Left standing: Signs of life in Israel's peace camp
Armed with self-confidence and ambition, Eldad Yaniv, a lawyer and former adviser to Ehud Barak, is promoting his idea of what Israel's left should look like. He says he has no private political aspirations, but believes his National Left movement is just what the country needs. Others beg to differ
The road to the settlement of Kedumim passes through the center of the village of Al-Funduq. There's hardly any traffic there; the few cars that have to pass through the village drive very fast. It's only 8 P.M., but there's not a soul to be seen. The road that cuts through the village provides a livelihood for those who own or work in shops along it, but once darkness falls, it becomes dangerous for locals, too. A person could get run over, or stopped for inspection by a military patrol, and in the past there have also been violent raids by settlers there. It's best to stay home. With the door locked.
Several hundred meters before Al-Funduq, Eldad Yaniv's car is heating up. A warning light goes on and the engine starts making strange noises. Yaniv turns off the air conditioning and opens the windows. The noise stops. The mid-October heat fills the car.
"In the past year I've put a crazy amount of kilometers on this Volvo," he says, not letting up on the gas. He sings the praises of the car, saying it has already shuttled him to more than 150 parlor meetings, events and lectures. All on the same subject: the National Left.
Thanks to the Volvo, what began a year ago with the publication of a manifesto called "The National Left (First Draft )," written by Yaniv and playwright Shmuel Hasfari, has become a real movement. The car has carried activists, posters, leaflets and of course the blue booklets to any place where there was anyone willing to listen. With the aid of a small and enthusiastic core of activists, says Yaniv, he has recruited hundreds of volunteers and thousands of supporters.
The rally last month marking the 15th anniversary of the Rabin assassination was targeted ahead of time by Yaniv as the place and time to reap the fruits of his travels across the land. The preparations began weeks beforehand, with activists putting up signs and posters throughout the country. Some bore the slogan, "Israel is waiting for Rabin"; others featured the smiling face of assassin Yigal Amir. In Rabin Square, the movement made its presence strongly felt with signs, information stands and activists. When ideological differences are blurred, visibility is the name of the game. And at the rally, the National Left was the clear winner.
Israel's left has plenty of experience with movements, initiatives and personalities that it was sure would attract public attention and win the camp's leadership. Many became insignificant or vanished before long. But the National Left appears to be doing somewhat better. On the other hand, it's hard to find anything too unique in the ideology and messages the movement is propounding, when compared to the kind of thing one hears anywhere from Kadima to Meretz. And perhaps the defiant combination of leftist messages bundled in a patriotic wrapping - as aggressively and even crudely phrased in the organization's manifesto - actually makes this more of a centrist movement that is essentially cut off from the camp it purports to lead.
The present Knesset has already reached the middle of its term, and all sorts of predictions are being tossed out as to the partisan constellation the left will put up in the next election. Yaniv, an attorney who until recently was known mostly as a former close adviser to Ehud Barak and a master of political spin, has announced that the National Left will compete as a political party in the election.
He claims he never envisioned that his and Hasfari's booklet would morph into a movement, but in the past year he has been waging a nonstop campaign, which has cost him some serious money, too. He says he has funded the movement's activity out of his own pocket and savings; people knowledgeable about such efforts estimate the figure to be close to a half-million shekels. All of Yaniv's efforts are being directed at the upcoming elections. He says he also officially resigned from every position he held in the law firm in which he is a partner, and now serves solely as a consultant.
There are two years to go until the National Left makes its election debut, but meanwhile five cars full of activists are zipping through the heart of the West Bank, and the Volvo can't afford to lag behind. Yaniv and the activists were invited to Kedumim by Tal Yaron, a resident of the settlement who is active in the Movement for Direct Democracy and wanted to hear what the National Left had to offer. Every week, the National Left activists hold at least two such public meetings. They generally invite people with an affinity for the left or the center, but ahead of the event in Kedumim, the movement's Facebook page jokingly said, "leftists not invited."
Still, the cars were carrying about 20 activists and a few more volunteers - people who'd just heard about the Naitonal Left and whose curiosity to hear a little more led them to board Yaniv's lurching vehicle.
"If anything happens," said one of the passengers in the middle of Al-Funduq, "we'll get out of the car and shout that we're leftists."
No one laughed.
Softening the message
The meeting in Kedumim begins with a lot of mutual curiosity. Some 20 residents gathered in the well-kept yard of the Yaron family, outside a nice stone house with a tiled roof, and were waiting to hear the National Leftists. While it was clear to both sides that no one was about to cross the lines; both came to hear and, mainly, to be heard. In the spirit of creating a dialogue, the host suggested that each participant take two minutes to express his opinion, and afterward the group would break into smaller groups for discussion. But the order wasn't perfectly maintained. At the end of the day, despite the desire to share views, nobody came here to be nice.
Yaniv was the second speaker, and in his two minutes he managed to rile everyone, and the heated emotions barely abated during the rest of the encounter. He started out by declaring that he was searching for a shared point of agreement, and suggested the Declaration of Independence as a possibility, but then added that the occupation was intolerable and that according to his movement's vision, his hosts would have to leave their homes in the future. The Kedumim residents did not let this pass quietly. Terms like "land of our forefathers," "redemption," "demography" and "security" were mustered against him - as were the likes of Alterman and Tabenkin.
Yaniv also pulled out the old leftist arguments: "I come with a plan. It may not be good, but I'm waiting to hear what your plan is. The current situation cannot continue," he kept saying, and also mentioned what life was like for the residents of Al-Funduq.
When the emotionally charged event was over, several Kedumim residents picked up a copy of the blue booklet by Yaniv and Hasfari. After reading it, the responses were even more furious. An e-mail sent later by one of the settlers was distributed among the participants in the meeting, stating: "If I would have known beforehand that this was the agenda of the people sitting across from me, I wouldn't have come to the meeting. After reading most of [the booklet] - (and I am still trying to take it in, and to pick out the main points from all the crude and coarse language ) - I really felt they deceived me. The scorn, the contempt and the arrogance ... toward our public on the one hand, and the sweet talk about the need for dialogue and the need to establish a model society, on the other - it makes me feel like the little Jew who's abused and beaten and spat upon, and then they sit him down to talk about what he needs to give up if he wants to stop being abused."
Yaniv's manifesto has evoked harsh responses from many left-wingers, too, and it's not hard to see why. It opens as follows, "The left died the day the Six-Day War ended. With the dawn of the Israeli empire, the left's sun sank and the Small [pun on smol, the Hebrew word for Left] was born. Small is a mark of Cain, a disparaging term for a collaborator, a lover of Arabs, a hater of Israel, a Jew who turns against his own people, not a patriot. Small-ists eat pork on Yom Kippur, gobble shrimp, drink espresso whenever possible, and are homos, kapos, artsy-fartsy snobs and whatnot."
The coarse style, as well as the content of the publication, drew severe criticism from all corners.
"I'm aware that at times it sounds very blunt and angry reactions are expected. But that was precisely the purpose of this document: We wanted to shout, to shake people up, to make them think," says Yaniv, who now admits that given the experience of the past year, he believes that the message should have been softened a little. He adds that he has really listened to and taken in many points of view, and tries hard to show that his transformation from cunning political adviser to exponent of an ethical vision for the country is real and authentic.
Armed with this truth, he is trying to enter the vacuum that has been created on the left. Ever since the drubbing it took in the last elections, in which it gained its lowest parliamentary representation ever, the left has been struggling to recover. Its leadership is weaker than ever, and it is not presenting a genuine alternative to the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman-Yishai government. Yaniv believes that his movement is the principled and electoral answer the left is looking for, but he's not ready to hazard a guess as to the number of Knesset seats the National Left will attain, or as to what array of parties the left will offer to the voters. Instead, he chooses to speak in general terms.
"As someone involved for many years in applied politics, I know there isn't necessarily a connection between the way things look right now and how they'll look after the elections," he says. "I hope we'll manage to obtain enough power to foster a change."
What kind of power are we talking about?
Yaniv: "It's impossible to say right now, at least with respect to our part in it, but you can think about the leftist bloc as a weight on the scale. If the bloc coalesces around an idea, it can change reality, and that's what we're aiming for. Our hope is to bring back to the left a lot of people who felt compelled to vote for other parties from the center and sometimes even the right, [because] they had no other choice, because the left was no longer listening to them and could no longer represent them. Kadima took a lot of voters who were fed up with Labor. The same thing happened with Meretz and Hadash. There's a reason why we devoted a lot of space in our booklet to the image of the 'leftist.' A lot of people are fed up with the image, even if their views are still totally leftist."
'The little bang'
Why not join one of the existing leftist parties and foment change from the inside?
"The problem with Labor and Meretz isn't with the ideology or the platform, but that they've stopped fulfilling [them] and have grown weary of change. Meretz has grown tired of being in the opposition and Labor fell asleep at the cabinet table. Both have collapsed in the public's view, so that they hardly exist anymore. Ideologically, the differences in the leftist camp are very small, a matter of nuances. I don't dismiss them, but in the future they'll enable us to live in the framework of one large camp. We're trying to create a new political framework that people will believe in, even though they've been disappointed by promises many times.
"Meretz cannot be woken up, and to go into Labor - what did Fuad [Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] say on the stage: 'Whoever wants to should come see me.' Well, I don't want to work for Fuad Ben-Eliezer. I want a change, and anyone who wants to make a framework for change needs to build it from scratch."
The National Left is not the only forum operating on the premise that the left cannot go on as before. Almost everyone involved in political activity on the left, and some extra-parliamentary organizations, too, are busy with "the little bang" - the reorganization on the left that took place in the wake of the emergence of Kadima. Most are proceeding on the same assumption that Yaniv presented: that the present political map does not accurately reflect the left's real power or true values. It's clear to all that the definition of the left in Israel needs updating, now that the spectrum that begins with Kadima and ends with Hadash has become blurred; meanwhile, the traditional ideas of the left have percolated into the political center, and even further right. Another thing these groups share is that they have no idea what this new leftist political constellation will really look like. Everyone appears to be awaiting further developments.
MK Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz has also discerned a reawakening on the left, and hopes "it will be directed toward establishing new political frameworks." Like others, Horowitz prefers not to comment directly on the National Left. When the political map is so unclear, the debut of a new player doesn't help to clarify which way things are heading.
Horowitz: "The democratic camp is represented in a completely distorted way. The political system is far from representing us, and the existing parties are not providing an answer to a huge audience that is searching for a political home. A vital need is arising for a fresh political framework that will give this expression and focus on promoting the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
And he adds, "The division of the political map on the sole basis of the Israeli-Arab conflict does not reflect the true dividing point between the camps. The civil agenda has to touch on issues like education, separation of religion and state, civil rights and individual rights. In the Knesset you can see that the disagreements on these issues are not characterized by the standard division between left and right."
Haim Oron, chairman of Horowitz's party, agrees with this basic premise, but is less keen to see major political changes.
"There's no question that the left's situation is worse than ever, but still things shouldn't be taken out of proportion," he warns. "It's true that in terms of Knesset seats, the traditional left does not have a strong showing, but don't forget that the picture changed after the founding of Kadima, which reshuffled the whole deck and positioned itself at the head of a camp that didn't necessarily follow it."
Zahava Gal-On, who was left out of the Knesset in the last election, says she identifies with some of the National Left's messages "100 percent," but is furious at the way the manifesto "delegitimizes others on the left, without making any attempt to change this image. Their platform has no new ideological basis. With all the heated nationalist rhetoric and legislation, you can't go around delegitimizing groups that support the same idea."
Gal-On may have just hit the nail on the head as far as the difficulty the National Left will have in achieving its goal of uniting the "veteran left" around it. The manifesto's derision of the "Small left" was perhaps intended jokingly, but it has not endeared the movement to many of the old guard.
Political analysts asked to assess the movement's strength were wary of citing the number of Knesset seats, if any, they thought the National Left could win, or the names of those that would assume its leadership. According to some assessments, the movement could end up joining forces with similar movements or with an existing party.
Yaron Dekel, the Channel 1 political analyst and presenter of the radio show "It's All Talk," says: "There are things whose vital importance the National Left will have trouble proving to the Israeli public - like the proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from the territories. In the political sense, they, too, are at a dead end. And today, when Netanyahu is prepared to evacuate settlements, so what's the big difference between Netanyahu, Meir Sheetrit, Dan Meridor and Tzipi Livni? The important decision has been made, and now it's all about personal politics, and the National Left has nothing new to offer here. The question right now is who will be the right person to spearhead the move. The left is currently looking like a flock without a shepherd."
Still, Dekel does see some importance in the movement - "in its ability to bring back to the public discourse leftist issues that were forgotten and silenced, after the second intifada and the disengagement pulled the rug out from under the left's central agenda."
The manifesto was called a "First Draft" by its authors, and for a time was posted on the Internet for anyone to suggest revisions and have an impact.
But, "the general public apparently isn't ready yet for this type of discussion. Most of the responses were just obnoxious," says Tomer Mintz, 30, a key activist in the movement, who grew up on Kibbutz Dvir, and was brought up in the Hashomer Hatzair movement and became active in Meretz.
"The political bug was dormant in me and it came to the fore again after I read the blue booklet, when I was doing reserve duty," he explains. "The text really hit me; it mentioned all the things that I thought the left needed to do. It stirred me to action."
After he finished reserve duty, he showed the booklet to a few friends, and the group spontaneously decided to distribute it at the Rabin memorial rally last year.
Today, most of the National Left's activists are middle-class university students, after army service, who were brought up to be the so-called "salt of the earth" - only to hear Shimon Sheves, in his eulogy for Yitzhak Rabin, say that the country was lost. They talk about values and ideology without apology or any trace of irony. Mintz says that five of them devote all their time to activism on behalf of the movement, and 150 more volunteer at least three hours a week to working for the cause.
They were the "youth of the candles" in the period after Rabin's assassination; now they're the Facebook generation. A large part of their activity takes place in cyberspace, and the movement's Facebook page has already collected 7,400 followers.
By comparison, the Im Tirtzu movement - an ostensible right-wing parallel to the National Left in terms of methods of operation and rather blurred use of Zionist values - has 4,400 Facebook friends. But one shouldn't pin too much on these numbers. Mintz says that in advance of formally launching a political party, the movement's people are thinking of establishing a social network of committed friends, with membership contingent upon establishing links to others and provision of detailed personal information. Those who join will be able to help formulate the second draft of the National Left manifesto.
"This draft has also to show what we say yes to and not just no," says Yaniv, referring, among other things, to the way the booklet addressed the phenomenon of draft dodgers. The original manifesto called them "parasites" and devoted an entire chapter to them. "We think they are disgusting. We do not think that they should appear before an audience ... We say they are shits and do not fulfill their part of the contract."
Now Yaniv says, "Apparently not everyone is suited to serve in the army. Even Chief of Staff Ashkenazi was courageous enough to say recently that 'we don't need everyone.'" Yaniv now supports a form of civil service that would enable everyone who is unable to serve in the army to still do his or her part. In regard to the settlers too, he has now softened his tone compared to the wording of the manifesto (" ... If Wallerstein and Zambish continue to hold the country by the balls, the Palestinians will name a street after them as a mark of gratitude for their many years of activity in building the Palestinian state with Jewish money. Zambish Street, on the corner of Haj Amin al-Husseini" ).
Two weeks before the meeting in Kedumim, Yaniv took part in another meeting with settlers and claims it was the first time he was truly able to grasp the deep sensitivity they've developed since the disengagement from Gaza. He even adopted a saying he heard from one of the participants: "You have to give up part of your dream so the other can realize his dream. Not for you, for him."
For Yaniv, who served as Ehud Barak's close political adviser when Barak was prime minister, it's been an accelerated maturing process. Following the big Labor election defeat at the hands of Arik Sharon, Yaniv became the legal consultant to the party, and then led Barak's campaign for its chairmanship; he also served as Barak's personal chief of staff when he was defense minister, until 2007.
In a September 2009 article in Haaretz written right after the publication of the National Left booklet, Ari Shavit called Yaniv "an outstanding swimmer" in the political muck and said he is a supreme schemer and plotter, and clever and tireless political copywriter, "but not exactly Berl Katznelson. Not the person who's going to articulate a new ideological path for the Israeli left."
Yaniv smiles upon hearing these quotes: He's prepared to take full responsibility for his part in shaping his public image.
"Now the burden of proof is on me," he says. "I know there are lots of people who'll find it hard to believe in the sincerity of my actions. My past in politics is connected to things that are very far from what I wish to represent today. I was a cynical person and I related to my work as part of a political game. I didn't really understand what a destructive impact it could have.
"After Camp David, for instance, we said that there is no partner. I was one of the people behind this false and miserable spin. It may have been justified to a certain extent, to stir the Palestinians to revive the negotiations, but it's false. What's does that mean - no partner? For years there was no Arab country ready to extend a hand to us in peace, so does that mean we gave up our yearning for peace? This spin led to another decade of conflict and bloodshed. A decade in which an entire camp was unable to return to power. A decade of a loss of hope. Today I see things in a totally different way. But I can also understand people who aren't yet ready to believe me."
In his efforts to show the seriousness of his intentions and of those of the movement, and for the purposes of this article, Yaniv also supplied certain correspondence, invited other activists to talk, invited this writer to witness all the activity and declined to speak off the record. "I'm not ashamed of anything," he declared. But two weeks ago Haaretz reported that his law firm is providing legal consultation to the Ariel Municipality - while his manifesto partner Hasfari was one of the signatories to the petition calling for a boycott of the city's new cultural center. Yaniv was a bit embarrassed by the report, but does not apologize for or see anything wrong with it.
"I don't believe in boycotts. In every future negotiation, Ariel will be an inseparable part of Israel," he declares, adding that his firm would not provide legal advice to more controversial settlements or those that would most certainly end up being included in the territory of a Palestinian state.
Eldad Yaniv says he has no desire to head the future political party. "I'm good at getting things moving, in building organizations. I took this project on because no one else did. When there is a political party, the slate will be built democratically, and the person who heads it could be anyone who adopts its ideas and path," he says. "If all I wanted was a seat in the Knesset, I would have chosen an easier way, like running for a spot on the Labor list. I'm sure I would have landed in a reasonable position there."
He adds that the movement intends to run in the next elections with leadership that is prepared to pay the price of popularity for the sake of carrying out vital moves, without worrying about reelection. He will not give the names of leaders or politicians he'd like to see on the party list. A number of MKs and politicians have met with him in recent months to examine options, but he insists that as far as he is concerned, everything is still open.
"Anyone who adopts the ideas being formulated in the movement will be a legitimate candidate in my eyes. We are trying to establish a movement that genuinely brings change and doesn't just talk about it, that will convince people that there is something else to be found here. If someone like me were to leap into the political arena right before the elections, people would think it wasn't credible. That's why we began our activity right about when Netanyahu took over as prime minister," he says.
He describes his move from the political shadows to the front as a "correction" to his earlier style. "It may be the bravest thing I've ever done," he says. Despite some persistent speculation as to whether he has really changed, he has earned the admiration of many politicians both for the gamble he took and for his ability to attract hundreds of supporters.
The movement's messages are brief, general and to a large extent, also populist. Aimed mainly at young people who've become fed up with the existing leadership, they are based on three principles: the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; a withdrawal from the territories; and establishment of a "model" society. The vague definitions give rise to plenty of internal contradictions, just as occurs with the movement's name itself.
"Anyone looking for utopian perfection is looking for redemption, and those aren't concepts that are possible to live with on a day-to-day basis," Yaniv explains. "I believe in what's practical, in what's pragmatic. More than that, I don't want to live in a society that contains no paradoxes or internal contradictions, in which no one has another point of view, a society without Arabs or religious people, for example."
Your movement has no religious or Arab activists. It seems they can't identify at all with your ideas.
"For that you have to go back to the origin of the whole story, to Herzl, to the Zionist idea and the Declaration of Independence. That's where our commitment to be a Jewish and democratic state, and the full rights of the minorities in the state, were defined in the clearest way. The declaration was signed by Jews alone at the height of a war in which the vast majority of Israel's Arabs were fighting against our existence. And despite this, we pledged that, since we strove to be a model society, they would receive absolute equal civil and cultural equality. I expect a law-abiding Israeli Arab who has decided to live in the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, and who decides in the future not to emigrate to a Palestinian state in which he will have a right to self-definition, to accept the sovereign symbols of the State of Israel, a Hebrew state. I completely understand that he cannot stand at attention and sing the national anthem or salute the flag. When you live in a society that has minorities, you have to be attentive to them. But that doesn't mean that you negate the existence of your nation."
The day after the event in Kedumim, the National Left held another encounter, this time at a bar in Tel Aviv. About 40 young people attended, including 10 movement activists who'd been in Kedumim, too, just the day before. Yaniv stood outside and waited for everyone to go in. He left the Volvo at home, to give it a rest. He says he could also use a rest, that every one of these meetings can be quite exhausting.
"It's like being on 'Council of Sages' [a feisty political TV show] day in and day out. It takes a lot of energy," he says, and then he walks into the bar.
From playwright to viewer
Shmuel Hasfari does not participate in the political activity of his co-author of the manifesto, but is certainly pleased with what he see.
“When I was young, I decided not to be involved in politics,” he says, “but my oldest son is involved in the activity and I hear a lot of enthusiasm from him. I’m thrilled to see the developments with Eldad and the movement. I neither support nor oppose the movement becoming a political party. It’s a child that began to walk a little over a year ago and it’s impossible to know where it will go and when, if ever, it will learn to run.
“The way I see it, the fact that there isn’t a clear figure at the head of the movement right now only helps it. People are concentrating around the idea that can be both humanistic and patriotic, in the same breath.”