Israel’s fictional “drift to the right”

Just before the last Israeli general election in 2013, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian opined (wrongly) that Israeli voters seemed about to elect an intransigent, hard-right government. He argued (as did many others) that this was the near-inevitable outcome of the Israeli electorate’s propensity to move steadily rightwards over the years and that the process was accelerating, making the continuation of any vestiges of a peace process impossible. If Freedland had been writing around 1985 he might have had a point. Three decades on he doesn’t; the last five prime ministers (including Netanyahu) have all publicly expressed support for territorial compromise and a Palestinian state. There is a near wall-to-wall consensus from centre left to centre right that negotiations are urgently needed that will lead to the outcome of two states for two peoples.

Freedland’s misplaced liberal angst reminded me of the panic-stricken editorials in the UK and elsewhere that greeted the election of the “far right” Menachem Begin in 1977. Readers were regaled with alarmist predictions that war was about to engulf the region. It was all nonsense. When Sadat decided to be the first Arab leader to make peace, Israel withdrew from every last inch (and more) of the Sinai desert and uprooted thousands of settlers, taking an enormous security risk in the process. Since then, Israeli governments of all hues have bravely effected further withdrawals – from Lebanon, Gaza, and parts of the West Bank – in the face of opposition from large swathes of the Israeli public.

The point is that, whatever the results of the forthcoming election, the evidence suggests that Israel is actually becoming an increasingly left-wing country – whether defined in domestic-social or foreign policy terms – though outside observers (and even many Israelis) don’t realise it. This conclusion may seem counter-intuitive but the reality of Israel often defies the stereotypical myths that are so prevalent among the chattering classes.

Look at the trends of recent years: the mass street protests against social injustice, the political consensus on drafting Haredim into the army, the creation of a truly national health service, the gay parades in Tel Aviv and (unbelievably) Jerusalem, the persistently high taxes to fund extensive public services, the passage of new and progressive human rights legislation, the increasing aid to developing countries, the official recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, the growing religious-feminist movement, the widespread public acceptance of the ultimate creation of a Palestinian State, the total withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon, Gaza and large tracts of the West Bank, the dismantling of dozens of settlements and military bases from Sinai and Gaza, the forcible uprooting of militant settlers from West Bank outposts, the near-total eclipse of the Greater Israel movement despite the disappointments of the land-for-peace Oslo Accords, the banning of far right political parties such as Kach, and the recent upsurge of centrist political parties at the expense of the hard right and religious ones.

These ideological shifts would have been considered inconceivable in the 1980s. Even Netanyahu – derided by the left as an unreconstructed reactionary – has a record of dovish policies that would have warmed the heart of Yitzhak Rabin: three key ones were his implementation of the Wye Agreement, his total freezing of settlement activity for 10 months to try to kickstart negotiations, and his public recognition of the right of the Palestinians to achieve sovereignty, peacefully, alongside Israel.

I can’t think of any other country that, in such circumstances, has moved so far leftwards. The phenomenon started in the wake of the divisive and traumatic first Lebanon War when the public grew weary (and wary) of the nationalist rhetoric of Begin, Shamir and their henchmen  – though even those iconic figures of the right demonstrated a surprising willingness to compromise on many of their most cherished principles in pursuit of genuine peace.

What is even more remarkable about this seismic shifting the political landscape is that it occurred against a background of perpetual warfare, terrorism, demonisation, delegitimisation, and the rise to power of explicitly genocidal regimes in Iran and Gaza. There’s certainly nothing remotely comparable anywhere else in the Middle East. Look at what is happening to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Deeply reactionary forces, led by the antiSemitic, homophobic neo-Nazis of  radical Islamism, are on the rampage throughout the Middle East. In Syria, Assad Jnr continues the family tradition of mass murder, aided and abetted by the thugs of Iran’s proxy militia, Hezbollah. In the West Bank, a Hamas-infected Palestinian Authority celebrates terrorist martyrdom, incites hatred and violence against Israeli civilians, deems land sales to Jews a heinous crime, and demands that a future Palestinian state be Judenrein. Moreover, the PA continues to be dominated by the “moderate” Fatah that openly boasts of its role in the killing of innocent civilians (as long as they are Jews) and is led by a Holocaust denier who publicly rejects any Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem whatsoever.

Reality has nothing in common with the fictional caricature of Israel’s alleged long-term rightward drift and of her supposed responsibility for the moribund peace process with the Palestinians. So let’s bury this canard once and for all. Israel is not only not moving to the the political right but has been travelling in the opposite direction over several decades. Politicians of right, centre and left have been and will be elected to the Knesset in varying proportions in response to the specific issues that engage the electorate on polling day but the overall leftward shift in the political centre of gravity is there for all to see. Sadly, much of the commentary on the subject of Israeli politics emerges from the mouths of observers who, in their determination to remain comfortably wrapped in prejudiced certainties, prefer to keep their eyes firmly shut.

About the Author
Born Glasgow, UK. Worked as epidemiologist, Ben Gurion University, in 1980s. Served in IDF as medical officer 1983-1985. Returned to academe in UK but continued to visit Israel regularly. Currently advising faculty at the new medical school in the Galilee (Bar Ilan University). Affiliation: Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology, University of Glasgow, UK.