The Israeli left starts to turn from idealism to pragmatism

It’s often said that the left in Israel not only is decimated, but continues to cling to long outdated idealism about how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians and withdraw from the West Bank. Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg’s Aug. 5 editorial in the New York Times (“Israel’s Fading Demo-cracy?”) is illustrative of this.

Certainly the left is no longer in the dominant position it once was. The conventional date for the beginning of its end is 1977, when the Labor Party lost the election to Likud. Not only did the right’s version of Zionism and the West Bank become dominant, but Labor was stagnating. Changing demographics undermined Labor’s popular appeal and the state bureaucracy — previously filled with party officials and sympathizers — soon was replaced by non-Laborites.

The left fell into an ideational and political rut from which it did not emerge until Yitzhak Rabin and Labor won the 1992 elections. But it was a shaky victory: The murder of Rabin, Hamas’ terrorism campaign in 1996 and the right’s continued campaign against those who argued for making deals with the PLO de-legitimized the entire left. Israeli leaders who drove the Oslo talks were cast as representative of the naive and out-of-touch idealism of the left.

It is true that the left entered a fantasy world for the rest of the 1990s and part of the 2000s. It retreated into itself, lamenting its previous power and accomplishments, and sulking at the population’s lack of interest. The Labor Party wasted time destroying itself by incessant infighting and incoherent policy messages.

Then, the main goal the left had been promoting since 1992 — resolving the conflict with the Palestinians through land withdrawals — was appropriated. Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza settlements and formed the Kadima Party, drawing away some of the left’s former leaders (including Shimon Peres, closely associated with Oslo) and its voters.

The paradox, however, is Sharon proved that the left’s ideas were no longer untenable, they just lacked the right politics. A great many on the left have come to realize this. But many outside observers don’t make this distinction. Instead, they hold to the evocative writings of Burg or intellectuals like Amos Oz and David Grossman. While these writers call out the right on the damage they contend it’s doing to Israel, they remain tied to a nostalgic and passive notion of what the left should look like. And observers see them as the true representation of the Israeli left.

They aren’t. None of them represents the fierce anger and the increasing pragmatism that has emerged on the left.

At the same time, the part of the left that is involved in politics more directly does not share that older sense of idealism or wish to return to the “good old days” of the early 1990s. They have adopted a grittier realism based on analysis of public opinion trends and contemporary conditions.

As Lior Amihai of Peace Now explained to me during a recent tour of the West Bank, the moral argument against occupation simply no longer matters — Israelis are not directly concerned with it anymore. Rather, given the growing economic disparities in Israel, the social protests, the preoccupation with consumerism and their own individual priorities, Israelis care more about the costs of occupation.

Peace Now’s new campaign focuses on the tiny percentage of the settler population as the recipient of massive government expenditures. The settlements, they argue, should be evacuated because they hurt Israelis within the Green Line by siphoning off government resources.

Labor also has adopted this change of direction. Its new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, refuses to discuss either the conflict or the settlements, preferring to hit Netanyahu and Likud on social and economic policy. If current polling trends are anything to go by, the tactic is working.

The right remains dominant in Israeli politics, and that’s unlikely to change in the next election. But it’s a mistake to think of the Israeli left as stuck in the 1990s. It isn’t, and we should not assume the older intellectuals are the source of its ideas today.

Brent Sasley teaches Israeli and Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington, and blogs at Mideast Matrix. He can be reached on Twitter on