The Israeli Left's Zombie Argument

Nir Baram
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Nir Baram

One of the primary concerns of the Zionist left, from the time of Yitzhak Rabin's second government until very recently was, "What will the world think of us?" The argument went like this: In the absence of peace with the Palestinians, or at the very least of negotiations pretending to be serious, Israel will become a pariah state. Its economy will take a serious beating, and the aspiration of most Israelis to deny that they are part of the geographic region in which they live, and to see their country as part of the Western world, will turn out to be illusory. This argument has dominated the discourse of the Zionist left since David Ben-Gurion's day, but gained considerable strength in the 1990s.

It's enough just to look back over the past few years and see how this battered argument tried to justify its core contention by pointing to a host of what ended up being only phantom, not existential, threats: the election of U.S. President Barack Obama; the Palestinian bid for statehood last September at the United Nations; the contempt exhibited by European leaders for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; and "Israel Apartheid Weeks" at universities around the world.

Even without the hollowing-out of the left's pariah-state argument, the truth is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has crushed its heart. For one, the past decade has proved that there is no connection between the occupation and economic growth. If, during the 1990s, the prevailing assumption was that the economic growth Israel then enjoyed was proof that peace was the only engine of growth, then during the 2000s it became clear that one could maintain an occupation regime and grow even more.

Second, the "What will the world think?" argument is breathing its last gasp, even as we speak. We can see how Netanyahu - with no peace initiative, with no negotiations, pretend or otherwise, while continuing to build in the settlements, passing racist laws, and keeping Lieberman in his government - has succeeded in mobilizing the entire world for his effort to destroy the Iranian nuclear project. Moreover, those mobilized include Obama, who, in the contest between himself and Netanyahu, suffered a humiliating defeat.

The Zionist left, made up of Kadima, the Labor Party and parts of Meretz - which always could be counted on to raise the banner of concern for Israel's image in the world - now finds itself confronted with facts that are hard to deny, and the future looks even worse. This is because Israel's newest trading partners in Asia, China foremost among them, don't seem to care much about peace talks with the Palestinians, and certainly have not linked business to an end of the occupation.

An examination of China's business model in Africa shows that China is ready to undertake infrastructure projects worth tens of billions of dollars with no regard at all for the political situation, democracy, elections or women's rights. In 2008, for example, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed a $9.25-billion deal for construction work ranging from roads to hospitals to university campuses, in return for a slice of the natural resources that the DRC has in abundance.

In fact, China has a declared policy of nonintervention in the political affairs of African countries - a policy that, according to the Chinese, contrasts with a Western colonialism that tried to impose its values on the African continent by either capturing territories or providing loans to the post-colonial independent states as they emerged.

In short, even the world's second-largest economic power, which will soon be the first, confirms Netanyahu's assumption that maintaining the diplomatic status quo is possible, and need not carry too painful a price; that one can occupy and settle, and still grow. Thus, at least the way things look now, one can say that the "What will the world think?" argument has become a zombie concept, an assertion of the living dead.

Behind this once-venerable argument was the recognition that it was simply impossible for the left in Israel to promote a peace arrangement with the Palestinians for other, deeper, moral reasons - for instance, because of the Nakba ("the catastrophe," the Palestinians' term for what happened to them when Israel was created ); because we shouldn't be occupiers of another nation; because the Palestinian aspirations to statehood are just; or because torture, assassination, daily policing, middle-of-the-night arrests and using neighbors as "human shields" to lure out terrorists are criminal.

It was understood that trying to justify the need for a peace agreement with such arguments was not patriotic. It was self-hating and obsequious vis-a-vis the Arabs; it was likely to deprive us, the Jews, of our role as the eternal victims, and - most importantly - it wouldn't get any votes. Hence, the need for language that would not come off as capitulation to the Arabs, which would not concede any historic injustice, which would deny the image confronting us in the mirror, and would instead focus on explaining why peace was good for the Jews: See what results it could bring! See how much the world will love us! See how much our economy will grow! None other than President Shimon Peres is the most prominent proponent of this approach.

Naturally, there remain other arguments that the Zionist left likes to use, like "demography" - euphemistically called the "future of Zionism" - but these arguments don't have the apocalyptic power and potential to paint a glorious future that the "world" argument had.

Are we getting closer to the day when the Zionist left will begin to explain the need to end the occupation with arguments related to the history of the occupation, its crimes, the negative values it has instilled, or the desire to be free of the occupied? In other words, to call on Israelis to do some actual soul-searching?

Betting on that happening means accepting long odds, but surely that would be an improvement on the dishonorable fool's game that the left is currently playing.

Nir Baram is a writer whose last two novels, "The Remaker of Dreams" (2006 ) and "Good People" (2010 ), were nominated for Israel's Sapir Prize for Literature.

Nir Baram Credit: Emil Salman