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Israeli left plays crucial role in peacemaking

Professors' perspectives on Palestinian statehood

By Michael Feige
On September 27, 2011

  • Prof. Ibrahim Sundiata (AAAS) made the quotation symbol with his hands during his speech last Monday, just as he said he does in class. Photo by David Sheppard-Brick/the Justice. Rachel Marder

The Palestinian bid for statehood and for acceptance as a full member in the United Nations has placed Israel and its ally, the United States, in a difficult diplomatic position.

I wish to point to an important change in Israeli society that goes a long way to explain the decision of the Palestinians the isolation Israel currently faces in the world arena and maybe the future prospects for the area: The steep decline of the Israeli peace camp.

In Israel, what is called "the left" was in power just less than 20 years ago. Demonstrations for a two-state solution, territorial concessions and dialogue with the Palestinians have drawn thousands to Tel Aviv's squares and formed a viable political option that was always on the table. Academic articles were written about the "two Israels," the right and the left, roughly equal in size, and that an unbridgeable rift lies between them.

These days are long gone.

Ironically, the basic assumptions of the peace camp were adopted by the Israeli center and right, and even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed support for a two-state solution.

However, this "victory" of the peace camp is very shallow, as the camp that is supposed to supply political substance to the idea is currently politically negligible.

As a result, the discourse that has dominated the Israeli public sphere for decades—on peace, territories, Palestinians, settlers and the direction Israel should take as a nation—has practically disappeared (some newspaper columnists and intellectuals notwithstanding) and is no longer a defining factor in the identity of most Israelis like it was in the recent past.

The Israeli peace camp has diminished for a variety of reasons. The demographic growth of the national religious camp and the ultra-Orthodox community was translated into political power in favor of the right.

As former President Bill Clinton rightly noticed, new Russian immigrants to Israel, making up about 1 million of Israel's 7 million citizens, tend to be right-wing. After the Oslo Accords, the Israeli peace camp needed to redefine itself and failed to find new objectives that could hold its constituency.

Part of the reason was the failure of the Camp David talks of 2000, leading to the second Intifada and the horrific suicide attacks on Israeli cities. One left-wing leader after another has expressed disillusion and disappointment with the Palestinians and their leadership, and most have not returned to their former opinions, even after the Palestinians have stabilized a more moderate leadership.

The example of the Gaza Strip, which Israel left and which fell under Hamas rule after democratic elections, is a very strong analogy to what can happen in the West Bank. It has been utilized to the fullest extent by the Israeli right, including Netanyahu in his U.N. speech.

The Israeli peace camp was portrayed as naïve to a dangerous extent in demanding further Israeli withdrawals. Not to mention that the division between two parts of the Palestinian authority, hostile to each other, makes a systematic peace plan much more difficult to conceive. Many in Israel see the moderation of the current Palestinian leadership as a charade; they believe that the Palestinians are not seeking peace with Israel and, in any case, their leadership is unable to deliver. In such circumstances, the Israeli peace camp finds little room to maneuver.

The demise of the peace camp in Israel leads both sides to engage in unilateral acts. The Palestinians—to a great extent due to their own fault—lost their powerful ally within Israeli society: a large influential camp that believed that a Palestinian state next to Israel is morally justified and is also in Israel's best interest. After all, the Palestinian state will have to emerge on the ground and not in the corridors of the U.N. The Palestinians will need to find Israelis willing to support their cause, who are not radical-left extremists. With less such Israelis around and very few of them holding political power, Palestinians see unilateral acts as their best option.

Ironically, the Israeli rightist government finds itself in a weaker position, partly due to the absence of an acceptable left-wing opposition.

The peace camp has historically served as a buffer by mitigating attacks on Israel, displaying Israeli democracy at its best and raising hopes among critics of Israeli rightist policies that a change can come from within.

It was also always a focus of identification with Israel for those who shared its values, Jews and non-Jews alike, and its withering away is having additional consequences that I shall not discuss here.

Most importantly, the weakening of the peace camp limits the public discourse in Israel regarding the shared future with the Palestinians (and with Israeli Palestinians as well). The right-wing government stresses the Jewish right to the land, security issues and the suspected untrustworthiness of the Palestinians. All of these are important, constitute legitimate Israeli concerns and should not be neglected in future negotiations.

The counterarguments regarding the possibility of living in peace and cooperation with the Palestinians' neighbors, together bringing prosperity to the region and gaining international support—all values that were held alive by a strong peace camp—are currently represented to a much lesser extent.

However, they are keys to a lasting peace in the Middle East, based on shared interests and open lines of communication. Without a strong Israeli peace camp, this may be difficult to achieve.   

Editor's note: The writer is a professor from Ben Gurion University in Israel and a visiting professor in the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

Conflict currently hinges on public relations

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