Disillusioned Leftists Reshaping Israeli Politics

Israel's political landscape shifting as more leftists rebuffing two-state model for resolving Palestinian issue
Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (GPO)
Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (GPO)

For more than two decades, the political discourse in Israel on the Palestinian issue has largely revolved around the two-state solution. The battle lines pitted (mostly) leftists who supported the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel against those who saw this as a recipe for future disaster. But things are about to change.

Repeated failures to secure a peace agreement and recurrent bouts of terrorism have produced growing skepticism and eroded Israelis’ faith in the two-state model. Although left-wing parties have largely clung to the two-state vision, successive election defeats have prompted some rethinking. This gradual process is now moving closer to redrawing the boundaries of the national conversation.

Israel is about to enter an era where the focus of the mainstream debate shifts. On one side of the divide will be those who wish to maintain control over the West Bank indefinitely or even expand it. This camp will increasingly encounter political rivals who — while arguing that Israel’s occupation should ultimately end or be scaled back — reject the two-state paradigm as unrealistic or undesirable.

Indications that the political landscape is shifting are mounting. In May, longtime Labor party lawmaker Eitan Cabel urged his colleagues to cast away their “delusions” of achieving a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Instead, he argued that Israel should annex Jewish settlement blocs and freeze construction beyond them in order to avert the creation of a binational state.

Cabel’s manifesto provoked a storm among Laborites and elicited some condemnations, but it soon became clear that he was not alone. The Labor party’s largest faction, comprising eight Knesset members, issued a statement eschewing the two-state vision and proposing a new program of unilateral Israeli moves, including the annexation of West Bank areas.

While some leftist politicians have in recent years cooled their public enthusiasm for the Palestinians, the two-state paradigm has not been so bluntly and widely rebuffed until now.

More recently, former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak lashed out at Netanyahu’s “one-state vision”, calling to “divorce” the Palestinians but to maintain Israel’s security control over the West Bank for the foreseeable future. Barak did not mention the two-state solution or present any outline for a viable peace deal.

Meanwhile, writer and commentator Gadi Taub — who describes himself as a leftist who moved to the center — has built an admiring fan base on social media, often creating a stir with his pointed criticism of left-wing support for the Palestinian cause. Taub objects to settlement expansion but mocks two-state hopes as naive, arguing that Israel “has no choice but to continue the occupation” due to Palestinian hostility and intransigence.

Lastly, a recently published book by Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz, titled “The War of Return,” argues that peace with the Palestinians is unattainable as long as their hopes of overrunning Israel with massive waves of Arab refugees are not crushed. Wilf — a former Labor party Knesset member and a secular Tel Avivian — epitomizes the traditional two-state supporter, but her message fiercely contests the peace vision advanced by leftist politicians since the 1990s.

A refashioned left-wing narrative will likely have a significant impact on Israel’s political scene, by appealing to wider constituencies and challenging right-wing dominance. Voters uneasy about Israel’s enduring West Bank rule but fed up with two-state slogans that lead nowhere will finally have a political address that is more closely tuned to their concerns.

But when will the swelling two-state skepticism reach the tipping point, given that the two-state vision is still deeply entrenched in some circles and endorsed by prominent leftists? One possibility is for a future Labor leader to prod the party onto a new path. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who is being eagerly courted by Labor as a potential savior, may fit the bill.

Another possibility would see a centrist party teaming up with disillusioned leftists to place a new program at the forefront of its campaign. Yair Lapid would be the natural candidate at this time, but he has thus far shied away from unveiling a clear alternative as his flagship project. Dwindling support in the polls and the realization that he is well-positioned to fill an electorally rewarding vacuum may ultimately push him in that direction.

Finally, a moderate right-wing leader could embrace the newly emerging left-wing doctrine, thereby preempting and benefitting from a potentially game-changing move. While this may seem unlikely, one should keep in mind that the Right has proven adept in the past at adjusting its policies to align with public opinion. Likud’s disengagement from Gaza is a case in point.

One way or another, it appears that the two-state era of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is about to come to an official and unceremonious end, at least for the time being. Future election campaigns will likely offer voters other options for tackling the hitherto unresolved Palestinian question.

About the Author
Yigal Walt is a political researcher and former news editor.
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