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Can the Israeli Left Ever Win Again?

Not unless it gets rid of some very bad ideas

Liel Leibovitz
March 20, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave to supporters on March 17, 2015, in Tel Aviv. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave to supporters on March 17, 2015, in Tel Aviv. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

In the winter of 1973, having barely survived a coordinated Arab attack, Israel set out to understand why it had it had missed the many signs pointing toward pending Egyptian aggression. The answer it came up with was long and complicated, but it can be summarized in a single word that every Israeli knows well: Ha’Konseptsya, or the Concept. Israel’s intelligence didn’t see the war coming because of the (mis)conception that Egypt would never risk war unless it had long-range missiles that could hit targets deep inside the Jewish State. The Friday before the war broke out, Israel Defense Forces intelligence officers compiled a document with 39 clauses, each pointing to a different piece of evidence for why an Egyptian invasion was only a matter of time. Their commanding officer, faithful to the Concept, added a 40th and final clause that argued that all evidence aside, the likelihood of war was minuscule. Less than 24 hours later, Egyptian and Syrian planes launched more than 750 sorties against Israeli targets in the north and in the south. Ha’Konseptsya was proven dead wrong.

What the Israeli left experienced this week in light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral triumph wasn’t merely a political setback. It was the shattering of another Concept, another firm worldview that ignored too many signs and relied too heavily on articles of faith. With Labor having delivered its most impressive showing in nearly two decades and yet still falling short, and with Meretz teetering on the brink of extinction, it may not be too much of a stretch to argue that this is the Israeli left’s darkest hour. If it is to survive, it needs to grapple with the Concept that led it astray.

Ironically, at the heart of the Concept are the very missteps liberal Israelis routinely accuse their opponents of committing: abandoning logic and analysis for dogma, magical thinking, and tribal hatred.

For a taste of all of the above, look no further than Ha’aretz’s post-election coverage. “The people of Israel do not want peace,” wrote Ravit Hecht, an editorial writer for the paper. “They are too incited and scared. They do not wish to live in a democratic, liberal, western nation.” Not one to be outdone, columnist Gideon Levy went a step further and argued that the people of Israel simply had to be replaced: In voting for Bibi, they’ve proven themselves unworthy of existence. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to declare, as the novelist Alona Kimchi did on her Facebook page, that Israeli voters were “fucking Neanderthals” who ought to “sip on cyanide” because “only death will save you from yourselves.”

These are not merely the anguished cries one would expect to hear the morning after a searing defeat at the ballot box. They reflect a profound intellectual and emotional failure, the failure to look rightward and see rational people. Tethered to its Concept, the left dismissed the trepidation most Israelis feel when contemplating questions of security, writing it off as the nervous jitters of uneducated boobs. For two decades now, the left has been telling more or less the same story: Peace, prosperity, and security can only come if kinder, gentler people take the helm, dismantle all settlements, make nice with Europe, and rekindle that loving feeling with the Palestinian Authority. All that, the left argues, is within reach, if only voters were swayed by hope rather than fear. Again and again, however, Israeli voters remain unconvinced.

They remain unconvinced because the left’s story says nothing about the mounting evidence of Palestinian belligerence, from the PLO’s embrace of Hamas to the Palestinian Authority’s repeated insistence upon shunning negotiations in favor of symbolic but futile appeals to a host of international institutions. They remain unconvinced because they’re not exactly clear on how committing not to build in Itamar or Beit El or Ariel would mollify Hamas or Hezbollah. They remain unconvinced because when they consider the left’s exhortations and look to Washington and London and Paris for inspiration they see no sensible game plan to halt Iran’s nuclear ambition, not to mention its giddy support for terrorism and violence the world over. They remain unconvinced because they see those ghoulish ISIL videos and they know that it’s only a matter of time before the turmoil spreading everywhere from Libya to Syria knocks at their door.

How, then, might the Israeli left proceed? First, it should return to Israel. The starring role played by an American run and funded anti-Bibi PAC this election season isn’t coincidental; it reflects the left’s growing financial and emotional reliance on foreign support. Rather than try to win elections and effect change by turning to the EU or the DNC, the left might try chatting with those actual Israelis who gave Netanyahu his most impressive political upset yet, and learn why so many of them opted to overcome their personal distaste for the man and give him another term.

After replacing condescension with conversation, the left could then present a plan that was actionable and concrete. Instead of trying to square the circle by promising to keep the settlements and bring peace and maintain security and foster goodwill all at the same time, it should be blunt about what it really believes. If it truly believes that the settlements ought to remain under Israeli sovereignty and Jerusalem sustained as Israel’s undivided capital—as the Zionist Camp’s platform clearly states—it should abandon its tired old trope about the settlements being the sole obstacle to world peace. And if it believes that removing the settlements is a sine qua non, it should explain to Israelis just how a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank would differ from the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are not impossible. One could argue that the more things stay the same, the more likely it’ll be that Israel’s enemies grow more desperate and radical, and that it might therefore be worthwhile to consider some sort of partial disengagement from the West Bank. Then, if more Gaza-style Palestinian violence breaks out, Israel could at least defend its uncontested borders with unequivocal ferocity and conviction. It’s still an argument many Israelis might reject, but it is, at the very least, a far more substantive one than merely saying that Bibi is bad and that religion is silly and that the threat people feel is just an imaginary monster that could be banished simply by turning on the night light of positive thinking.

Sadly, no such awakening seems to be in the cards. The latest trend among those who didn’t vote for Bibi is the viral Lo Latet social media campaign; Hebrew for “do not give,” it calls on affluent leftists to brush off charities supporting those impoverished communities that voted for Netanyahu. “The conclusion is very clear,” wrote one enraged Israeli supporting the campaign on Facebook, “things are probably not bad enough for you just yet.” You hardly need to import costly American political strategists to realize that this isn’t what change you can believe in looks like.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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