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The End of Ambiguity for the Israeli Center-left

Ravit Hecht
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Ofer Shelah during an anti-Netanyahu protest in front of the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 19, 2020.
Ofer Shelah during an anti-Netanyahu protest in front of the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 19, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ravit Hecht

Lawmaker Ofer Shelah’s declaration of his ambitions to lead the Yesh Atid party has breathed oxygen into the battered body of the left wing. This is not only an exciting political drama in its own right – Shelah has arisen against his friend, opposition leader and party chairman Yair Lapid and is threatening to take his family party from him, and try to open it up to the broadest possible primaries along the way.

But it’s more than that: could become the first sparrow of something new flocking our way. Like his friend Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor , who is characterized by unapologetic, blunt directness – see the Lebanese flag on his City Hall or the removal of billboards that showed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh defeated on their knees – and is also signaling a desire to dive into the water, Shelah, in his current version, is coming along with a different and pretty much opposite conception to the one that has characterized leaders of the center-left. Shelah is signaling the end of the age of vagueness.

The litmus test for this approach is the in the Knesset and legitimization of the Arab vote. Shelah is not keen on the idea of a Jewish-Arab party that the deep left fantasizes about. He wants to head a Jewish center-left party, but one that will cooperate with the Joint List and rely on its support from outside the governing coalition. He won’t have any mumbling about “just this one vote” or any other game of hide and seek. Just like that, simple.

The pragmatic insight that came to him after the first election round in April, that forming a government not headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be impossible without reliance on the Arab vote, engendered a strategy that is significant beyond the math and even beyond the issue itself. Netanyahu’s deranged, extreme politics necessitates zero blinking. Anyone who confronts him cannot expose even a glimpse of an Achilles heel.

Kahol Lavan’s confusion over the Arab vote was easily identified by Likud, and Netanyahu has feasted upon it campaign after campaign. Kahol Lavan was writhing in discomfort when a part of it – Zvi Hauser and Yoav Handel, who broke away from Moshe Yaalon and whose electorate altogether is probably no larger than the quorum of their relatives – preached against getting together with the Joint List, and ultimately also prevented the formation of a government headed by Benny Ganz.

This is a weakness that hasn’t just recently been discovered. Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog, who joined up against Netanyahu in 2018, hastened to call themselves the Zionist Union and distanced themselves from the Arabs. In return, Likud linked them to the Islamic State in yet another propaganda video to kick the ground out from under them. A large part of the incitement against Yitzhak Rabin focused on him moving the Oslo Accords forward on the basis of votes from the Arab Knesset members. The delegitimation of the Arab vote is as deep as mildew in a moldy apartment and painting over it repeatedly is not the solution. Are they calling you an “Arab-lover” or a “terrorist supporter”? Declare that you have no problem with Arab Knesset members. The masses, in their wisdom, know how to honor a lack of fear.

It was Netanyahu himself who brought about the end of the age of vagueness. Whether in his own voice or through his son’s keyboard, Netanyahu, who has always been blessed with revolutionary traits, has long given up any pretense to democratic and statesmanlike officialdom. Now, even if it stems from personal motives, he has wholeheartedly enlisted in an incredible war on the state institutions, first and foremost the law enforcement mechanisms.

In the United States, President Donald Trump – another preposterous type – is faced by figures like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, although they are not running against him directly, are digging their heels in determinedly and injecting ideas that had been considered radical in the past into the consensus.

It’s doubtful that Shelah will succeed in taking control of Yesh Atid, and after that, sweeping in extensive public enthusiasm. It’s doubtful that Huldai will succeed in enlisting support of many Israelis outside the state of Tel Aviv. However, in this chaotic situation, with a pandemic and a prime minister under criminal indictment who is clutching an entire nation by the throat, there is no longer any space for silent generals or closeted leftists who say that “there’s no such thing as right and left.”