Israel’s “Peace Camp” Flirts with Oblivion

For Israel’s so-called peace camp, the past 12 months of general elections – a third ballot is due on 2 March – have felt more like a prolonged game of Russian roulette, with ever-diminishing odds of survival.

Each time the electoral gun barrel has been spun, the two parliamentary parties associated with liberal Zionism, Labor and Meretz, have braced for their imminent political demise.

And now with Israel’s ultra-nationalist right celebrating the release of Donald Trump’s so-called “vision” for peace, hoping it will further rally the Israeli public to its side, the left fears electoral extinction even more.

Faced with this threat, Labor and Meretz – along with a third, even smaller center-right faction, Gesher – announced in January that they were merging into a united list in time for the March vote.

Amir Peretz, head of Labor, was frank that the parties were being forced into an alliance.

“There’s no choice, even if we’re doing it against our will,” he told party officials.

In September’s ballot, separate Labor and Meretz parties barely scraped past the electoral threshold.

The once-dominant Labor party, whose early leaders founded Israel, won just five seats – its lowest-ever polling – in the 120-sear parliament.

The more left-leaning Zionist party Meretz secured just three seats. It was saved only by its own union with two smaller, supposedly centrist parties.

Always fragile

Even at the height of the Oslo process in the late 1990s, the Israeli “peace camp” was a fragile, insubstantial construct. There was little meaningful debate among Israeli Jews at the time about what concessions would be required to make peace, and indeed what a Palestinian state might look like.

Recent elections that have made Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu the longest serving Israeli prime minister and the general excitement over the Trump “peace” plan, have indicated that the constituency among Israeli Jews for a peace process – even of the most mealy-mouthed variety – has all but vanished.

Since Trump became US president, the chief opposition to Netanyahu has shifted from Labor to the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli military who was responsible for destroying Gaza in 2014.

His party was born a year ago, in time for last April’s vote and in last year’s two general elections, Gantz and Netanyahu’s parties have effectively tied.

Commentators, especially in North America and Europe, have lumped Blue and White in with Labour and Meretz as the Israeli “center-left.” But Gantz’s party has never presented itself that way.

It is firmly on the right, attracting voters tired either of Netanyahu’s much discussed corruption woes – he faces imminent trial on three separate counts of fraud and bribery – or of his constant pandering to the most religious sections of Israeli society, such as followers of the Orthodox rabbinate and the settler movement.

Gantz and his party have appealed to voters who hanker after a return to a more traditional, secular right-wing Zionism that Likud once represented – under figures such as Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin.

It was therefore no surprise that Gantz has competed with Netanyahu to support the Trump plan’s sanctioning of the annexation of the West Bank’s illegal settlements and the Jordan Valley.

But Israel’s lurch rightwards began long before the creation of Blue and White. And for some time now, both the Labour and Meretz parties have tried to respond by flaunting more hawkish credentials.

Leaving Oslo

Under a series of different leaders, Labor has increasingly dissociated itself from the principles of the Oslo accords it signed in 1993. The discrediting of that process occurred largely because Labor itself refused at the time to engage in good faith in peace talks with the Palestinian leadership.

In 2011, in a sign widely interpreted as the reinvention of Labor, leading candidate, and later party head, Shelly Yachimovich observed that the settlements, which violate international law, were not a “sin” or a “crime.”

In a moment of frankness, she rightly credited Labor with creating them: “It was the Labor Party that founded the settlement enterprise in the territories. That is a fact. A historical fact.”

This gradual slide away from even paying lip service to peace making culminated in the election of wealthy businessman Avi Gabbay as Labor leader in 2017. Gabbay’s apparent appeal to party members was that he was untainted by any past association with the peace camp.

Gabbay had helped found the right-wing Kulanu party in 2014 along with Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud finance minister. Gabbay himself, though unelected, briefly held a ministerial position in the far-right Netanyahu coalition after the 2015 election.

Once installed as Labor leader, Gabbay echoed the right by largely scrubbing the peace process from the party platform. He declared that any concessions to the Palestinians did not need to include the “evacuation” of settlements.

He also suggested that it was more important that Israel keep all of Jerusalem, including the occupied east, than reach a peace agreement.

His successor (and twice predecessor), Amir Peretz, may appear more dovish on paper. But he has cultivated ties to the Gesher party, founded by Orly Levi-Abekasis in late 2018.

Levi-Abekasis is a former legislator for Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party that has repeatedly joined Netanyahu governments and is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister and a settler.

Palestinian minority abandoned

Meretz has undergone an even more dramatic move away from its origins as a peace party, the purpose for which it was specifically created in 1992.

Until recently, the party had been the only parliamentary faction avowedly committed to ending the occupation, and had put peace talks at the centre of its platform. However, since the fading of Oslo at the end of the 1990s, it has never won more than half a dozen seats.

Since 2014, in fact, Meretz has hovered dangerously close to electoral oblivion. That year, the Netanyahu government raised the electoral threshold to four seats for entry into parliament in a bid to evict four parties representing Israel’s large minority of 1.8 million Palestinian citizens.

The Palestinian parties responded by creating a Joint List to surmount the threshold. And in a clear example of unintended consequences the Joint List is currently the Knesset’s third largest party.

For its part, Meretz has been racked by divisions about how to proceed.

After last year’s April election, when it barely scraped in, there were voices in Meretz demanding that it develop in a new direction, promoting Jewish-Arab partnership. Its largely token “Arab” representatives, Issawi Freij and Ali Salalah, were reported to have saved the party by bringing in a quarter of its vote tally in April from Israel’s Palestinian citizens, the remnants of those expelled from their lands in 1948 during the Nakba.

The Palestinian minority have grown increasingly polarized politically, exasperated by Jewish parties’ failure to engage with their concerns about the systematic discrimination they face.

Most vote for the Joint List. But a small section of the Palestnian minority appears to be tiring of casting what amounts to a protest vote.

With ever greater anti-Arab incitement from the right, led by Netanyahu himself, some had appeared ready to reach out to Israeli Jewish society through Meretz.

Some Meretz officials, led by Freij, even proposed trying to split the Joint List and forge an alliance with some of its parties, especially Hadash-Jebha, a socialist alliance that already includes a minority Jewish section.

But in the run-up to September’s vote, Meretz leaders effectively quashed any further cultivation of these tentative ties to the Palestinian minority. In July, the party signed up to a new faction, called the Democratic Union, with two new parties led by former Labour politicians – Stav Shaffir’s Green Movement and Ehud Barak’s Democratic Party.

Unlikely partners

Shaffir had alienated many Palestinian citizens during short-lived social justice protests in 2011 in which she leapt to prominence. Protest leaders worked hard to keep Palestinian citizens at arm’s length, and ignored issues related to the occupation, so as to build a broad Jewish Zionist coalition.

Barak’s record – the former prime minister was the one who set the peace camp on its path to self-destruction by declaring that the Palestinians were no “partner for peace” – was even more problematic.

He described his new Democratic Party as “to the right of the Labor party”. Its platform made no mention of a two-state solution and the need to end the occupation.

Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of Meretz, justified the alliance at the time on the grounds “we need to increase our [electoral] strength.”

And aside from Barak’s role in disrupting the Oslo process, he also oversaw as prime minister a violent police crackdown in 2000 on civil protests by Palestinian citizens at the start of the second intifada that killed 13 people.

Barak lost a prime ministerial election the next year after Palestinian citizens boycotted the ballot en masse in anger, effectively paving the way to victory for his Likud challenger, Ariel Sharon.

Only last year, nearly two decades later, did Barak issue an apology for his role in those 13 deaths as the apparent price of entering the union with Meretz.

Meretz has now dropped the alliance with Barak and Shaffir. But in doing so, it has moved even further to the right. Its January electoral pact with Labor and Gesher for the 2 March election appears to slam the door shut on any future Jewish-Arab partnership.

Meretz has shunted Freij, its top-placed Palestinian candidate, to an unrealistic 11th slot.

Recent polls suggest the new union will secure only nine seats.

An improbable constellation

Neither Meretz nor Labor has ever really represented a meaningful peace camp. Both have a record of enthusiastically supporting every recent offensive war Israel has started, though sections of Meretz have usually expressed second thoughts as the operations have dragged on and casualties mounted.

Few, even in Meretz, have clarified what peace would entail, or how they envision a Palestinian state.

Trump’s “vision” has answered these questions in ways that are entirely negative for the Palestinians. But his plan accords with polls indicating that much less than half of Israeli Jews support any kind of Palestinian state, viable or otherwise.

Equally problematic for the liberal Zionists of Meretz and Labor is how to tackle the systematic discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens without undermining the state’s legally enforced Jewish status.

Israel’s Zionist foundations require privileges for Jewish citizens over Palestinian citizens, from immigration to land rights, and segregation between the two populations in social spheres, from residency to education.

But without some kind of pact with the Palestinian minority, it is impossible to see how the so-called peace camp can have any electoral impact as prophesized last year by former Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg.

The conundrum is that to win power from the far and religious right led by Netanyahu would depend on an almost impossible alliance with both the secular, militaristic right, led by Gantz, and with the Joint List.

Given the anti-Arab racism rampant in Israeli society, no one really believes such a political constellation is feasible. That is part of the reason Netanyahu, religious extremists and the settlers continue to set the political agenda, while the Israeli “center-left” remains empty-handed.

• First published in Electronic Intifada

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.