Shortly before polling day in Israel, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace.
Peace Camp / The Left
This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity ever further rightwards.
The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was widely pronounced dead last week as hundreds of official documents leaked to Al Jazeera television showed Palestinian negotiators had agreed to make major concessions on Jerusalem, refugees and borders. But there were few indications that Israel’s leaders are in mourning. Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, has been happily reverting to his default position on solving the conflict: “economic peace”.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new “centrist, Zionist” faction in the Israeli parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.
Jonathan Pollak, one of Israel’s most prominent political dissidents, is no stranger to dangerous situations or arrest in the occupied territories. In seven years of joining Palestinians in their weekly stand-offs with the Israeli army at sites in the West Bank, where the separation barrier is being built, he has been arrested “too many times to count”, he said. He has been injured several times. This week, he received his first jail sentence for participating in a mass bicycle ride in Tel Aviv.
Nearly 600 Israelis have signed up for a campaign of civil disobedience, vowing to risk jail to smuggle Palestinian women and children into Israel for a brief taste of life outside the occupied West Bank. The Israelis say they have been inspired by the example of Ilana Hammerman, a writer who is threatened with prosecution after publishing an article in which she admitted breaking the law to bring three Palestinian teenagers into Israel for a day out.
Government officials warned Israeli teachers last week not to cooperate with a civic group that seeks to educate Israelis about how the Palestinians view the loss of their homeland and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Israel’s education ministry issued the advisory after Zochrot – a Jewish group that seeks to raise awareness among Israeli Jews of the events of 1948, referred to as the “nakba” by Palestinians – organised a workshop for primary school teachers.
A fascinating debate is entering Israel’s political mainstream on a once-taboo subject: the establishment of a single state as a resolution of the conflict, one in which Jews and Palestinians might potentially live as equal citizens. Surprisingly, those advocating such a solution are to be found chiefly on Israel’s political right. The debate, which challenges the current orthodoxy of a two-state future, is rapidly exploding traditional conceptions about the Zionist right and left.
I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read Uri Avnery’s recent offering, “Death of a Myth”, about the deathbed confession of Naomi Shemer regarding “Jerusalem of Gold”, her song that became a second Israeli national anthem after the Six-Day War of 1967. The Israeli public was apparently duped: Shemer had plagiarised the song from a Basque lullaby. As Avnery implicitly admits, no one was more fooled than he. At the time, he was a member of the Knesset and unsuccessfully tried to pass a law to have the song replace the national anthem, “Hativkah” or “The Hope”.
Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election for prime minister has provoked much gnashing of teeth among Israel’s left-wing peace campaigners. As their standard-bearer, Ehud Barak, slipped ever further in the polls, his reputation sullied by months of fruitless negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the future they painted was doom-laden. If anyone is certain to sink the peace process, they wail, it is the right-wing general. And yet if Sharon succeeds in chasing the peace movement off to the margins of Israeli politics, it will be no bad thing.