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Why Merav Michaeli Is Upbeat About the Israeli Left

Photograph via flickr

Merav Michaeli, the Israeli journalist and women’s rights activist-turned-Knesset member for the Labor Party, is a sign of hope for a progressive future in Israel. Last Tuesday, she tried to convince an exclusive crowd of worried Jewish leftists gathered in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that there was hope for the upcoming elections and for the future of a democratic Israel. The talk was sponsored by the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, and also included journalists, professors, high-ranking members of the New Israel Fund and Encounter, along with representatives from Hillel, Habonim Dror, and others. What followed was a passionate, sometimes heated, and surprisingly optimistic discussion of the future of the Jewish State and the role American Jews can play.

*The first question asked was about the nationality bill, the controversial proposed law to officially declare Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This question proved an easy one—since there is no Knesset, there will be no nationality bill. When there is a new Knesset, its makeup will likely be so different that it won’t even be proposed again.

*On the coming elections slated for March 17: Though the mood in the room suggested I was not alone in hearing virtually nothing but terrifying predictions of a rout by the right and another term for Netanyahu, if not a first term for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, she was hopeful. For the first time in a long time, she said, there was actually a good chance a center-left coalition headed by her Labor Party will take power, meaning Labor leader Isaac Herzog and not Bibi Netanyahu would be Prime Minister. “The feeling towards Netanyahu right now, there is so much grudge and hatred, people are sick of him. His approval ratings are very, very low,” she said.

To capitalize on this, Labor is busy forming a center-left bloc of parties that will include the recently-fired former justice minister Tzipi Livni and former defense secretary and chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to give Herzog an additional vote of confidence among the public. Though the political climate in Israel is notoriously quick to change, polls show that if the election were held today, this coalition would win the majority of votes. The goal, she said, is to create, “One address for people who want to restore a more democratic Israel, one that works towards narrowing gaps in society.”

*Another important point to come out of this discussion was the surprising and crucial role of the ultra-Orthodox in building this coalition for peace. Unlike religious Zionists, the ultra-Orthodox believe in land-for-peace and have joined left-wing coalitions before. It is also important that these parties were alienated by the current government for Yair Lapid’s strong policies on drafting them into the army, making them even more likely to join the side that he is not on (and Michaeli is adamant that he is not a leftist). Haredim are completely opposed to center-left social policies, of course, but, echoing a common sentiment, Michaeli emphasized that you have to find a solution to the conflict first and everything else comes second.

*On this note, she later mentioned that she wants this to be the first coalition to include an Arab party. How this might come to fruition are a little complicated, as she said, “I am ashamed to say the feeling in the Israeli popular culture today is that you couldn’t even think of doing that. Remember, one of the reasons Rabin was assassinated was because he worked with Arab parties in the Knesset when he went for Oslo,” before emphasizing that that’s what makes clearing this hurdle all the more important.

*On the role American Jews can play in Israeli politics: Michaeli explained that Israelis don’t really understand the diaspora; there is a popular feeling there that, since they provide a safe-haven for diaspora Jewry, there is a deep resentment towards them interfering in Israeli politics.

“Except for Sheldon Adelson,” a man in the room pointed out, referring to the Las Vegas gambling mogul who donates huge sums of money to the Israeli right and funds its largest daily paper, Israel Hayom (Today). That comment brought up a profound point—in a way, Adelson is the reason for these new elections. A bill was recently floated in the Knesset prohibiting the distribution of free newspapers, instead establishing a formula for setting minimum prices. Since Israel Hayom is the only such paper in Israel, and since it is so transparently pro-Bibi, the bill was widely viewed as a referendum on the Prime Minister. The vote was 40 for, 20 against, and Bibi did not recuse himself from the vote. When the results came out, he flipped. This flip-out is what caused the firings of Livni and Lapid, the Nation State Bill, and, ultimately, the elections.

Getting back to Diaspora influence in Israeli politics, the unfortunate fact is that the more pressure outsiders try to put on Israel, the more it will have the opposite effect.

So how can American Jews influence Israeli politics? Through supporting and promoting structures already in place. This means the most effective way to push for peace will be to publicly support candidates such as Herzog who offer an alternative to Bibi’s hawkish foreign policy and right-wing social agenda.

*And what is Herzog and his center-left bloc’s plan to bring peace? “Political will,” Michaeli said. And this is when the room all but exploded.

By “political will”, Michaeli meant, in her words, “We’ve had so many initiatives, so many plans already, and this is not what’s going to work. The key factor that is going to make the difference is political will. You need to want to find a solution. For me, anything Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is a good solution. I don’t want to come up with my idea-this has been the conversation for too long. There are plenty of partners, today more than ever with the common threat of ISIS and world jihadism, there are now more Gulf States that want a partnership with Israel, plus of course Egypt and Jordan.”

But many in the room found this intolerable. “When my Palestinian friend told me she’s glad the polls are showing Bennett might win the election because it will show the world what a racist, colonialist, annexationist state Israel really is, I turn to them and say ‘You’re fucking nuts, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you and your people, we kill your side at a ratio of 40-1, it will be worse for you. You want the Israeli left , because… How do I fill in that blank?’” This is a paraphrase of a comment someone made that reflected a common sentiment in the room.

“We don’t see the left taking about peace in Israel, it’s not even a campaign issue. If it’s not on the agenda, what gets this on the agenda in a way that’s different than the way things have been for the past 20 years which has only made things a lot worse?” another added.

Another woman sharpened that point, comparing Israeli attitudes toward the conflict to American attitudes towards climate change: Everyone knows it will ultimately destroy us all, but what can you really do? “How do you mobilize people around this issue?”

“I don’t have any answers,” Michaeli said.

Someone else tried another tactic, coming up with things Israel could do on its own without having to consult the Palestinians: cutting off water and electricity to hilltop settlements, freezing growth, etc. “How do we show voting for the left changes the game?”

“Why not show how much money is going into settlements?” another chimed in.

Michaeli wouldn’t budge. Then, out of a corner, an older man spoke up: ”Merav is right and you are wrong and here’s why.”

He outlined why he thought the right was doing so well with PR—they know how to capitalize on the confusion, fear, and mistrust felt by many Israelis. If the left says it’s going to “dismantle hilltops, that’s something to do, not to say, because too many people will say ‘they’re starting with the hilltops, they’ll take the Gush next, and my kids live in the Gush,’ so the whole thing unravels.”

“But no one has the charisma to get people on board for that right now!” someone protested.

“Okay, so let’s skip this campaign, we’ll wait for the next one.” Michaeli said.

“Herzog is the leader. Everything you’d want him to do he did at [the previous week’s] Saban Forum,” and another thing that happened at that Saban Forum, people began to realize that Bennett is actually crazy, someone else pointed out, and most of the room seemed to accept that.

This point Michaeli did have something to say about, noting that the right has annexed the language of the left. “When Netanyahu says he’s in favor of 2 states, we are left with nothing to argue for when he does everything in his power to make sure this never happens.” Yet another reason to run on political will.

*At the beginning of this conversation, someone asked about the future of the 2011’s tent protest movement and whether there was any more opportunity for this kind of mass popular movement now. Her answer needs to be quoted in full because I think it exposes the truth of a movement often romanticized in American Jewish circles.

“No, because it was not a movement, it was a festival. For a month in the summer, some people’s kids went to the streets to enjoy themselves and feel like Che Guevara for a little while to feel so good about themselves. The feeling of being non-political and non-partisan was overwhelming in this protest, and not in a good way. The leaders of the protest were fighting amongst themselves, some of them wanted to bring peace into the equation, and they were like ‘No no no no,’ because then you lose the majority, you lose the consensus. The ones who are most distressed by the current situation weren’t there. This is also why the right-wing’s rhetoric of existential threat works so well [because it rechannels people’s anxiety about their situation to national security instead of social reform]. The people who took to the streets were the more privileged ones. You didn’t see the huge amounts of poor there, or the periphery, or ultra-Orthodox populations. In American terms, it was a very WASP sort-of thing.”

*On the recent violence: What happened recently in Jerusalem, I think it was on purpose. I think Bibi was cornered, politically–post-Gaza War backlash, there were no negotiations, the Americans were out of it, the Palestinians were going to the UN to ask for a Security Council resolution, so he had to show that Palestinians are the bad ones, they’re the violent ones, and he did that by letting people up on the Temple Mount, and it worked like magic.

*On the future of the 2 State Solution: The 2 state solution sounds like a cliche, it’s used so often it’s worn out. … I have to admit, I don’t know if the old-fashioned 2 states is the right thing right now. We’ve tried all these plans: Road Map, Annapolis, the Quartet Plan, etc., and there are now these alternate plans, many of them at the grassroots. There is one brought up by leftist Israelis and some settlers and Palestinians that talks about 2 Federations, with bi-national institutions, with separations between residents and citizenship, that people will not have to be evacuated at all, they don’t want to correct one wrong by creating another wrong. Some settlers have been there 50 years already, they have had generations So there are plenty of options, it’s about wanting to make one of them work. Really, this is the only thing that makes a difference. You can bring the most fabulous solution to the table and you can make sure it doesn’t work and that one doesn’t like it or that someone is ruining it. Both in terms of campaign, it is wrong for the center-left to come up with concrete plans and definite promises, but also in substance. This should not be happening after 47 years.

*My take-away at the end: Things aren’t as dire for the left as the news and the preliminary polls would have it seem. The growing extremism of the right represents a golden opportunity for the left to cash in on. More than formulating any one sure-to-fail-or-draw-deep-suspicion-from-one-side or another Final Plan for Peace, their best strategy is to call out the right for its ultra-nationalism and annexationism and promote themselves as pro-democracy and pro-peace. The best thing American Jews can do to support this is to donate to causes that work within the Israeli system and to use the means at their disposal to promote the new leftist bloc at home.

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