It Isn't Easy Being an Israeli Leftist During Wartime

But Lior Amihai of Peace Now says 'there’s no alternative' to a diplomatic settlement with Palestinians if Israelis want to lead normal lives.

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A protest held in Haifa against the Israeli operation in Gaza, July 19, 2014.Credit: Rami Shllush

By his fellow Israeli citizens, he has been called a kapo — a concentration camp collaborator. He has had a curse of cancer wished upon him and his family. His crimes? Posting footage of peace rallies in Israel to Facebook, outing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s calls to boycott Arab shops and businesses owned by those who have participated in solidarity rallies with Gaza, and generally identifying with the Israeli left.

He is Lior Amihai, Deputy Director of the Settlement Watch project of Peace Now. We spoke the other night via a video-conference call as he was walking his dog through Tel Aviv.

Lior is convinced that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian morass is a political one. And while he was not speaking to me in any official Peace Now capacity, he notes that Peace Now has long been stressing that the government must seize the opportunity to make peace with the Palestinian Authority. Building settlements, he stresses, flies in the face of good-faith peacemaking. Even in the midst of the current Israel-Gaza war, Peace Now has posted a call (Hebrew) to its government to engage in peace negotiations — with Abbas, at least.

But it’s not only self-identified ‘peaceniks’ who preach political strategy over military tactics. Consider the recent statements made by ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, who says that Israel should recognize a joint Hamas-PA government and push for a regionally-backed political solution. Palestinians, he said, will never accept the “status quo of occupation.”

So why does advocating a political solution in the midst of the carnage of war lead to polarization and, all too often, vilification?

There are at least two dynamics here. One is the perception that opposing the drum beat of war is akin to extending compassion to the enemy. And in times of fear, empathy and compassion can feel even more threatening. The other is that while war is painful in terms of blood and treasure, political solutions, given that they typically entail compromise, have psychic costs all their own. What’s more, in the Israeli-Palestinian domain, what one side sees as a concession, the other side sees as rightfully theirs.

On the subject of empathy, consider the moment in the CNN interview with Naftali Bennett, Israeli Minister of Economy, when Wolf Blitzer asks him about the four Palestinian boys who were playing on a Gaza beach when they were killed by IDF missiles. Bennett couldn’t muster a shred of empathy. Without missing a beat, he explained away these deaths by saying that Hamas is conducting “massive self-genocide.”

As for compromise, in the context of Israel/Palestine, what makes compromise especially fraught is that each side has a different reference point. In the current Israel-Hamas conflict, Hamas’s demands — that Israel allow freedom of movement and end the sea, air and land blockade (the latter jointly administered by Egypt), are seen by Palestinians as a natural right. The Israelis, conversely see these as concessions that rewards Hamas rocket fire.

The longer-term compromises required with Palestinians writ large are also fraught. The Israeli government sees the “land for peace” formula as giving something for nothing. Shouldn’t everyone deserve peace — or “quiet,” in security parlance, without having to “give” something? Palestinians, for their part, see the West Bank already as only a small proportion of what was historically (and their mind, rightfully) theirs. With settlements dotting the landscape, the “gift” seems even less valuable. Same thing with regard to sharing Jerusalem as a potential capital for the respective states. And when it comes to refugees, the parties are even farther apart. When Abbas announced his willingness to renounce claims to “Jaffa, Acre or Haifa” in return for peace, Israelis didn’t necessarily this for the significant psychological concession it is on the part of Palestinians who understand refugee return as a right.

Lior thinks that when it comes to the discourse wars, the right-wing in Israel is winning. So if it’s so hard to be a “leftist” these days, why doesn’t he just go along with the crowd? “If one cares deeply for the State of Israel,” he tells me, “there’s not much choice” other than “ending the occupation” and reaching peace. “The people of Israel deserve to live in a democratic and peaceful state.” Whether consciously or not, he concludes his sentiments by invoking the phrase long used by the architects of Israel’s many wars: “There’s no alternative.”