, from Rabin and Peres, through Barak, Sharon (who evacuated the Gaza Strip), and Olmert (who, in negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly offered the Palestinians more than Clinton had, and, of course, was turned down flat)—cannot be held to account for the failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians (or, indeed, Syria, which, in 1994-1996 and again in 1999-2000, even when offered the Golan Heights, refused to sign on the dotted line). Hermann’s book—a work of otherwise fine political analysis and synthesis—never really makes this clear, which is its great failing.