Israel’s politics are often misconstrued. “Left” and “Right” don’t mean what you think they do, and the Center is much stronger than usually given credit; it includes figures you’d never expect, and helps keep Israel safe and sane. We know the sky isn’t falling, that we are not an apartheid society, and that our future as the nation-state of the Jewish people is bright. Let’s define – and support – the moderate Centrists.
This past week Israel was attacked on multiple fronts, rhetorically. Peter Beinart penned a piece (two in fact) calling for an end to Israel as the nation-state of the people of Israel; Michael Sfard issued a new manifesto hijacking international law to serve his anti-’occupation’ agenda, declaring Israel’s presence in the disputed territories of Judea & Samaria (the ‘west bank’ of the Jordan river)* to be an “apartheid regime” – and suggesting that Israel’s very existence is itself apartheid. And a leader of the American Reform movement used fancy alliteration to accuse Israel’s elected prime minister (and by extension, the entire government of Israel) of “colonialism, conspiracy and corruption”.
Many writers more articulate than I have addressed these screeds, effectively and definitively. (For instance, see this hard-hitting and accurate response to Beinart by a left-of-center Zionist and Conservative rabbi and Israeli, Daniel Gordis, this rebuttal by right-of-center David Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, and this strong rejoinder by Shmuel Rosner.) And I’ve addressed many of Sfard’s mendacities in a Facebook exchange with my friend and perpetual intellectual opponent Gershon.
But in the context of these twisted attempts to defame and delegitimize Israel, it’s clear there is a tremendous misunderstanding among American Jews (and perhaps Americans altogether, not to mention Europeans and others) regarding some of the most important issues facing Israel today. Too few recognize that – election season(s) notwithstanding – there is much more upon which Israelis agree than disagree. The vast majority of Israelis can be defined as Centrist, or moderate (something perhaps hard to accept given the media’s penchant for reporting on that which divides us, and for providing a platform for the more extreme voices among us).
I engaged in a detailed exchange about this topic on an email list which includes a number of activists on the hard Right and radical Left of the American Jewish community. In discussing Beinart’s article, and Sfard’s accusation of ‘apartheid’, as well as Israel’s moves towards applying sovereignty in the Jordan valley and over large blocs of Israeli communities in Judea & Samara, I insisted that there is a consensus among Israelis often not understood by Americans and others (Jewish or otherwise, and even by those considered ‘experts’ on Israeli society and politics, and even our friends).
I was challenged to elucidate, and the below forms the crux of my argument.
But first, let’s qualify our terms. In the US and many other countries, on economics or political issues “Right” means conservative and “Left” suggests liberal; Right-wing parties and politicians promote individual liberties and Left-wingers pursue socialist economics and social justice issues. But Israel is less black-and-white. In Israel, a progressive but traditionalist society marries a socialist history with the Start-Up Nation’s competitive and innovative business sector, and blends one of the most progressive cultures in the West with a respect for history and custom. Israel is driven by a capitalist, entrepreneurial philosophy championing personal freedom yet provides cradle-to-grave benefits rivaled only by a few Scandinavian countries – all based on themes from ancient Jewish wisdom.
So “Left” and “Right” mean only one thing in the Israeli context: where you stand on relinquishing territory in the Land of Israel, particular regarding the territories of Judea & Samaria (the mountainous regions overlooking the coastal plain) and the Jordan Valley, liberated from Jordan’s 19-year illegal occupation (1949-1967) in Israel’s 6-Day War of defense of June 1967.
Radical Leftists promote immediate and unilateral, unconditional withdrawal from what they term “occupied” territories (misrepresenting the Geneva Convention of 1949); the less extreme Left supports a negotiated withdrawal from most of these disputed territories. Both support – with more or less enthusiasm – the idea of the establishment of a “Palestinian” state in those territories.
Extreme Rightists claim all of the biblical Land of Israel and historical Mandatory Palestine as Israel’s patrimony, based on various international legal instruments like the San Remo treaty, and reject any notion of an Israeli withdrawal; they dismiss a “Palestinian” identity separate from wider Arab nationalism, oppose vigorously the idea of a Palestinian state, and would like to see most Arabs who identify as Palestinian move to neighboring Arab states. The less radical Right grudgingly acknowledges a “Palestinian” movement but insists this can be accommodated within existing nation-states in the region, promoting various forms of autonomy, and focuses on Israel’s security needs and the belligerence of the Arab and Palestinian leadership, noting the unlikelihood of any real peace possibilities in the near future.
The middle ground – incorporating various aspects of the more restrained concepts of both the Right and Left in Israel – is actually the ‘high ground’ held by a majority of Israelis, proven in polls and at the ballot box over the past few decades. This is what I call the moderate Center in Israel, and it is far more powerful, and widespread, than most people realize – not least as it doesn’t get the headlines with pithy media phrases like “Peace Now” and “Annexation”, or “Destroy the terrorists” and “Disengagement” and the like. Ironically but significantly, every government and prime minister of Israel, with perhaps the exception of Ehud Barak in 1999-2000, has followed the policy lines of this centrist trend – even ‘Leftists’ like Shimon Peres (who used conservative economic policies to save Israel’s economy in the ‘80s) and ‘Rightists’ like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon (who were the only Israeli prime ministers to withdraw from territories with Israeli civilian communities living in them).
Where is the ‘Center’ marked? For English speakers’ reference, Rabbi Daniel Gordis is right there, as are journalists/commentators like Yossi Klein Halevi and Haviv Rettig Gur, and historian Gil Troy; former minister and human rights activist Natan Sharansky and former Labor party MK Einat Wilf; and many of the politicians and thinkers and supporters of Blue & White (Benny Gantz, and Moshe Yaalon, less so Lapid’s Yesh Atid), Likud (which has also right-wingers of course in it), and Labor (which has also left-wingers, mostly in fact, of course).
But forget the political parties and labels: read anything by Amotz Asa El (he writes a column in the JPost called “Middle Israel”)… or for that matter anything I write. 🙂 There are Centrists in almost every Israeli political party and movement, except the hard Left and the hard Right, both of which are peripheral in Israeli society though they receive substantial press coverage. Even most of the 1.4 million Arab Israelis, some 20% of Israel’s population, can be included, perhaps ironically, in this category (though for historical, social, religious and cultural reasons many of them unfortunately vote for the most radical, anti-Israel, antisemitic and belligerent politicians to represent their sector in the Knesset). This is clear from both their behavior and polling data.
Bibi Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion, and the aforementioned Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, were and are all “Centrists” in this sense. (Their opponents, including/especially in the media, would have you believe they are war-mongers or socialists/communists, fascists or bleeding-heart liberals. You might be surprised to know that Bibi has used Peres’ “New Middle East” rhetoric, and Rabin frequently reflected Sharon’s “break their bones” hard-line security approach.)
But what do we mean in terms of policy? Israel’s Center is characterized by a pragmatic and moderate approach to the challenges the country faces, based on a commitment to (and expression of) the legitimacy of Israel’s founding as the nation-state of the people of Israel in our ancestral homeland. It includes:
- Reaching out, sincerely, in peace to our neighbors and declared enemies, for over 100 years now, and making concessions in the name of peace;
- Defending the people of Israel (in and beyond our borders, including our non-Jewish citizens and non-citizen Jews), both militarily and in the sphere of public discourse;
- Promoting a social-capitalist economic structure, with free competition and one of the most extensive and effective social/healthcare/economic support systems in the West;
- Ensuring a free society with a free press, independent judiciary, and active legislature;
- Supporting a traditional identity based on normative Judaism in the public sphere but ensuring complete freedom of religion (for Jews and all others) on the private level;
- Pursuing the most pervasive set of human and personal rights frameworks in the Western world, including gay rights, women’s rights and equality, minority rights and more;
- Attempting to give those Arabs who identify as “Palestinian” in the disputed territories – most of whom are governed by the Palestinian Authority – as much freedom as possible (economic, movement, speech, religion, etc.) but ensuring that those who wish to harm Israelis are not allowed or enabled (or encouraged) to do so;
- Agreeing on some of the most pressing issues of the day, like
o preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability at ANY cost (including potential military confrontation involving massive civilian casualties on both sides),
o making sure Hamas and Hezbollah know they cannot lob rockets or attack Israelis with impunity (by defensive military operations),
o promoting greater Jewish pluralism in Israeli society (liberal streams),
o reducing casualties on our roads,
o promoting the economic, cultural and social advancement of the Arab and Bedoin population;
o preventing police aggression against Israelis from Ethiopia;
o ending violence in Arab society;
o finding reasonable and fair solutions for the illegal economic migrants from Africa,
o promoting Israel’s economic miracle further by supporting high tech and reducing red tape for entrepreneurs, and
o stopping brutality against women.
As for the immediate issues of prime minister Netanyahu’s legal issues, Corona, and sovereignty, there is more consensus here as well, if only one looks past the headlines (and headline-seeking statements of politicians here in Israel and in America and Europe).
Most Israelis recognize that one can and must separate Bibi’s legal challenges from policy issues. Shrill voices declare not only that the prime minister is a criminal, and that his legal issues affect his policy-making and decisions, but that his policies are geared to distracting from or otherwise delaying or ending his legal challenges. Centrist Israelis disagree (though my friend Amotz Asa El is an exception on this topic), and maintain that just as I manage to run my business, write my new book, relate to my family and friends, help run two non-profits on whose boards I sit, do public events and talks etc., even while dealing with many other challenges including occasionally legal battles (and write op-ed articles)… Bibi can also juggle his various responsibilities while having his day in court.
Moreover, given the consistency of many of his policies, it’s clear to most Israelis that both the policy issue of applying sovereignty, and the handling of Corona, are not affected by Bibi’s legal challenges (and not least because many, like Bibi, maintain that these legal issues are largely unjustified and probably will not lead to conviction).
That having been said, Corona is being handled by a “Corona Cabinet” including Benny Gantz (Netanyahu’s erstwhile opponent but also partner in the government) and other political leaders. Like many countries (and US states), Israel is trying to find a way to balance public safety and economic challenges, and making many good decisions and many mistakes. So first, it ain’t all Bibi; and second, it ain’t all clear. Those who’d have you believe the PM is ‘using’ Corona to distract from his legal woes are themselves using Corona as just another blunt instrument with which to bash Bibi.
Corona is too new and too complex for simply political answers, but most Centrist Israelis – ie. a majority, as reflected in polls and also in the Knesset – support what our health ministry is doing, and the government’s efforts, and are as frustrated and afraid and confused as anyone else on the planet. We’re all just muddling through, aren’t we? We’re a relatively disciplined bunch, in fact (in spite of our culture of chutzpah and bending the rules); we’re used to being kept indoors for weeks at a time when Hezbollah and Hamas attack us with missile barrages, and with one of the highest “happiness” ratings on the planet, we have a perhaps undeserved faith in our government and the IDF to manage crises (and we pull together, as family or tribe, in times of emergency).
Regarding the issue of extending sovereignty to some areas of Judea & Samaria/the ‘west bank’, it’s so much simpler than the radical activists and their media boosters would have you believe. For years now – since before Oslo in fact – a large majority of Israelis has supported retaining control of, that is, applying Israeli sovereignty to, various parts of Judea & Samaria, in particular the populated areas near Jerusalem and the center/Tel Aviv region (Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, and the Ariel area). Moreover, an even larger majority is committed to retaining the Jordan valley, for security purposes (as a buffer against land attacks coming via Jordan from Iraq, Iran, Syria etc.); and an overwhelming majority staunchly champions retaining all the southern, eastern and northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem. This has been a theme of virtually all public and private discussion of any proposed peace agreement with the Arab countries and the “Palestinian” leadership since, or in fact before, the founding of the State, and certainly the past fifty years.
That’s over FIFTY YEARS of consistent public opinion and widely-accepted policy prescription – virtually unheard of in any democracy. Let that sink in. Truth is, Israeli and American politicians have spoken about this publicly for decades. So the issue is when to pursue this, and whether to do so unilaterally or not. That’s been the question these past few years.
Today it’s clear there is a majority of Israelis supporting the application of Israeli sovereignty to at least part of the territories. As so often, it depends on the way a poll question is composed. When asked “do you support annexation of Palestinian [sic] lands”, a slight majority of Israelis says no – which of course Haaretz and the NY Times report with great fanfare. When asked about Israel retaining control over the Jordan valley, or Jerusalem neighborhoods over the green line, or the larger ‘blocs’ of Israeli communities in the territories, much larger majorities unfailingly say yes. When asked “do you support applying sovereignty over some” or “part” of the territories, a strong majority says yes. See here for instance, recently. (Which is one reason this writer uses the term “sovereignty” rather than “annexation”. Of course reasonable people can and do disagree regarding the policy; but the term “annexation” explicitly refers to arrogating to oneself territories of another nation, to which one has no claim. Like the Geneva Convention, that simply doesn’t apply here.)
Then the question thus becomes whether the time is now to act on sovereignty issues, and whether waiting for some sort of agreement, or acting unilaterally, is preferred. It’s pretty clear (from election results and polling) that most Israelis realize we have no partner for real peace, and given the consensus on the issue of sovereignty, we moderate Centrists agree we might as well use Gandhi’s approach (my language, not other Centrists, but it fits) and move ahead with the ‘True’ (ie. moral, reasonable, just, fair) solution if we have the ability to do so, in spite of our antagonists’ non-cooperation. Unilaterally if necessary, though not the preferred approach.
(But in fact, it’s not exactly “unilateral” if it enjoys the support – tacit or explicit – of the US and some other nations, including some Arab/Gulf/Muslim countries or leaders.)
And that addresses the “when” of course. Nothing to do with current politics in Israel (Gantz etc.) nor with Bibi’s trial(s) nor with Corona: moderate Israelis are tired of waiting for some Arab or “Palestinian” Arab leader to come forward and deign to accept our legitimacy and right to live in peace, so the unilateral approach has become more popular over the past decades – really, since Arafat started his War Against Peace as I call it, in 2000, killing whatever was left of the Oslo process. And so when the US presented its (reasonable, moral, just, and unconventional) plan for a new approach to creating real peace here – including a state for the “Palestinians” and real coexistence with all the Arab/Muslim world – Centrist Israelis, who are not infected with the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” suffered by most American liberals and American Jews, saw it for the opportunity it is.
I won’t apologize for the dig at the American Jewish majority antipathy towards president Trump. Note that most Israelis don’t follow US politics, and aren’t too concerned with the issues most American Jews hold dear, from abortion to immigration rights to the US health system and economy or race relations, so the fact that a somewhat whacky – or even immoral – US president is willing to break with decades of proven stupid and ineffective US policy vis a vis the Arab-Israel conflict is simply welcomed by most Israelis. There is no “anyone but Trump” over here, and Israelis viewing America’s foreign policy appreciate this administration’s leadership of the free world in its struggle against violent and totalitarian Islamist regimes, at which Israel is at the forefront.
So yes, Centrist Israelis agree: now is indeed the time (like the US recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – duh – which all US presidential candidates promised to do for decades). There were those (Jews and others) who said in 1948 “now’s not the time” to declare independence, or in various years “now’s not the time to set up a new Jewish town” (in Tel Aviv or Rosh Pina, Zichron Yaakov or Maale Adumim, on either side of the ‘green line’). All the major Israeli political parties support partial application of sovereignty; not just Benny Gantz’s Blue & White (a member of the government) but even Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Most Israelis, and especially the moderate centrists, dismiss the threats of Arab or Muslim, European or American liberal ‘backlash’. “Just do it” may not be a particularly Jewish theme, but it’s become Israeli, for sure, whether about applying sovereignty to parts of the territories or our defensive military operations.
As for Peter Beinart and his attack on Israel, I can only say that it’s hard to take seriously. He knows very well that those Arabs living under the Palestinian Authority have the ‘right to vote’ and live in their own political society, separate from Israel. Unfortunately they’ve voted in dictatorial and terrorist leaders, and they suffer gravely under the tyrannical regimes of Fatah and Hamas. But for Beinart to suggest that Israel “denies Palestinians citizenship, due process, freedom of movement and the right to vote in the country in which they live” is absurd to the point of comedy. True, Israel controls external border crossings and airspace, but seriously? There is virtually unlimited freedom of movement across the territories, and an extensive legal framework – complex as it is – allows the Arabs to find redress for grievances, and run their own affairs, both under the PA regime and in Area C with Israel’s Civil Administration. And let’s remember also all the rights the Arabs do have – under the Civil Administration and under the PA – were in fact put in place by those nefarious Jews/Israelis: ie. any notions of freedom of the press or religion or expression, of women’s rights or minority rights or the like, came from Israel’s administration of the territories from 1967-1997. Moderate Arabs and Palestinians acknowledge this (at least in private; these days they fear for their safety), even while they strive for independence.
And of course the fact the Palestinians have no state is due to their refusing to accept one every time it’s been offered, for almost 100 years. Israel only ‘denies’ them the ability to murder us and destroy our country. Palestinians don’t want Israeli ‘citizenship’ as per Beinart; were Israel to declare sovereignty over territories where Arabs live of course Israel would make them citizens. It’s such a red-herring; Israel declaring that all the territories are Israel’s and that Palestinians are citizens is rejected by them and all their supporters, as it has been since ‘67.
Israel has been, for at least 30 years, the biggest champion of a Palestinian State on the planet. In repeated polls, even after decades of Arab violence following the signing of the Oslo accords, 65-70% of Israelis still supported the idea of a “Palestnian” state, so wedded were we to the ideal and dream of living in peace with our neighbors. Due to Arab belligerence, hatred, rejection of Israel’s very legitimacy, that state seems further away than ever. But Beinart, instead of learning from history and having any sense of international law or justice, let alone moral compass, turns to propaganda and catchy turns of phrase rather than the most logical, moral conclusion. He says Liberal Jews must now turn their backs on the idea of the national identity and national liberation movement of the Jewish people – the people of Israel – ie. Zionism, and instead accept the idea of a dual-identity or no-identity state to replace Israel.
(Actually, even if one agrees with his basic concept that there must be another Arab state in the region – about which reasonable people may disagree – one would at least come to the natural conclusion that a “Palestine” might be able exist on that 70% of the original “Mandate for Palestine”, across the Jordan river, where there’s a territory called Jordan in which more than 70% of the population is “Palestinian”. If one feels the need to provide expression for that ‘national’ identity….)
There’s one last obvious point to be made. Beinart suggests that Israel is already “one country with millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights”. That’s the biggest canard of all (on a par with the “apartheid” fiction). Basic rights? Like, say some of those I described above, introduced to “Palestinian” society by Israel. Or others, like the right to food security, or health services, or education? (Israel established five universities in the territories where there had been none.) I don’t need to belabor the point, Palestinian society benefited tremendously from the supposedly reprehensible presence of western, modern, moral Israel from 1967-1997, as GDP and life expectancy and women in the workforce grew incredibly while infant mortality, illiteracy, honor killings, forced marriages and the like declined precipitously. The only ‘right’ they have not (yet) achieved is political independence, which in fact is not at all a “right” in international law or modern politics but rather a privilege – ask the Basques and Catalans, Tibetans and Kurds, Scots and Quebecois….
It’s precisely these sorts of smears about Israel as a society (as opposed to specific policy disagreements) which are responsible for the “alienation” of so many American Jews, especially the youth, lamented by the same writers who vilify Israel at every turn. And similarly, for the turn against Israel on the progressive side of the American political spectrum and the Democratic party, let alone in intellectual circles and academia, and among church leaders and the top European political echelon.
Bottom line: Don’t believe everything (or most things) you read/hear/see in today’s media. As Mark Twain is purported to have said: If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.
The bare truth, for those willing to admit it, is that all the preceding sentiments are shared across the center of the Israeli political spectrum. The differences that exist among the silent majority of Israelis are a matter of degree or focus. At base, Israelis are prepared to ‘manage the conflict’, and to promote Israel’s interests whether territorial, military, economic or political, living up to our very high standards and Jewish values of protecting life (ours and our enemies’) and promoting public welfare (ours and that of all others under our jurisdiction).
These American Jewish community ‘leaders’ and commentators who focus entirely on their hyper-critical and warped view of Israel, our history and the reality on the ground here can do their chicken-little virtue signaling all they want. We know the sky isn’t falling, that we are not an apartheid society, and that our future as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the people of Israel, here in the land of Israel, is bright.
And since we’ve returned to Beinart and ‘rights’, let’s end with a great quote from Jonathan Spyer:
Apropos the latest Beinart silliness, one should remember that the socially progressive elements of Israel (the separation of powers, democracy, gay rights etc), are here and remain here and are dependent on the power structures created by Jewish nationalism and Zionism in modernity. The notion that one can get rid of the latter and retain the former belongs in the class of propositions too ridiculous even to debate. If you want an example of a Levantine country essentially societally indistinguishable from Israel, except that it has not been the site for Jewish national revival and return in modernity, there is such a country. It is Syria.
The writer is the author of My Israel Trail (myisraeltrail.com) and the chief strategy officer of EnergiyaGlobal, a Jerusalem-based renewable energy platform for Africa. He was a senior adviser to Natan Sharansky in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Yisrael B’Aliyah party, and the founder and director of MediaCentral (m-central.org), a Jerusalem project of HonestReporting.
* “Judea and Samaria” are the proper historical, geographical and cartographical terms for the original heartland of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. The word “Jew” comes from “JUdea”, just as “Arab” comes from “Arabia”. The newly-established kingdom of Jordan (granted independence by Great Britain in 1946 against the terms of the Mandate for Palestine given it from the League of Nations and continued by the United Nations) illegally and belligerently occupied the territory in 1949 following their war of aggression against the newly-established (and internationally-recognized) Jewish state of Israel. Jordan attempted to annex the territory – to which it had no prior claim, historical or legal (or political or moral) – and its attempt was never recognized by any western or Arab or Muslim nation (other than Great Britain and Pakistan, for their own reasons). In its efforts to fabricate a link to the areas, it introduced the term “west bank” of the Jordan river to suggest a connection between its original territory – the “east bank” of the Jordan, hence the emirate’s pre-independence name “Trans-Jordan” – which then was adopted by many others, especially those opposed to Israel’s assertion of its original claims to the region. This author uses the historical terms “Judea and Samaria”, along with “disputed territories” and “west bank of the Jordan river”, with no intention of political overtones, but as part of the effort to encourage accuracy in terminology in public discourse about these issues.