Shaul Magid and the collapse of Israel’s left

Instead of attacking the right and throwing up its hands, the left should focus its energies on articulating a new path forward

In two recent essays on The Times of Israel, Professor Shaul Magid examines the status of right-left relations regarding Israel. In the first essay, “Peace Partners: A question for the ‘pragmatic’ right,” he divides the right and left into two broad camps: the “ideological” and the “pragmatic.” The ideological left, says Magid, is uncomfortable, if not outright hostile, to the idea of Israel as a Jewish-democracy, because in order for a democracy to be a true democracy it cannot have any ethno-religious character. In stark contrast, Magid’s ideological right consists of messianic religious settlers and hard-line Jabotinsky Revisionists opposed to any accommodation with the Palestinians that involves conceding an inch of the biblical Jewish homeland.

The more moderate voices on the left and the right are described as “pragmatic.” According to Magid, the pragmatic left is embodied by organizations like J Street and individuals like Peter Beinart. They are Zionists, he says, who feel a strong connection to Israel. At the same time, they are deeply troubled by, among other things, the rightward drift of Israeli politics, the expansion of Israeli settlements, the increasing power of religious parties, and the lack of progress in making peace with the Palestinians. What’s more, Magid argues that the pragmatic left is not only willing, but believes it necessary to publicly criticize and even condemn Israel over these concerns. Beinart, for example, has advocated a so-called “Zionist boycott” of Israeli settlements. Magid identifies himself as straddling the ideological and pragmatic left: a remarkable admission that, on some level, he questions whether Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.

The pragmatic right, says Magid, consists of individuals and organizations such as Abraham Foxman of the ADL, and AIPAC, who in principle agree with the creation of a Palestinian state, but who proceed with extreme caution, requiring guarantees for Israeli security. Pragmatic rightists are not motivated by theology or an extreme ideology of an expansive “Greater Israel,” but are rather concerned with anti-Semitism and security, and are haunted by the memory of the Holocaust, especially when they make decisions that could endanger Jewish lives. Magid identifies Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for a “responsible peace-process” as perhaps the quintessential pragmatic-rightist attitude, because it “enables an ostensible commitment to peace while maintaining unilateral control over the conditions of negotiating that peace.” Given the blood spilled since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, it is unclear why Magid should have any objection to the use of the word “responsible” when approaching the peace process. What would Magid prefer, an irresponsible peace process?

Pick a category, any category

It should be immediately obvious that Magid’s categories are insufficient, if not arbitrary. Let’s consider settlers in the West Bank. Many have moved to so-called “settlements” such as Gilo or Ma’aleh Adumim, which are suburban outgrowths of Jerusalem, places which honest analysts (perhaps even Magid, if he stepped out of his ideological rigidity) would concede are going to remain part of Israel in any two-state solution. And then there are ardent settlers who, with theological fervor, insist on living in the most controversial areas of the West Bank. Perhaps Magid would consider a further category: ideological settlers and pragmatic settlers. It is easy to see how quickly his categories break apart under scrutiny.

Professor Shaul Magid (photo credit: courtesy Indiana University)
Professor Shaul Magid (photo credit: courtesy Indiana University)

Similarly, who exactly are Magid’s Jabotinsky Revionsists, those secular nationalists who believe in a “Greater Israel” that would extend to not only the West Bank but also the East Bank, which is currently part of Jordan? Magid does not tell us, perhaps because their scarcity or irrelevance on Israel’s national stage cuts against his clever categories. After all, if any major Israeli politician could properly be called a Jabotinskyite Revisionist, it would be Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu’s father was a secretary to Jabotinsky, and the Likud party, which the younger Netanyahu now leads, claims to be the heir to Jabotinsky’s legacy. However, Magid identifies Prime Minister Netanyahu as perhaps the leading exponent of his pragmatic right. Even Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s most prominent far-right politician, has been open to the idea of a Palestinian state, making him at least rhetorically at odds with Magid’s ideological right.

For a variety of reasons, I am going to sidestep Magid’s characterizations of the ideological left. Suffice it say, I think there are deep problems with his description of them as moralists who are opposed to nationalism of any kind. The world, after all, is divided into nationalities, including numerous Arab nationalities, which persecuted and effectively expelled their Jewish populations after Israel’s creation. To ignore that fact and insist that of all the countries in the world, only Israel must give up its ethno-religious character, notwithstanding the political and religious rights that exist for Israel’s minority populations, is not moral at all. It is a mean-spirited, disingenuous singling out of Israel for attack. It is nasty political rhetoric cloaked in the language of high principle. For example, I have not heard many on Magid’s ideological left call for the Queen to give up her role as head of the Church of England, or complain that the Greek prime minister takes an oath before the head of the Church of Greece before taking office.

But more on that some other day.

In fairness to Magid, he admits that his categories are “far too neat to contain the multifaceted attitudes of all parties involved.” That admission, of course, is meant to defang criticism that he has created arbitrary categories. But admitting a mistake does not excuse it. To a large extent, Professor Magid creats “straw men,” admits as much, but then asks us to excuse this ideological sleight of hand by agreeing with him that Israel’s “pragmatically” right-wing leaders are leading it astray.

Magid argues that so-called pragmatic rightists are mistakenly guided by two overarching maxims: 1) Israel has no partner for peace; and 2) only the right can make peace. He somewhat bizarrely suggests that the first maxim, “Israel has no partner for peace,” is rooted in historical events that occurred in the 1960s. Shortly after the 1967 war, the Arab League famously declared its “three no’s” vis-à-vis its relationship with Israel: 1) no negotiation; 2) no recognition; 3) no peace. Magid believes that the pragmatic right developed this first maxim, “Israel has no partner for peace,” in response to this type of Arab rejectionism. He accuses the pragmatic right of ignoring such seemingly positive developments as the Arab Peace Initiative, which at least rhetorically undid the famous “three no’s” and left open the possibility of region-wide negotiations with Israel.

As to the second maxim, “only the right can bring peace:” Magid suggests that the rightist parties that lead Israel’s government are hypocritical because they are not taking steps that would actually promote peace, such as halting settlement construction or responding to various proposals from the Palestinians. In addition, he argues, it is hypocritical for the Israeli right to claim that only they can bring peace, with their security-based skepticism, and expect the Palestinians to offer up negotiators who will not drive equally hard bargains.

In challenging these maxims, Magid argues, in essence, that the pragmatic right should take seriously the arguments of the pragmatic left, i.e., those identified by Magid as Zionists who perceive deep flaws in Israel and are willing to say so publicly. Magid challenges the pragmatic right to get beyond the “politics of suspicion,” stop assuming that pragmatic leftists dislike Israel, and instead give their critiques serious consideration. Thus, in attacking the pragmatic right, and suggesting its two operating “maxims” are unworkable, Magid would like to carve a necessary role for the pragmatic left.

The failure of the left

The desire for a renewed and reinvigorated leftism comes through most clearly in his second essay, “What if the left abandoned Israel?” Here Magid suggests that “but for” left wing critics (such as himself) Israel would have fallen, and may still fall, deeper into increasingly extreme right-wing hands. He argues that yesterday’s far-right positions are today’s widely accepted views. What of tomorrow? Magid’s implication is that without critical leftist voices, Israel is in danger of turning into a theocratic dictatorship possessed by an apocalyptic ideology of confrontation with the Arab world. In the process, young Jews of the Diaspora, who already feel alienated by Israel’s rightward drift, will feel further distance, creating a decisive schism within the Jewish community. In other words, Magid, from the front lines of his office at the University of Indiana, is saving Israel from its own worst instincts.

But here is a question Magid never answers: what is the left’s political program? Unilateral withdrawal to indefensible armistice lines? Renouncing Israel’s Jewish character? Leftist writers such as Magid have become experts at attacking the right, but they have been far hazier in articulating just how they would move the cause of peace forward. Nor do they entertain the possibility, at least in the interim, that a comprehensive settlement may not be possible. Sometimes they advocate a freeze on settlement construction as a way to “move the process forward.” However, Prime Minister Netanyahu enacted such a freeze in response to calls from President Obama. It lasted approximately nine months and did not lead to any serious or meaningful progress in negotiations. Notwithstanding Peter Beinart’s call, no major Israeli politician, left or right, supports any type of boycott on West Bank settlements. In addition, Ehud Barak, the leftist Israeli leader who offered the Palestinians their own state, including a capital in part of Jerusalem, currently sits as the number two man in Netanyahu’s so-called pragmatic rightist government.

Netanyahu and Barak (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Netanyahu and Barak (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

With the recent coalition deal between Likud and the former opposition party Kadima, the current Israeli government has broader support than any other in a generation, if not longer. The political consensus in Israel is that so long as the Palestinian leadership is split between Fatah and Hamas, peace negotiations must be approached slowly, skeptically, and yes, responsibly. This consensus is informed by the actual experience of Israelis living in Israel since the days of Oslo, and the sharp increase in violence coming from the territories since that time. There is similar consensus that Israel’s biggest strategic threat comes from Iran. This is another reason why Israel’s current government enjoys so much popular support: it has made stopping the Iranian nuclear program its number one foreign policy priority. J-Street and Peter Beinart may be popular in certain American circles, but their Israeli equivalents are outside an immensely broad and stable national consensus.

In other words, when Israel’s government enjoys the support of 94 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition made up of centrist parties, rightist parties, religious parties, secular parties and a few prominent leftist or formerly leftist politicians like Barak, it is hard to argue that Israel is in the grips of an extreme right wing takeover. That is fantasy and caricature that does not comport with reality.

Which brings us, finally, to reality. In truth, many of the positions advocated by Magid, Beinart, and J-Street were tried. They were tried and they failed. This failure leads to the most startling omission in either of Magid’s essays. Somewhat shockingly, he makes no mention of the Oslo Peace Accords and their attendant inability to achieve any of their stated goals. On a certain level, Magid’s essays pine for the days when leftists like him were still relevant and taken seriously within the mainstream of Israeli politics. To a large extent, at least as it relates to the failures of peace process, they no longer are.

To demonstrate this point, think back to the early nineties, when Yossi Beilin and the leftist Meretz party played major roles in shaping Israeli policy. These left wing thinkers and politicians engineered the Oslo accords and the entire “peace process.” In truth, the Meretz party is probably the closest (although certainly not exact) Israeli equivalent to what Beinart and Magid represent. In Israel, the Meretz party is a shadow of its former self, with only three seats in the current Kensset. Similarly, the Labor party, somewhat more centrist but still by and of the left, which at one time was the leading Zionist party in Israel, the “natural party of government,” the party which (along with its predecessors) ruled Israel for decades, is now only the fifth largest party in the Knesset and the leader of a tiny opposition bloc.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon were the beneficiaries of the collapse of Israel’s left, but they were not its cause. The left collapsed with the second intifada, after Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Israeli left and the heir to Yitzchak Rabin’s legacy, offered the Palestinians almost all of what they said they wanted, only to have that offer answered with war. Similarly, toward the end of Bush’s term in office, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more comprehensive peace proposal, which would not only have created a Palestinian state, it would have placed holy sites in Jerusalem under international control.

That offer, too, was rejected.

Time for a new plan

Given that, we must reconsider Magid’s two maxims of the so-called pragmatic right. First, “Israel has no partner for peace.” Maybe so. But if that’s true, it’s not, as Magid suggests, because of the “three no’s” offered by the Arab league in the sixties. It’s because of the Big NO that came from Arafat at the end of the Oslo accords. And the Big NO that came from Abbas in response to Olmert’s offer. It’s because Hamas rules half of the Palestinians, and Fatah cannot negotiate a permanent deal. Second, “only the right can bring peace.” Well, how did the left do when it was their turn did they deliver? When Magid’s ideological compatriots had major influence on Israeli policy, the results were not encouraging.

The two no's. Mahmoud Abbas waves to supporters on the sixth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
The two no's. Mahmoud Abbas waves to supporters on the sixth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Having said this, Magid and I agree on at least one point: Israel needs and deserves a vibrant left wing. Democracies require debate to keep them healthy, to move them forward. Israel needs no less. I believe that the Labor-Zionist tradition of Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Dayan, Rabin and others still has much to offer Israel and the world. But as of now, the left is only offering criticism of the right, without a viable program of its own. At the same time, ironically, much of the right has accepted key precepts of the left, such as the need for the creation of a Palestinian state. Similarly, much of the center-left has accepted the right’s arguments about the need for guarantees of Israeli security as part of any peace process. And here we see a kind of confluence of right and the left which makes up the broad national consensus that exists in Israel today.

In order for the left to regain its voice and relevance, it needs to recognize its own failures. It must recognize that the promise of Oslo fell short. It must accept that the major settlement blocs in the West Bank aren’t going anywhere. Like it or not, they have become a permanent reality. Further, these settlements are going to grow, naturally, in a way that should ultimately allow them to be absorbed by Israel in any permanent status deal. Therefore, calling for a boycott of these settlements is counterproductive in the extreme. Such calls only fuel the fire of those who would do Israel harm.

Instead of attacking the right and throwing up its hands, the left should focus its energies on articulating a new path forward, a path that will disentangle Israel from the Palestinians, most of the West Bank and Gaza in a way that can preserve Israel’s Jewish character and allow it to remain a Jewish democracy. Unless and until they do so, Magid and his colleagues will be reduced to simply writing articles and lamenting how bad things have gotten (especially for themselves). Unless and until that happens, I suspect that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “responsible” peace process will continue to sound like the reasonable, sober way forward, even to many of the left.

About the Author
Judah Skoff, one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36, is a lawyer and writer. He was a Berrie Leadership Fellow and a Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. His plays have been performed in New York, London and at numerous theatres across the United States. His awards include the National Playwriting Competition, the New Jersey Playwright's Contest, and two Governor's Awards in the Arts. He graduated from Brown University and cum laude from Boston University School of Law where he was named Edward S. Hennessey Scholar and Paul J. Liacos Scholar. The views expressed are strictly his own.