Opinion

Without Addressing the Most Important Issue, the Israeli Left Will Continue to Lose

FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian man passes Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron January 23, 2018.
MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

In the election campaign, there was barely a mention of the most significant issue. There is no doubt that the occupation is certainly one of the greatest achievements that the right wing has had going for it at the ballot box, the hen that generates Knesset seats, yet it wasn’t raised in the campaign by the right wing’s political rivals.

Imagine for a moment that there’s no occupation. Would the right be stronger or weaker? Would Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties shine or fade? The answer is clear: Were it not for the occupation, Kahanist extremism would have remained beyond the bounds of legitimate discourse and no one would have joked about enjoying the scent of fascism.

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But the parties on the left were apparently more afraid of the occupation than of electoral defeat. And that’s precisely the problem: They avoided addressing the issue by talking instead about “ending the conflict.” When the conflict is over, they say, there will also be a solution to the occupation.

The bloody conflict between us and the Palestinian people, who were born in this land, must end. But it did not begin in 1967 and it will not necessarily end once we end our military control over them. It will only end when we sit down to talk in shared readiness for compromise. Israelis and Palestinians alike share this responsibility – as individuals, as peace activists and collectively as a people. That is not the case when it comes to ending the occupation. While the term conflict inherently implies reciprocity, an occupation occurs when one side exerts military control over the other side. This is not mere semantics. It’s the most fundamental political distinction of our generation.

The attempt to keep the occupation off the Israeli agenda goes hand in hand with it being framed as a conflict. Israel knows how to manage conflicts with its neighbors without having its soldiers patrol the alleys of foreign cities. Israel has not been forced to maintain the territories under military rule for more than half a century. It is not obligated to send soldiers to arrest people in the middle of the night or show its presence in the heart of Palestinian cities.

There is no security situation that requires it to build hundreds of settlements and outposts in occupied territory, because there is no security rationale for encouraging citizens to move into hostile territory and then to allocate resources to protect them there. Israel has chosen to do this every minute for 52 years.

Rather than talking about the missions we assign to the army, rather than contemplating whether the conflict really requires that billions be invested in the construction of additional settlements, we’re still debating whether or not there is a partner on the other side, over recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. That’s how we learned that a solution to the conflict is elusive, and that even though its eventual contours are already quite clear, it continues to be dragged out, as if a solution will never be achieved – and as if we will have to continue “managing” our little dictatorship in the territories forever.

That is how the right wing, with the left’s assistance, is able to continue obscuring reality and the implications of the military rule that we have been violently imposing on millions of people for decades. Fighting the occupation and exposing its injustices and its ramifications is not a mission that should be borne solely by former combat soldiers who wish to share their testimonies with the public. The entire left should be doing this.

Today, even Meretz doesn’t make a very prominent issue of it. It had demanded change through “peace negotiations now,” but what kind of peace is possible without ending the occupation? And what have the Labor Party or Kahol Lavan had to say about it, when they have done everything to avoid the word peace?

Ending the occupation doesn’t require that we pledge loyalty to a New Middle East. It doesn’t require us to end a very long conflict that has religious, national and historic roots. It requires something much simpler – ending our military control over another people.

A left wing that fails to differentiate between ending the conflict and the unnecessary cost that maintaining our military grip on the territories exacts from us will continue to lose the battle for the voters’ trust. The occupation is the main fuel that is fanning the conflict. It is therefore also the most important problem that must be solved, so that we can start to look for a way to end the conflict.

But there seems to be hardly anyone on the Jewish parliamentary left who is ready to go on the offensive and demand that the right start providing answers: yes or no to ruling millions of people by force; yes or no to permanently maintaining one law for Jews and another for Arabs. And for how long?

The right wing knows how to make use of its time in power. We see that in the territories and in the anti-democratic moves that have characterized the Netanyahu governments of the last decade, many of which were designed to facilitate the perpetuation of the occupation.

President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights could, according to a “senior diplomatic source,” serve as a precedent for similar moves in the West Bank. These two populist leaders are hoping that their solemn pronouncements will overshadow the reality of the occupation. But it won’t work.

In this week’s election, I was guided in my vote to support those with the wisdom and boldness to distinguish between ending the conflict and ending the occupation, those who make ending the occupation the starting point.

The writer is the executive director of Breaking the Silence