Israel’s Left Has Forgotten What It Means to Be Leftist

Issawi Freij
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A demonstration by the left-wing organization "Breaking the Silence" in March, 2019. Signs read 'This is what occupation looks like.'
A demonstration by the left-wing organization "Breaking the Silence" in March, 2019. Signs read 'This is what occupation looks like.'Credit: Moti Milrod
Issawi Freij

“We promised and we’re delivering,” announced Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz a few weeks ago in a Facebook post in which he enumerated the agreements he’d reached with Kahol Lavan regarding the formation of a coalition that never materialized.

Everything was there, in those agreements — minimum wage, contract workers, free education from birth, public housing and many other worthy and important demands made by Labor. Everything but one item that was once the essence of the party’s identity and is now not even part of its coalition demands — the quest for peace.

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Significant sections of Israel’s center-left in Israel have raised the white flag with regard to ending the occupation and reaching a two-state solution. Whereas annexation has become the ideological battle cry of the right, many on the left have chosen to abandon the struggle for peace, hiding it behind other banners such as the fight against corruption and issues such as human rights and migrant workers, freedom from religious coercion and many other issues that are important, but less so than the one that will affect Israel’s future as a democratic state more than any other issue.

“Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing for Israel [and] for the Palestinians.” These words, which today are impossible to imagine being uttered even by leaders of the center-left camp, were said 16 years ago by the head of Likud, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The reality behind the occupation has not changed since then — what has changed is the legitimacy of discussing it.

Belonging to the left means holding a wide-ranging worldview, based on the belief that all humans are born equal, worthy of equal and fair treatment. This is why the left fights for weaker segments of society, for laborers and for migrants. This is why a true left must fight for people who are living under an occupation that deprives them of the most fundamental rights while preventing them from fulfilling their national aspirations of living in a state of their own, alongside Israel.

Whatever the composition of the left and center-left end up being in the upcoming election, avoiding this issue will only hurt this camp. Concerns about expressing a stand allows the other side to dominate the discussion. The right takes advantage of the fact that it stands alone in addressing the Palestinian issue, using it not only to entrench its dreams of annexation among the public but also to denigrate the legitimacy of those who support a two-state solution.

Ultimately, even if the left tries to ignore these issues, the right won’t let it. So instead of hiding them, we must fight to win over public opinion.

Instead of running away from the occupation, we must explain to Israelis what Sharon tried to explain at the time, that the occupation harms them too.

The public discussion can change. It needs only bold leadership to bring it about. A center-left that continues to evade these issues will abandon the arena to the messianic delusions of right-wing extremists. A left that hides the issue of peace will help the right to realize its dangerous fantasies of annexation and turn peace, which once was hailed in song, into a persona non grata, with anyone associated with it condemned to political exile.

Issawi Freij is a former MK for Israel's left-wing party Meretz.

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