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What the Israeli Left Should Learn From Biden's Victory

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Supporters of president-elect Joe Biden celebrate on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020.
Supporters of president-elect Joe Biden celebrate on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020.Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY - AFP

Among the cries of joy Saturday after Joe Biden was declared the winner of America’s presidential election, Israeli center-leftists were commenting on social media that we should “learn the lessons” of the Democratic victory.

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Which lessons? It’s hard to believe, but once again we could hear the eternal calls to move closer to the center.

Yes, that failed political strategy that has accompanied the Israeli left from the beginning of the past decade to this day is making a comeback on the coattails of the important win by U.S. Democrats. Biden, the centrists claim, overcame his party’s radical wing and promoted a statesmanlike stance that allowed many Republican voters to cross party lines and propel him into the White House.

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President-elect Joe Biden appears on a television in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

First, it’s still too early to know how many Americans really switched sides. The two candidates received more votes in 2020 than were tallied in 2016. For now it seems the more influential factor was the rise in turnout, not the persuasion of voters to change sides. But even if Biden won because of Republicans he convinced to cross over, the argument by Israeli centrists doesn’t hold water.

The inability to import center-leaning leftism to Israel stems from the inability to distinguish between two types of centrism. The first type is the kind represented by Biden. He indeed tried to develop a statesmanlike image; he spoke to all Americans, tried not to get too excited, avoided dividing America into bad guys and good guys, didn’t condemn the morality of his rivals and didn’t look down on their voters.

But – and this is an important point – Biden was careful to be moderate in his approach, behavior and rhetoric, but not in his values. He didn’t sell out his camp’s principles, kowtow to the rival side or make believe he was essentially a Republican.

Biden, in fact, advocated for some of the most left-wing positions that a Democratic presidential candidate had ever championed. For example, less than two weeks before the election, in a debate with Donald Trump, Biden promised to make America’s economy “green” within 15 years – a choice that could have cost him votes linked to the oil industry but is crucial to saving the planet.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivering remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020. Credit: Andrew Harnik / Pool / AFP

Trump, in response, pressed Biden on why he would do that, to which Biden replied, simply, because the oil industry “pollutes significantly.” Despite the temptation, Biden wasn’t ingratiating to the oil industry to attract right-wing voters, nor did he flee the issue.

He behaved similarly – ideologically clear but without combative rhetoric – regarding health care, the economy, the coronavirus and the rights of women, Black people and the LGBT community. There are no videos of him saying that maybe the rich needn’t be taxed, that the white supremacists are actually cool, or that being labeled a “Democrat” or “liberal” scared him.

Many parts of Biden’s platform, including the sections on U.S. policy in the Middle East, were written with the cooperation of Bernie Sanders’ people. In other words, Biden tried to project a statesmanlike image but didn’t think this meant he had to jettison any of his party’s values.

The second type of centrism is the kind that has crushed the Israeli left for the past two decades. Election campaign after election campaign, the camp’s chiefs have chosen to fold all their ideological flags. They’ve refused to talk about peace or the existential threat the settlement enterprise poses to Israel. They’ve put a kippa-for-show in their pockets, kept silent on matters of religion and state and shunned their political allies.

There is no connection between their centrism and Biden’s strategy. A political camp that gives up its values and is self-effacing when confronting its rival will end up losing the election in the short run and sooner or later disappear from the map.

That’s how we’ve come to a situation where those who traditionally vote for left-wing parties are seriously considering voting for right-winger Naftali Bennett. If even the leaders of the left are disavowing the values of the left, and the battle is solely for proper administration and against corruption, Bennett is also fine.

It’s one thing to maintain a statesmanlike image as part of the pursuit of political power while maintaining an ethical policy and political ideology, and another to try to create a statesmanlike image by disavowing your ideology only because political rivals claim that it’s illegitimate. The confusion between the two is preserving the destructive division that has characterized the Israeli left for two decades, between radical purists who want to be in the opposition and the sycophantic and power-hungry who follow the herd.

The truth is, it’s possible to be a patriotic statesman who aspires to power while being insistent on ideology and not being self-effacing when confronting the bullying of the right. It’s possible to be Biden.

If the centrists on the Israeli left don’t shed their principles by the next election campaign as if that were a precondition, and the radical left understands that striving for political power isn’t dangerous militarism but an important way to implement our shared values, maybe we’ll be able to revive the battered left-wing camp.

Shai Agmon is a doctoral student in political theory at the University of Oxford and a research fellow at the Molad Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.

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