It’s beginning to look nothing like Oslo
The radical right in Israel turned around a certain ideological defeat in 1994. As we on the ‘left’ reach our own turning point, can we find hope again?
Recently, I’ve been yearning for a slow news day. The stories have piled up to a dizzying height, making us miss the halcyon days when things were only marginally depressing.
In Israel, laws have been passed that expropriate Palestinian land and that marginalise NGOs and civil society. Over 5,000 housing units in West Bank settlements have been approved. The right wing is sauntering towards annexation — enabled by President Rivlin, a.k.a “Israel’s conscience” — who brought along the land deed to his very own spot of the West Bank in a dystopian sort of Show & Tell. Critical voices are finding it increasingly difficult to enter Israel, and visa restrictions on Palestinians leaving have tightened. The Israeli Labor Party continues in a state of permanent internal disarray and political ineptitude. This is set against a backdrop of the ‘election’ of a Hamas leader considered more radical than his predecessors, and the resurgence of the nationalist right — and its ‘alt-’ cousin — across America and Europe.
We stand at a historical juncture and we will be judged on what we do next. It is with this in mind that I reflect on the last turning point we saw in Israel-Palestine.
In 1994, the world looked very different. Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat & Shimon Peres stood together, showcasing their Nobel Peace Prizes, conferring on them international legitimacy for the Oslo Accords that would soon establish a Palestinian & Israeli state side-by-side. This came hot-on-the-heels of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, masterminded by the first Democrat to live in the White House in 12 years, Bill Clinton. Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. In Britain, a young Tony Blair stormed to the Labour leadership, promising to overhaul the party and its electoral prospects. In Israel, the Likud had continued to struggle to regain the high watermark of 48 seats and 37% of the vote under Begin in 1981, limping to 32 seats with less than 25% of the vote.
Rather than simply enjoying a brief moment of centre-left nostalgia, we should consider how this might have looked to settlers and right-wing activists at the time. 1994 was a real wake-up call; Judea & Samaria would soon be lost to the Jewish people, and they were positively powerless to stop it. Global opinion had turned against them, creating a consensus around two peaceful states and crowning their enemies as champions of that cause. Ideological defeat seemed inevitable.
Observing the timeline that took us from that moment until now, the arc of the moral universe has been contorted. We are staring at the photo-negative of 1994, the anti-Oslo moment. So, we should take lessons from how the radical right are snatching victory from the jaws of what a generation ago seemed like certain defeat. What was done and what can we, with the benefit of hindsight, do to replicate it?
We must begin where we are today, at the latest nadir that we find ourselves in. It is vital that we do not lose hope. The world in 2017 is full of injustice, and it is tempting to abandon this seemingly-lost cause and refocus on any of the smorgasbord of urgent and relevant issues humanity is facing. Many of the radicals of 1994 turned to scripture to remind them of their moral obligation; find whatever it is that reminds you of your purpose and use it whenever you feel down.
The next step is one that may be the hardest for the modern peace camp: we must focus and we must be representative of much more than the conventional ‘elite bubble’. Groups on the left will often opt to splinter to preserve ideological purity rather than use principles of solidarity in order to build a unified front built around the single issue that matters to us. For the radicals of 1994, it was the belief that the preservation of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel was an inherent divine or political. For the radicals today, it is that the end of occupation and the realisation of Palestinian self-determination is necessary for the survival of the State of Israel. Regardless of other factors, this needs to be our unifying force. Likud were able to win over diverse constituencies from the Mizrachi and former Soviet communities by playing on the hatred of the legacy of Labour Zionism. For us, we need to make sure that we include and lift up the voices of women, people of colour, queer folk, people from Israel’s ‘periphery’ and be particularly attuned to the needs of the Palestinians that we seek to work with. The Mizrachi & former Soviet communities must play a central role. While the old Israeli left succeeded through creating a ‘melting pot’ that subsumed divergent identities into the vision of the ‘new Jew’, we need to go one step further by saying that our diversity strengthens the values that bring us to this cause — our Jewishness, our Israeliness, our Zionism… whatever it is that brings you here — and creates the united movement we need.
Next, we must continue to make sacrifices, using the resources we have at our disposal to create change. Israel has the highest proportion of social and political activists in the world, we are constantly surrounded by people and organisations committed to fighting for human rights in Israel-Palestine. We need to use our skills to support them, or perhaps even join them. Recently, young Jews in America and Israel, have risked arrest to prove a point that continued support of the occupation must end. We need to harness this passion and commitment.
However, the sacrifices we will have to make to achieve our goals will be harder and less comfortable. In 1994, settlers and their supporters took it on themselves to play the long game, joining national and communal institutions and thriving within them. Today, many of Israel’s main institutions are disproportionately led and represented by the right. The number of national-religious officer cadets within the IDF infantry has risen tenfold since 1990 (source), creating a growing sense that large parts of the military may not comply with an order to evacuate settlements en masse. We cannot leave Israel’s national institutions — nor Israel’s national security — to right-wing activists. There is a reason why the former heads of Israel’s security services today are among the loudest mainstream voices against the occupation — and it’s not because they’re committed dovish leftists. We need to make it clear that there is nothing patriotic about entrenching the occupation.
Lastly, we must cultivate new leadership. The most prominent names in today’s Israel were finding their voices when the left was nonchalant and reliant on ‘big beasts’, while the right was passionate and insurgent. It is no accident that Bibi excels when recreating the feeling of being a scrappy underdog; but this bunker mentality has left him isolated and without potential successors. Some of the Israeli left’s most dynamic leaders rose to prominence through the protest movements of 2011, and — unburdened from Peres, our last remaining big beast — we must continue to give a platform to new and challenging voices. In recent years, 21st Century technologies have helped anti-establishment campaigns on right and left build captive audiences. The Israeli far-right has used Facebook and Whatsapp to target anyone who might appear to be a left-wing activist — but they’ve also made a household name of Breaking the Silence. Contemporary European populists of the left like Podemos and Syriza — whatever their faults — have managed to use these tools to build movements for progressive change. Can we flip the social media conversation around the occupation in Israel & the Jewish world on its head?
Stories bring communities together. They are what we use to forge connections with those we have little else in common with. The supporters of settlements and occupation have used the years since 1994 to build a compelling narrative around which to organise, and to reshape politics in their image. Replaying this moment should show us that, if little else, there is still some hope for us.