Shift to the centre could help lefty voices in the diaspora

By Ray Filar, February 28, 2013
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It's tough out there for a left-wing Zionist. You can scarcely enter a student union without tripping over lefty Jews, but those of us who identify at all with Israel have to keep very quiet about it. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Zionism wildly equated with racism, apartheid, Nazism and the perpetuation of all world evils. Conflating "Zionism" with the worst in current Israeli policy, some leftists forget that other approaches to Jewish self-determination ever existed. Or more likely, they never even knew they did. Why bother to research when there's a nice big bandwagon to jump on?

Now, however, this is set in the context of an Israeli political landscape that is perhaps finally shifting. The shock story from January's elections was the rise of the centre-left. Israelis inspired by the social justice movement turned out in droves for Yair Lapid's secular, middle-ground policies and silvery good looks, making his Yesh Atid party the second largest in the Knesset. At the same time, Tzipi Livni's liberal party Hatnuah stole six seats from her former party Kadima, whose choice of a more conservative leader became its downfall. The centre-left bloc now holds 59 seats, the religious-right has 61.

If Lapid joins Netanyahu's coalition and carries on winning over the masses, he could move the goalposts of what is considered "reasonable" back to the political centre. This means renewing focus on the peace process, halting settlement expansion and ending discrimination toward non-Jewish Israeli minorities - policies that both the centre and left can get behind. Such a shift back to the centre would allow Israelis to see Bibi as the hardliner so much of the international community already takes him for.

Since David Cameron's coalition government came to power, the UK has been experiencing this process, but in reverse. The territory of accepted opinion has shifted from centre to right. The abortion debate is a case in point. After the Jeremy Hunt backed halving the time limit to 12 weeks, home secretary Theresa May's call for a cap at 20 weeks - down from 24 - looked less radical. With Hunt's idea drawing the ire of pro-choicers everywhere, May got off scot free for appearing to advocate the common sense option.

Yesh Atid and friends must grit their teeth

In terms of Israel, what Lapid's success signifies is that the door is now open for the resurgence of the Israeli left. In a country where the majority of voters are centrists, left-wing ideas appear more acceptable and less "extreme" than in a dominantly right-wing country. For Peace Now and similar advocacy groups to have an impact again, mainstream Israelis need to be willing to listen. After the election results, we can be hopeful.

It's worth recalling that Israel's existence is premised on Labour Zionist values. In those early, idealistic days, this was reflected in the declaration of independence, which extended "full and equal citizenship" to all, regardless of race or religious belief. Several decades later, it was a left-wing leader - Yitzhak Rabin - whose signing of the Oslo Accords brought peace as close as it has ever been. If Israel is ever to participate in ending the conflict, it will be under the auspices of the left-wing politicians - Jews, Arabs and others - who can put aside existential fears for long enough to see where the power really lies.

So what does this all have to do with British lefty Zionists? Simply this. For as long as the Israeli left languishes in the political wilderness, it damages left-wing Zionists in the diaspora. We have nothing to hold on to. Nothing to back up arguments that there are Zionisms that actively oppose racism, settlements and the litany of other abuses. At the moment, arguing for Zionism within leftwing circles is like banging your head against a wall. We can't say that left leaning Israeli parties are taking realistic steps to support a viable Palestinian homeland if those parties have no bearing on what the Knesset decides.

To win back international support, Yesh Atid and friends must grit their teeth and drag the peace process, kicking and screaming, back to the political spotlight. If Lapid pushes for a peace treaty that the Palestinians could theoretically support - even from a position of opposition - the left can do so too without being sidelined. It may not have any impact on this government, but Bibi won't hold power forever.

It may sound idealistic, but the story of Israel has been about realising the impossible. By the the next elections, British lefty Zionists might be able to point to an Israel that is gearing up for a genuine return to the negotiations table.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist

    Last updated: 3:45pm, February 28 2013