Opinion |

Days of Atonement for Israeli Liberals: Were We Pushing Israel in the Wrong Direction?

On the left, we have persisted in pushing our agenda even in the face of continued failure and disappointment. Could it be that we were wrong all along?

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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A Palestinian protest in Ramallah against the U.S. decision to cut funding to UNRWA. The Mideast is in a chaotic period of flux.
A Palestinian protest in Ramallah against the U.S. decision to cut funding to UNRWA. The Mideast is in a chaotic period of flux. Credit: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Spending the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflecting on our sins, omissions and shortcomings is a worthy tradition that Jewish liberals, not only in Israel, but also in the United States, should adhere to. We should reflect on a question that is basically anathema in liberal circles: Could it be that for decades we were pushing Israel in the wrong direction; that the Oslo Accords were indeed fundamentally flawed; and that we need to accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldview that Israel will have to live by the sword for many more decades, if not more, to come? Did we lull ourselves into a peaceful dogmatic slumber from which we finally must wake up?

Isn’t it true, as Moshe Arens has long argued, that in all instances in which Israel showed willingness to compromise, the Arabs have only responded with violence? Following the signature of the Oslo Accords, we got a wave of suicide terrorism in the centers of Israel’s cities; the Camp David Summit in 2000 was followed by the second intifada; the withdrawal from Lebanon that same year got us conflagrations with Hezbollah; and the pullout from the Gaza Strip brought us rocket barrages leading to three wars. And Israeli liberals and their Diaspora counterparts still didn’t understand that the only way Arabs will accept Israel’s existence is if we build what Jabotinsky called an impregnable iron wall around the country.

Not only did we not accept Arens’ analysis; we continued to warn Israel of the dire consequences of holding onto the occupied territories. We said we would lose the support of the West. Well, Israel may not be very popular in Western Europe and on American university campuses, but actual political support was never lost. We said Israel would be boycotted, whether formally or informally; the fact is that the economy as a whole and tourism in particular have never been stronger. And never mind Cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 – our prime minister, may he be blessed with a happy and sweet new year, has become a leading player in the international scene, with global access and influence unprecedented in Israeli history.

Actually, we need to go a step further in examining ourselves. Our whole conception of the West as a progressive force is unraveling: The U.S. elected Donald Trump, who thinks liberal values are just a hiding place for wimps and cowards. Growing parts of Europe, from Poland and Hungary to Austria and Italy, now have right-wing populist governments, and in others, ranging from France and Germany to Sweden (yes, Sweden, the country that was a model of social-democracy for a full century), powerful ethno-nationalist parties have changed the political landscape. Not only have Israeli liberals’ warnings that Israel would become a pariah state in the West not come true: It now seems that Netanyahu – who has always said that the West needs to brace for a war of civilization against Islam, and that the Palestinian problem is just a minor expression of this much larger, global tension – is becoming the prophet of the West.

So should we liberals not finally accept that our view of history as an inevitable march toward a global, liberal order has been nothing but an illusion? And shouldn’t we stop trying to convince Israel’s electorate otherwise, which we aren’t succeeding in doing anyway?

You may have detected some irony in the preceding paragraphs, and you are not completely wrong. Of course, recent Israeli history could be interpreted in completely different ways, some of which suit liberal worldviews completely: We could argue that the whole Lebanon tragedy could have been avoided if Ariel Sharon had not misled his own government about what he was doing with the initial invasion of 1982; that Yitzhak Shamir’s killing off of the so-called Jordanian option in the late 1980s ruined a great chance for peace; that Israel basically wasted a number of opportunities of the 1990s, and in so doing, contributed to the rise of Palestinian violence.

At the same time, however, I do think quite seriously that we Jewish liberals need to rethink our positions: Israel’s peace camp has basically run out of arguments for its position, and is left with little argumentative power to get voters back. The Middle East is in a chaotic period of flux, and nobody can predict where it is headed. Grand peace plans have very little chance of succeeding, while pragmatic attempts to create a reality in which Palestinians can live in dignity and with as much freedom as possible are more likely to be successful.

Moreover, we must recognize that Israel is in the throes of a culture war: The political right wants an illiberal democracy in which the government is free to implement its plans with a minimum of judicial supervision or criticism from the media. Some of the religious parties want Israel to be a theocracy. And we liberals possess just one among several visions for Israel’s political and cultural identity.

For the foreseeable future, there is no reasonable scenario in which Israelis will elect a government that is not from the right – not necessarily because they are inveterate ethno-nationalists, but because they want the relative calm and stability that Israel has enjoyed during Netanyahu’s reign, even if not necessarily because of him.

Israel’s liberals must therefore regroup and rethink what we stand for. Our first priority must be to defend the last bastions of our country’s liberal democracy. Israel has, in fact, been downgraded from “liberal democracy” to “electoral democracy” by the non-partisan Swedish think tank V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), whereas Tunisia has been upgraded to liberal democracy. We need to fight for freedom of the press, academic freedom and judicial independence – all of which are under attack by the ruling coalition, to make sure that these institutions and values remain intact, even if the political right remains in power.

Israel’s liberals must also fight for their own rights: In the past, I have argued, time and again, that these liberals should demand a certain autonomy, just as the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious and Israel’s Arabs already have. This includes an educational system in which the government does not force conservative Jewish values on children of liberal families, and “cantons” or “regions” – analogous to Swiss cantons – where liberals can continue their way of life, regardless of who is in the government.

The bottom line is that we must become more modest in our goals, and realize that without the institutions of liberal democracy – our last line of defense – Israel will become unlivable for us.

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