Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli elections

Hope, somehow, after the Israeli elections

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously called for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” in the face of adversity. When confronted with the bleakness of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in order not to give up completely, peace activists and advocates need more than that. We need to balance pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the sub-conscious, with a completely irrational hope that emerges of its own accord from a primal part of our psyches, and refuses to fade.

Perhaps that is the main reason why I retain hope tonight, as the Israeli election results roll in. But at least I have fellow travellers, others who won’t give up. One of them is MJ Rosenberg, writing on Israel Policy Forum’s intriguing new blog, Middle East Peace Pulse:

I am reconciled to a right-wing government taking power in Israel but I am not too depressed about it, or even depressed at all.

Yossi Beilin points out that the worst governments in Israel’s history — the ones which were indifferent to peace and enthusiastic about the settlements — were those which were led by the right but which had the left in the coalition to serve as a fig leaf.

A Netanyahu/Lieberman government would have no such cover. Any acts of sabotage to the peace process would likely be strongly opposed by the United States. Israel’s most devoted “friends” in Congress — almost all Democrats — woud find it hard, if not impossible, to choose Netanyahu (who is very close to the GOP) over Obama. The lobby will be dispirited. Contrary to popular opinion, it does not like far right governments because they are a tougher sell.

The likely result will be either a right-wing government that goes out of its way not to offend the United States [DF: I assume he means a coalition government formed by Livni] or one that does, and gets put in its place. Either way, it’s not so terrible.

The second source of hope is Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli peace activist who has long exhibited a wonderful combination of irrepressable, probably irrational optimism with righteous fury at his government. Ron Skolnik of Meretz USA tipped me off to the following, written by a few days after Obama’s inauguration,

Of all the beautiful phrases in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, these are the words that stuck in my mind: “You are on the wrong side of history.”

He was talking about the tyrannical regimes of the world. But we, too, should ponder these words

In the last few days I have heard a lot of declarations from Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. And every time, these eight words came back to haunt me: “You are on the wrong side of history!”

Obama was speaking as a man of the 21st century. Our leaders speak the language of the 19th century. They resemble the dinosaurs which once terrorized their neighborhood and were quite unaware of the fact that their time had already passed.

Between Israel and the United States a gap has opened this week, a narrow gap, almost invisible – but it may widen into an abyss….The Gaza War…has hastened the process of drifting apart. While the U.S. has made a giant jump to the left, Israel is about to jump even further to the right…

…Between the mental world of Obama and the mental world of Lieberman and Netanyahu there is no bridge. Between Obama and Barak and Livni, too, there yawns an abyss. Post-election Israel may find itself on a collision course with post-election America.

Where are the American Jews? The overwhelming majority of them voted for Obama. They will be between the hammer and the anvil – between their government and their natural adherence to Israel. It is reasonable to assume that this will exert pressure from below on the “leaders” of American Jewry, who have incidentally never been elected by anyone, and on organizations like AIPAC. The sturdy stick, on which Israeli leaders are used to lean in times of trouble, may prove to be a broken reed….

Yes, we are now on the wrong side of history.

Fortunately, there is also another Israel. It is not in the limelight, and its voice is heard only by those who listen for it. This is a sane, rational Israel, with its face to the future, to progress and peace. In these coming elections, its voice will barely be heard, because all the old parties are standing with their two feet squarely in the world of yesterday.

But what has happened in the United States will have a profound influence on what happens in Israel. The huge majority of Israelis know that we cannot exist without close ties with the US. Obama is now the leader of the world, and we live in this world. When he promises to work “aggressively” for peace between us and the Palestinians, that is a marching order for us.

We want to be on the right side of history. That will take months or years, but I am sure that we shall get there. The time to start is now.

10 thoughts on “Hope, somehow, after the Israeli elections

  1. Dan,

    I hate to burst your bubble, but I’m extremely sceptical about the existence of a “right side of history.” I don’t believe in the ontological linear Biblical history. History tends to be more cyclical.

    If Israel is in the 19th century it is only because it has taken the advice of foreign well-wishers and kibbitzers who told it to assimilate into the region. Most of the rest of the Middle East seems to be torn between the 7th century–the glories of the mythical golden age of Islam–and the interwar period of the 20th century. But ideologically in their thinking about the Jews they seem to be in the 1890s, in Russia, where the protocols were being crafted from a French forgery about the Masons.

    The 19th century is also an appropriate period for the Israeli left. After the abolitionist Liberty Party failed to make much headway in two elections it merged with splinters from the two main parties to form the Free Soil Party, much as Mapam merged with splinters from Labor (the CRM/Ratz)and Dash (Shinui)to form Meretz. The Free Soil Party only advanced its antislavery ideology by waiting for an opportune moment, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and merging with the remnants of Northern Whigs to form the Republican Party. The Republican Party elected a president in its second election try by running a centrist civilian candidate from a battleground state on a platform that combined the antislavery ideology of the Free Soilers with the protectionist economic policies of the Whigs and a wink and a nod to Know Nothing nativist ideology. Until now Labor has been following the losing strategy of the Whigs (or of the United Party in South Africa) of running generals exclusively on a national security platform. Mitzna was like Winfield Scott, the last Whig general to run in 1852. But simply because Labor has an endless supply of generals it keeps running them.

    Like the Ulster Unionist Party in N. Ireland Labor and Meretz are suffering a backlash for having supported what was perceived to have been a failed peace process. And like the United Party in South Africa, Labor suffers from an aging demographic base that is quickly dying off (it was slowly dying off a decade ago). So if the peace camp in Israel is smart it will copy the strategy of the Republicans, merge their two dying parties and maybe the dovish wing of Kadima, expand their platform with economic and social policies that appeal to those beyond the kibbutzim, moshavim and Mapamn. They will also have to find another Lincoln.

    Amir Peretz could have been that candidate in 2006, but he was caught offguard by the Second Lebanon War and didn’t have the time to learn strategy and tactics the way Lincoln did in 1861-62 by checking out books from the Library of Congress and questioning generals.

    The Republicans ran John C. Fremont, a popular Western explorer, entrepreneur, and war hero from the Mexican War as a sacrificial candidate in 1856. He did well enough to establish them as the opposition over the Know Nothings. Labor/Meretz needs the equivalent of a Fremont to run against Lieberman in the next election to reestablish the new center-left party as the opposition party. And an opposition can only be an opposition by being in opposition, not in a national-unity government. Britain had a national unity government during WWII but didn’t make a habit of it.

  2. Things are pretty bleak for you if you have to quote Uri Avnery as an authority to give you optimism. Who says HE knows “what the inevitable course of history” is? I recall all the old Leftists in the West who justified the regime of the USSR by saying “true, Stalin’s regime is tyrannical, corrupt and murderous, but we still have to support it because it is on ‘the right side of history'”. In the 19th century, everyone saw progress and democratization as the “inevitable” progress of history. Who could have predicted the bloodshed and genocide of the 20th century coming out of “civilized” Europe.

    Uri Avnery was among the very first Israelis to befriend Arafat. He told us that there would be peace if we just bring his to Judea/Samaria/Gaza, gave him money and weapons and then turned him loose. We, who opposed this said that he was a corrupt terrorist who ignited civil wars in TWO countries, Lebanon and Jordan. We were called by mainstream Israeli politicians like Rabin and Peres “extremists”, “warmongers” and the such. Sure enough, just as we predicted, Arafat set up a corrupt, failed state that unleashed a bloody suicide bomber war against Israel, after brainwashing his people with his government-controlled media into turning their Palestinian national movement into a diseased death cult.
    So did Avnery admit he was wrong. No, he said “we didn’t give Arafat enough. Had we, he would have made peace”. What do you do with such thickheadedness?

    Two important observations from the election. The Zionist Left-Labor and MERETZ parties, that foised the disastrous Oslo Agreements on Israel in 1993 had between them 56 seats at the time. Yesterday they won 16. They have been totally rejected by the Israeli electorate.

    Secondly, it is from these two parties that the primary agitation against the settlements in Judea/Samaria comes from. No. 7 on the MERETZ list was Talia Sasson who, while working in the Justice Ministry, worked assiduously for years to use legal harrassment tactics against the settlers. Putting her on the list did not draw any votes, as you can see (they got only 3). Thus, even for those Israelis who are prepared to give up most of the settlements, you can that they are not a major consideration.

  3. I also am not optimistic, even in the Gramsci sense.

    Netanyahu (and the settlement movement) have been highly successful at the strategy of incremental annexation, creating a fact on the ground.

    Israel Beitanyu haven’t been successful at anything, and I suspect that among its 15 top seats are included some very disreputable characters (if Lieberman could be considered a pragmatic moderate of the party, in contrast to ideological “purity”).

    My sense is that Likud is willing to form a coalition with Israel Beitanyu, thought the religious parties aren’t.

    From here, with Likud as the “center” (with slightly left of it in coalition – Kadima, and right of it), certain events in the future include expansion of existing settlements, initiation of new, incremental declared annexations, symbolic disrepsect of unwritten agreements regarding Islamic sites, continued suppression of Israeli Arabs.

    The only hope I see is in clarity. Likud is likely to formalize and make clear policies that are now left to administrative ambiguity. (Selective administration of building permits – more by bribery than ethnicity). Their will NOT be ambiguity as to limiting settlement activity, and status of occupied Palestinian jurisdictions are likely to be clear and even increase.

    But, they will NOT facilitate sovereignty. And, they will not accept any presence of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government, instead possibly permanently considering Gaza as an entirely separate jurisdiction from the West Bank.

    Likud prefers the letter of the law, so will not prohibit Arab Israeli citizens from equal access to the courts. Israel Beitanyu would.

  4. My optimism would be to invest in Israeli Green political organizing.

    In the states, starting in the mid-90’s, the green movement got eaten by the left. To beg an insulting reference, the green movement turned red.

    Many of natural conclusions that emerge from ecological logic are more socialistic economic democracy than capitalistic economic democracy (both left and conservatives use that term). But, the origination of green thinking is “all my relations”, a holistic approach that reflects the consistent meaning of the term “tikkun olam”.

    It recognizes the relevance of multiple social scales of identity (“we” as Witty family, “we” as the Jewish and other local community of my hometown, “we” as New England, “we” as humans and eco-souls on the planet, ALL of the scales).

    It regards “tribalism” as relevant, but not ONLY “tribalism”.

    In contrast, the left posits the square-plug/round-hole imposition of only considering the global scale and individual scale. Even anarchists when adopting “critical analysis” as their basis of forming conclusion and commitment prohibit their acceptance of “voluntary association” in the name of voluntary association.

    So, I worry that similar would occur (that green will shift to “rainbow”, the to red) to the Israeli green movement. Rather than become an ecological movement encouraging communal Zionism and communal Palestinianism in the context of combined ecological movement.

    But, the ecological is the peace movement. It is the movement of “loving the land” and “loving the people”, which contrasts starkly to every other political originated ideology.

  5. My optimism is that another election is going to be called withint two years. I don’t think this Knesset can do much but fail. It may still surprise me (but nothing really does).

  6. Joshua-
    You may be right, and if there is another election soon, the Left will gain because if there is a “right-wing” coalition, the Left always is able to accuse them of “selling Israel out to the Haredim”, even though the Left also includes Haredim in their coalitions, as well.
    In any event, even if this scenario plays out, what difference do you think it will make? The Left has been in power continuously since 1992, except for the period 1996-1999 (Netanyahu’s first government) and it we are further from peace then ever before with far more bloodshed and violence than existed before the Oslo Agreements (Sharon’s gov’t 2001-2006, although nominally a Likud gov’t, actually implemented all the policies of the “peace camp” including recognition of intention to create a Palestinian state, freezing and ultimately dismantling settlements and having the IDF unilaterally flee Gaza.)

  7. Sharon carried out all the policies the Left had only dreamed of before he came to power. It is important to note that Shimon Peres supported Sharon’s election (behind the scenes) in 2001 and 2003 and was the power behind the throne. All military operations carried out during the suicide bomber war had to be approved by him.
    What did Sharon do?
    (1) First Israeli PM to openly state that establishent of a Palestinian state was Israeli policy.
    (2) Agreed to George Mitchell’s definition of YESHA settlement building is comparable to Palestinian terrorism.
    (3) Agreed to freeze settlement building.
    (4) Destroyed Gush Katif settlements, something the Left never dreamed of doing (Mitzna proposed a much smaller version of this but never would have been in a position to carry it out had he been in power). He got 2/3 of the Likud Knesset members, including Netanyahu and others to support this blatant betrayal of everything the Likud ever stood for.
    (5) Sent Ehud Olmert to make infamous speech to MJ Rosenberg’s Israel Policy Forum saying that “Israel can’t fight any more”.
    (6) Broke up Likud party by forming Kadima, knocking Likud party down to unprecendent low of 12 seats.
    (7) Managed to get leadership of YESHA settlement movement and political leadership of the settlement movement in the Knesset to quietly agree to prevent any real opposition to the destruction of Gush Katif which went off very smoothly.
    (8) While it is true Sharon had his associate Dov Weisglas tell the settler leaders that “this would be the last time” and there would be no more withdrawals, Weisglas later admitted he was lying in order to get them to cooperate and that Olmert’s withdrawal plan presented in the 2006 election promising to destroy the settlements in Judea/Samaria outside the security fence (another 80,000 Jews to be expelled) was cooked up by Sharon and would have been implemented had he not had the stroke.

    Tell me, what Leftist leader could have dreamed of doing all this. Sharon was the greatest leader the “peace camp” ever had and this is why he is mourned to this day. No other leader could get the political Right to participate in its own destruction like that.

  8. Yitzhak,
    But you fail to mention all of the other things he did before the disengagement and the fact that he adamently refused to disengage in coordination with the PA so that Abbas instead of Hamas would get the credit. This is what the Left urged him to do. At best one can make an argument that Sharon was a Left leader in 2005 when he carried out the disengagement, but I think he was really a leader of the Right–Ehud Sprinzak placed him as a charter member of the Radical Right–who moved to the Center during his final year in office.

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