Gil Troy: Center Field: A Yom Kippur for the Left

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-11-09

Regardless of who ends up as prime minister after what seems to be emerging as the Israeli equivalent of the George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock of 2000, Election Day 2009 was “a Yom Kippur for the Left,” as one Meretz activist called it. The once-dominant Labor Party and once-rising Meretz Party have both been humiliated. The elections’ three winners, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, all launched their careers from the Right, while Lieberman’s aggressive campaign demonizing Israeli Arabs set the election tone.

As Israel’s critics around the world and at home mourn this “rightward shift” and the rise of the “ultra-nationalist” Lieberman, as they fret about dimming prospects for a two-state solution, instead of further demonizing the country they should apologize, in the true spirit of Yom Kippur. The rightward shift resulted from the failure of the Left’s ideas at home – and the betrayal by liberals from around the world.

Israelis have turned rightward because the failure of territorial concessions has been compounded by a broken covenant with the world. For decades liberal critics pounded two ideas into Israelis’ heads. The first was that if the country withdrew from the territories it conquered in 1967, Palestinians – and the rest of the Arab world – would make peace. The second, related, assumption was an implicit compact that whatever security risks Israel took by ceding territory would be compensated for by the world’s friendship.

TRAGICALLY, NEITHER the Oslo peace process nor the Gaza disengagement produced the desired results. In fact, many Israelis feel that the more they risked for peace, the more they suffered from those risks, the greater was the world’s disapproval. Of course, Israel is not blameless. But whatever missteps it made pale in comparison to the three tragic truisms now dominating the political consciousness: Oslo’s concessions resulted in terrorists murdering more than 1,000 people; disengaging from Gaza resulted in thousands of missiles raining on the South; and both times, when the country finally defended itself, the worldwide chorus of denunciation was so intense it fanned the flames of anti-Semitism.

It may be a reflection of living in a small, embattled democracy surrounded by autocrats and terrorists demanding your destruction, but Israelis are particularly sensitive to world opinion. Moreover, the mainstreaming of rhetoric that “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and that Jews are “apes and monkeys” is particularly painful for a people still healing from the Holocaust. True, talking about “the world’s” attitude vastly oversimplifies. But the shorthand works, considering how monolithic the criticism seems to be and how lethal previous rhetoric proved to be.

IT IS PARTICULARLY demoralizing to see how anger at Israel’s behavior absolves Palestinians of responsibility – and seems to sanitize terrorism. “The world” should denounce Palestinians for harming the possibility of a two-state solution, first in turning away from negotiations and toward terrorism in September 2000, then again for choosing to build Gaza into a base for launching Kassams rather than a model for a future state. “The world” should be furious at Hamas’s rise, with the Islamists once again murdering supposed infidels while killing or maiming fellow Muslims who dare to disagree. “The world” should demand Palestinians change their culture of martyrdom, taking some historic responsibility for their failures to compromise.

“The world” should note that Israel’s Arabs fueled Lieberman’s campaign against them by applauding demagogic leaders like Azmi Bishara who spew hatred against the Jewish state. Instead, Palestinians’ crimes or excesses are tolerated and rationalized; “the world” gives Palestinians a free pass.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, it is remarkable that so many remain willing to risk for peace, that so many former rightists like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert now champion the two-state solution. Even Lieberman is open to territorial compromise. This willingness reflects how ingrained the culture of peace is. For all the talk we hear about the “rightward shift,” Kadima, Livni’s centrist party, seems to have won the most votes. The estimated Right-Left breakdown in the Knesset of 64 to 56 remains quite balanced – and Israel remains the only liberal country in the Middle East, judging by its commitment to equality, to democracy, to social justice, of sensitivity to women, to homosexuals, to racial diversity.

Over the next few weeks, as politicians use the votes they earned to bargain like peasant merchants at a Middle Eastern shouk, world opinion should note the subtleties amid the crudity. No matter what the ruling coalition’s constellation, no matter who leads, the country will still seek a true peace.

While its critics will always look – almost exclusively – at the cards it holds and scrutinize whatever it does, Palestinians will remain far more in control of their destiny than their enablers admit. If Palestinians want a state – and want peace – they need to build a political culture devoted to nation-building, not martyrdom. And if leftists want to see progress in the Middle East, they must push for Palestinian reforms while rebuilding the world’s covenant with Israel.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and thus renewal. Perhaps this “Yom Kippur of the Left” will lead to a new Middle East dynamic that replaces the “bad Israel, blameless Palestinians” paradigm with one of mutual responsibility leading to mutual trust, with gradual steps toward stability, not headlong rushes into one-sided blame games.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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