The Occupation Mustn't Be the Israeli Left's Only Issue

The attitude of 'the occupation first' is a clear prescription for economic and social deadlock and mirrors the approach of the settler right wing

Israelis protest against corruption in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Tel Aviv, January 20, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

The cost of living? Nonsense. Fighting corruption? Chump change. Opening grocery stores on Shabbat? A battle by spoiled people who have everything. The Rothschild Boulevard protesters? A struggle that doesn’t go beyond their comfort zone.

My colleague Gideon Levy is not happy about public protest around here. He looks down with a mixture of disparagement and envy on struggles that have brought thousands to the streets. He’s bothered that small things like “cheese spread” bring people out to the streets rather than a huge issue, critical to our lives, like the occupation. Only when we’re hit in our pockets or our comforts, or when a tycoon gets benefits at our expense, do we protest, but when a Palestinian teenager is killed for nothing? General indifference. Palestinian suffering causes us to shut our eyes, Levy says. And he doesn’t mean the right wing but his own camp, the left. He’s angry at the non-existent opposition, which prefers to fight over things of little importance, and he scorns people who protest over corruption.

His argument deserves a closer look. First of all, the supposed indifference. The truth is, he’s right. After 50 years of occupation, war, thousands of terror attacks, daily sparring between the right and left, many Israelis have honed a defense mechanism of denial against bad news or rude awakenings from supposed good news over the “diplomatic process.” The left and center might not have given up on the chance for a peace agreement, but they have certainly taken a leave of absence from the process.

They are taking advantage of this leave of absence to turn to other struggles, on the home front, which depend on Israel and not on the Palestinians or the Americans. Disappointment over the Oslo Accords that led to terrible terror attacks and over disengagement from Gaza, which led to the rise of Hamas and three rounds of fighting with Gaza, have brought many Israelis from the left to the center and from the center to the right. It has forced us and our neighbors into stagnant diplomacy and thinking. Interim agreements and a unilateral move bore no overall solution. That is a task which requires extraordinary leadership, in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States. Feel free to calculate the likelihood that this would happen simultaneously among all parties involved.

Israelis are blasé about protesting the occupation not because it doesn’t harm us, destroy our image and cost enormously. Most Israelis would support an agreement and are ready for a very generous compromise – if there were such a deal. There isn’t, and not only because of Israel. According to Levy, the protesters’ most important task is to achieve such a deal, and if they can’t, let them not pretend to be fighters for freedom and equality. If they want to fight for Israel’s image, let them start with the suffering of the Palestinians, and not when their pockets are being picked.

Levy sets a high bar for the noble title of leftist, recalling the strict tests required for a person to be defined as an invalid. It’s not enough for a person to be unable to do just one thing – he or she has to be unable to accomplish a number of day-to-day tasks to be considered an invalid. The same is true of Levy’s test of who is a leftist. It’s not enough to fight corruption, the high cost of living and enforced business closure on Shabbat. To Levy, if you haven’t taken to the streets to fight the occupation before daring to talk about the cost of natural gas or housing, you’re not a leftist. No wonder the criteria to belong to Levy’s left is about as high as the criteria for being recognized as an invalid.

The attitude of “the occupation first” is a clear prescription for economic and social deadlock. It’s a mirror image of the approach of the settler right wing, which puts settlement in the West Bank ahead of any other civil struggle. Israelis should work to improve their quality of life, flex their protest muscles and put pressure on the government to make this happen, even if the overarching task, ending the occupation, is in deep freeze. The energy of protests and opposition to government policy on economic, social and civil issues is just proof that this camp is alive and kicking, and maintaining its fitness. Better to have a camp that’s maintaining some fitness in case of a turning point in the diplomatic arena, than to have a defeated, indifferent one that has given up even on the domestic front.