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Naomi Chazan
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What’s next for Israel’s left (and Israel)?

Those opposed to the religious nationalism and right-wing populism of this coalition must forge a vision of shared society and build alliances for social solidarity
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s already dwindling political left suffered a major blow in the polls this month. With both Meretz and Balad failing to pass the threshold, Labor contracting dramatically to a bare four seats, and the Arab vote heavily fragmented, the remnants of what was once the core of the “peace camp” is now licking its wounds and rudderless. The current in-house blame game, coupled with an overall sense of despair, have merely amplified the prevalent sense of hopelessness. But given the emerging shape and direction of the incoming government, neither the left nor the country as a whole have the luxury to wallow in self-pity. If ever there was a time to re-think Israel’s trajectory and reorganize to move it along a new path, it is now. 

This is especially true in light of developments during the two weeks since the elections. It is now evident that the Israeli bubble cultivated by progressively nationalist governments with strong messianic trappings is about to burst. If the electoral outcome and the impending formation of a far-right, religiously-dominated, government were not enough, the preliminary vote in the United Nations Fourth Committee requesting the International Court of Justice to “render urgently an advisory opinion” on Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory” (to be brought for ratification to the General Assembly next month) makes it abundantly clear that the international community has lost its patience with Israeli actions in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. 

The present internal bifurcation and external intransigence can no longer be ignored. A thorough reevaluation of paradigms and strategies is in order. Israel’s left, however downsized, is still in the position to take the lead. It spearheaded major innovations in the past and has the need and capacity to do so once again at this most critical conjuncture. 

To engage in such an effort, however, means that those who are dedicated to the creation of an inclusive society based on the values of equality, equity, social justice, tolerance for the other, human dignity, and peace recommit themselves to taking their future into their own hands. They need to shed their current despondency and their proclivity for escapism (both physical and mental) and remind themselves that they possess – individually and collectively – the power to make a difference.

Forge a vision for the future

Such an undertaking involves addressing two key questions. The first relates to the future – to how we envision Israel five years from now. The starting point for such an exercise begins with the recognition that the present path leads to more of the same in spades and is therefore fundamentally untenable. Nobody is really happy with the current state of affairs, and everybody is trying to change it – often in contradictory directions. The result is a constant tug-of-war between competing groups and interests vying with each other over the crumbs of a shrinking pie. 

Despite the seeming divide between the religious nationalism and extreme right-wing populism of the incoming government and the more ostensibly liberal and universalistic outgoing one, most parties – and large portions of the population – have been complicit in sustaining the very system that has promoted domestic polarization and perpetuated Israel’s control over Palestinians within and beyond the increasingly blurred Green Line. Continuing on this path is nothing short of disastrous: it tears Israelis further apart internally and threatens to escalate the conflict with the Palestinians and the international community externally. Above all, it does not reflect what most people claim they want: safety, predictability and, most importantly, a normal environment in which they can express their identities and pursue their lives unimpeded.

These aspirations cannot be fulfilled without a vision of a shared society and region built on the common values of mutual respect, pluralism, fairness, and freedom. These guiding principles require elaboration, specification, and contextualization – a heady task that has already commenced and is now gathering steam in a variety of think tanks, social media, the press, almost endless private conversations, and tellingly, in drawing up viable cooperative alternatives (many of a confederal nature) to the now defunct two-state option predicated on separation and isolation. They offer a still rudimentary, but appealing, chart for the way forward

It will take some time for these efforts to congeal into a full-fledged ideational and organizational alternative to the divisive politics constructed on the notion of Jewish superiority and subsequent exclusion that has sustained the existing system in a variety of forms. In the meantime, this change of direction can be bolstered by a new discourse, respectful language, and a series of activities on a variety of levels. 

Build alliances for an equitable society

This leads directly to the second critical question which relates to the present – to what should be done now. Here the essential guideline is crystal clear: to establish as broad a social base as possible. In real terms, this means not only consolidating the Jewish and Arab left and forging a workable partnership, but also reaching out to a variety of groups in the country who are attracted to the alternate message and are willing to work for its realization.

This implies reaching out to religious and traditional groups along with secular activists, Mizrahim together with Ashkenazim, residents of the depressed periphery along with urban populations, the shrinking middle class together with the economically and socially marginalized, and feminists – both men and women. Such alliances do exist on a small scale, yet they need to be firmed up and significantly widened. This can only be done by practicing what is preached: a true willingness to embrace all those eager to work together, regardless of their communal affiliation, to advance a better and more welcoming society for themselves and future generations. 

Strategically, such an approach precludes cooperation with the nascent coalition, large segments of which glorify racism, fascism, misogyny, xenophobia, and increased control over Palestinian lives and lands. It also suggests that any interaction with the opposition adheres to the same principles. The present push for unity to save the country rings hollow unless it clarifies the purpose of such a move. If it is to bring together those who want to entrench separation and inequality, it must be rejected; if it seeks to actualize an equitable society for all, it should be cultivated. 

These parameters define the boundaries of action. These are already taking place on a countrywide basis, in large segments of civil society, on the municipal level, in professional associations, within political formations, through a broad array of voluntary organizations, and via numerous unfolding initiatives. 

They are taking on two main forms. The most obvious is of a negative sort: immediate mobilization against a series of potential threats, ranging from additional subsidies for Haredi institutions at the expense of tax-paying citizens, altering immigration policies to exclude people who are either not Jewish or who do not conform to orthodox rabbinical definitions of who is a Jew, populist economic policies favoring some groups but brazenly discriminating against others, neo-authoritarian moves designed to further the tyranny of the majority and upend the few checks and balances in the system (the legislation of a sweeping override clause), increasing gender discrimination, imposing additional constraints on Arab society in Israel, increasing pressure on Palestinians in the occupied territories, homophobic measures against the LGBTQ+ community, eroding the environment (repealing taxes on plastic bottles and utensils), educational reforms that would undercut a common core curriculum, or policies that would interfere with the conduct of daily affairs (including banning all football matches on Shabbat). The effectiveness of such activities relies both on setting a list of priorities and on tactical sophistication.

The second type of action is positive in nature. It includes (but is not confined to) attempts to build Jewish-Palestinian partnerships in every field from medicine and hi-tech to education and social welfare; numerous efforts to increase social solidarity between the religious and the secular, the reform and the orthodox, the observant and the agnostic; measures to advance joint ventures to provide equitable redistribution of resources for all; and, of course, substantial work to design the outlines of a new Israeli-Palestinian architecture for sharing the space between the Jordan river and the Sea. Even if many of these activities seem latent or confined in scope, they are gathering momentum and, at this pace, are supplying the groundwork for a broader societal foundation for constructive change. 

No historical process is inexorably predetermined. It is molded by unforeseen events and advanced by human agents over time. The present constellation, here as elsewhere, is no exception. In the midst of today’s enormous and multifaceted fluidity, a new context – rife with challenges and opportunities – is emerging. If we succumb to indifference or despair and do not take part in actively shaping its contours, we will become its victims and only have ourselves to blame. 

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.