Opinion |

Can Israel’s Pro-peace Left Still Justify Sitting in a Bennett Government?

Israel's left-wing parties, Meretz and Labor, gambled their deepest principles to join a government led by a right-wing nationalist champion of settlements. Is their political bargain paying off? Are they influencers, or fig leaves?

Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin
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An election campaign sign for the centrist Yesh Atid party shows its leader, Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv, Israel before the fourth parliamentary election in two years. Hebrew reads: "It's about time for sane government"
An election campaign sign for the centrist Yesh Atid party with leader, Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv, Israel before the fourth elections in two years. Hebrew reads: "It's about time for sane government"Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been dead so long, even its ghost would be hard to recognize. But in recent months, a series of developments nonetheless carried an unfamiliar aura of something positive.

In a rare sight, in early January Gazans celebrated an agreement by Israel and the PA to add thousands of people to the Palestinian population registry, which Israel fully controls. What looks like a technicality has profound implications: registration allows long-trapped Gazans to receive coveted Palestinian ID cards, which could eventually help them to travel – or possibly receive permits to work inside Israel.

The population registration that began in October has already facilitated family unification largely for spouses of Palestinians stuck in limbo in the West Bank, sometimes for decades – they, too, have been trapped, for fear of being arrested.

Also early in January, Israel and Palestinian Authority officials averted a crisis over a Palestinian prisoner on a prolonged hunger strike, protesting his administrative detention by Israel, without charges, since October 2020. Hamas and Islamic Jihad threatened to retaliate if Hisham Abu Hawash died, a dangerous spark for another military escalation. Instead, Israel agreed not to extend his detention, and Abu Hawash broke the strike.

But the biggest recent event happened just ahead of the new year. In late December, for the first time since 2010, an Israeli defense minister hosted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Israel. The meet-up took place in Benny Gantz’ own home.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.Credit: THAER GHANAIM MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

There is still no peace in sight. But the trickle of events raises an important question: Who gets the credit? Are the left-wing parties in the Israeli ruling coalition pulling its policies, by tiny degrees, to the left on the conflict? Those parties gambled their deepest principles to join a government led by a right-wing nationalist champion of settlements. What, so far, have they actually achieved?

Labor and Meretz can’t take direct credit for the meeting between Gantz, representing his Kachol Lavan party, and Mahmoud Abbas. But with a right-flank and a left-flank, Gantz is securely positioned as a centrist. Right-wing politicians grumbled at the meeting, but a move that was unthinkable in recent years now looks pragmatic.

When asked, left-wing parliamentarians have ticked off additional positive outcomes of their presence in the government. Meretz members were proud that its ministers – Tamar Zandberg (Minister of Environmental Protection) and party leader Nitzan Horowitz (Health Minister) have met with their Palestinian counterparts, under the initiative of Issawe Frej, Meretz’s minister for regional cooperation.

"It’s definitely a change from the previous government, when they totally ignored the PA," said Gaby Lasky, a veteran human rights lawyer and now a lawmaker for Meretz, when we spoke in early January.

Jewish settlers throw rocks toward Palestinians during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar.Credit: AP

Lasky also noted that the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held a discussion about settler violence, inviting representatives of human rights organizations to speak; the Knesset also held a special hearing on Palestinian child arrests.

The presence of Israeli human rights groups at a Knesset committee meeting highlights something else: Greater direct influence of long-sidelined, and much-maligned, peace and anti-occupation civil society activists.

Labor MK Emilie Moatti, who is a member of the Defense and Foreign Affairs committee, displays the emerging synergy: she has publicly endorsed an initiative of the NGO Women Wage Peace, calling on the government to actively seek ways to revive the peace process. In an interview, Moatti listed additional civil society groups she has invited to give evidence to the committee, representing different areas of business and environmental cooperation.

Women Wage Peace activists participate in the March of Hope at Qasr al-YahudCredit: Abbas Momani, AFP

Left-wing parliamentarians sitting in the Bennett government have few illusions and also face grave dilemmas. Mossi Raz, another unwavering peace activist and returning Meretz MK, started his assessment in our interview by listing what’s wrong – primarily the government’s energetic plans for settlement expansion in some of the West Bank’s most sensitive and strategic locations, entrenching Israeli control.

Yet that same day, Meretz had publicly signaled its opposition to recent maneuvers in two outposts that even Israel considers illegal, Homesh and Evyatar, deep inside the occupied territories. Rumors were spreading that the government planned to dismantle a yeshiva built in Homesh (which was evacuated, in principle for good, in 2005), but would allow settlers to build in Evyatar in return. Such a transaction would fit the time-honored wink-and-nod government-settler relationship that has allowed settlements to bloom for decades.

Would Meretz threaten a coalition crisis for an issue so foundational to its platform? "I never threatened," says Raz, coyly. "But it’s on the front pages, that settlement construction is not acceptable to us." And now, he says, Israeli society is listening.

Labor’s Moatti was even more optimistic. "I think we’re closer than ever," she said of an actual peace agreement, citing the uptick in high level meetings. "In five years, I think we’ll reach an agreement."

Israeli settlers, students at the Homesh Yeshiva (religious school), gather in a tent at the former settlement of Homesh, west of the West Bank city of NablusCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Still, the horizon never seems to get any closer – at least as seen from the Palestinian side.

While Israel was abuzz with news of the Gantz-Abbas meeting, Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations, now at the Middle East Institute in Washington, was cautious: “Especially telling was the way analysts projected their hopes and fantasies for a political process onto a meeting that was really about shoring up the PA.”

Boosting the PA is convenient for Israel, but it’s probably too late to salvage the Authority’s credibility where it counts. Mohammed Daraghmeh, bureau chief of Asharq News, believes Palestinians welcome the "relief" measures to improve daily life such as ID cards and work permits – but "people need much more. They view these as municipal services. They say, ‘any mayor can do that.’"

The gesture won’t change how Palestinians see the PA: "Jobs are taken by officials and families," he said. People see "mismanagement, corruption, incompetence, while Hamas is viewed widely as freedom fighters."

Palestinians wave national and Hamas flags in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem earlier this yearCredit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Nor will gestures change Palestinians’ real demands from Israel, says Daraghmeh: To rein in settlement growth, end raids inside Palestinian cities and home demolitions, cease closing off land in Area C for military zones, allow greater Palestinian economic and security control over their lives.

Instead, since the Gantz-Abbas meeting, Prime Minister Bennett has assured the Israeli public that he would not meet with Abbas himself. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid lowered expectations about a future peace process.

In the final count, if the government continues avoiding genuine moves towards peace, can the left justify its political bargain, legitimizing and participating in the coalition?

Yes – for the meantime. Ironically, right and left poles in the coalition make centrist-led policies, such as the Gantz-Abbas meeting and relief meaures – look pragmatic. Further, left-wing parties have put left-wing ideas back on the agenda from the top, instead of begging for attention from the bottom.

But when Labor’s Moatti told me she would: "[D]o everything possible, along with other partners, to convince [the government] of the urgency of a diplomatic agreement" with the Palestinians, what will this commendable spirit mean in practice? If these parties don’t define the next benchmark for advancing peace, or a strategy for reaching it, they’ll tip from a balancing weight to a fig leaf in no time.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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