Israel's left has disappeared; it has nearly no parliamentary representation and remarkably little public presence. At first glance, this is a paradox, because the left's program has, in many ways, won, as Yossi Sarid said when he left the Knesset for good. The idea of a Palestinian state, anathema in Israeli society a few decades ago, is now accepted by the mainstream.
The left has dissipated because it has failed to provide a realistic picture of the conflict with the Palestinians. Its ideological foundation was based on a simple prediction: If we offer the Palestinians a state in the territories occupied in 1967, there will be "peace now."
Then things started to go wrong. After the Oslo process began, the newly formed Palestinian Authority educated its children with violently anti-Israeli and often straightforwardly anti-Semitic textbooks. The suicide bombings of 1996 were not prevented by Arafat (some say they were supported). What brought the left down completely were the failures of Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001, as well as the onset of the second intifada.
On the face of it, Israel's left should have said "we were wrong in our predictions. We underestimated the complexity of the situation. We didn't see that the Palestinians were not ready to renounce the right of return and we underestimated how much murderous rage there was against Israel. We still believe that we need to end the occupation as quickly as possible, but we need to face reality."
Instead of admitting that it had been partially wrong, the left tried to explain away all the facts that didn't square with its theory by putting the onus of responsibility for Palestinian actions exclusively on Israel's policies. The left argued that the bombings in 1996 happened because the Oslo process was too slow and the Palestinians wanted to avenge the targeted killing of Yihye Ayash; Camp David failed because prime minister Ehud Barak's offers were insufficient. The second intifada started because of Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. Hamas came to power because we turned Fatah into collaborators with the Zionists, and so on.
The Israeli left's thinking is governed by what I call SLES (Standard Left Explanatory System). This intellectual construct gained popularity in Europe and the United States in the 1960s after the demise of European colonialism. The basic principle of SLES is simple: Always support the underdog, particularly when non-Western, and always accuse Western powers, preferably the United States and its allies, for what the underdog does. Anything aggressive or destructive a non-Western group says or does must be explained by Western dominance or oppression. This ranges from the emergence of Al-Qaida, which is blamed on the United States' dropping of its support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled, to corruption and violence in Africa, which is blamed on the aftereffects of European colonialism.
SLES is built on very questionable psychology: It assumes that if you are nice to people, all conflicts will disappear. It simply disregards the human desire for dominance, power and a belief system that gives them self-respect. As a result, SLES, under the guise of humanitarianism, assumes that non-Western groups don't have a will of their own; that all they do, feel or want is purely reactive to the West. It is also devoid of respect for non-Western groups: It assumes that they are not responsible for their deeds, and that all they do must be explained by victimization by the West.
If you listen to the left's explanations of Palestinian behavior, you might easily conclude that Israel is omnipotent and that Palestinians have no self will. In conversations with Palestinians I have heard more than once that they feel that the right wing respects them more than the left because the left always presumes to know what the Palestinians really want.
I want to make one thing very clear. I completely endorse Yeshayahu Leibowitz's famous saying that he is not sure whether Israel's policies since 1967 are evil stupidity or stupidly evil, and I continue to think that the occupation must end as quickly as possible. But I believe that Israel's stupidity is matched by the Palestinians making every conceivable mistake along the way, and I think the left should give them the respect of holding them responsible for their actions rather than talking about them as if they were abused children, as SLES prescribes.
Israel's most urgent problem is ending the conflict with the Palestinians, and the left will not gain popularity by turning greener or more socialist. If Israel's left wants to regain some credibility and convince voters that it has a role to play, it needs to give the Israeli public a reasonable picture of reality. And it needs a plan of action that is more intelligent than the right's tactic of trying (unsuccessfully) to explain to the world that the conflict cannot be solved but only managed.
The writer teaches at the psychology department of Tel Aviv University and is a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.