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A Chance to Shake Israel’s Zionist Consensus

While Israel’s Palestinian parties are energized and growing, the constraints of the country’s Zionist institutions have kept them marginalized. But mainstream Jewish left parties could change that — if only they were willing to put aside Zionist shibboleths and forge an alliance based on common interests.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the head of Israel's Arab parliamentary bloc, Ayman Odeh, during a discussion to vote on the dissolution of the Israeli parliament in the Knesset on December 26, 2018 in Jerusalem. Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

The two elections Israel has held so far this year may not have produced a prime minister, but they have at least brought clarity to the catastrophic state of the Israeli left. It feels inadequate to speak merely of a pro-occupation consensus when, outside the radical right, the Palestinians are hardly mentioned at all. With no two-state solution on the horizon, the Left has simply stopped discussing solutions. Campaigning on Netanyahu’s corruption or the skyrocketing ultra-orthodox population is better politics than talking about a political settlement, which sounds like an abstraction after decades of an abortive “peace process.”

The program currently supported by Israel’s left parties – separation – is quite different from a two-state solution. Under a separation model, Israel would retain Jerusalem as its “undivided capital,” along with the main settlement blocs, which are home to the majority of the settler population. Palestinians would be given a measure of superficial control over their Bantustan-like territory, but it would remain demilitarized, fragmented, and subject to nightly IDF raids: far short of genuine self-government.

Sometimes, as with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, separation is dressed up as a revivified two-state solution, though it is more often presented as an alternative to two states. The appeal of such a program is obvious: it allows opposition politicians to gesture toward peace while carefully avoiding Palestinian sovereignty, to preserve an impregnable Jewish majority between the river and the sea, and to present their capitulation as resistance to a Western media still hungry for liberal Zionist heroes.

For a plurality of Israelis, separation offers a middle path between an “impossible” position (evacuating the West Bank of settlers) and an intolerable one (ethnically cleansing the West Bank of Palestinians). It is a way of putting the conversation on pause: of getting the Palestinians “out of our sight,” as the centrist politician and separation advocate Yair Lapid put it in 2016. This is as much an illusion as its alternatives – the occupation can’t be held in place forever, nor can the Palestinians simply be ignored – but it offers temporary relief from what has become a prominent current in Israeli politics in recent years. Full-scale annexation has long been the eschaton of the radical right, but never before have they operated in a political climate so favorable to it, or alongside a prime minister so willing to indulge it. Aided by the total absence of a left opposition to the occupation, the annexation “Eretz Yisrael” – formerly the libidinal fantasy of religious kooks – is now just another policy, lying comfortably inside the Overton window.

The Potential of the Joint List

But this tale of inexorable right-wing drift isn’t the whole story. In reality, it is the Jewish left that has collapsed — the Jewish left that lacks institutions or an organizing mission. As evidenced by September’s election, there is today a thriving Arab left operating within Israel, represented electorally by the Joint List. The List, whose thirteen parliamentary seats make it Israel’s third largest party by a comfortable margin, is a somewhat motley jumble of allegiances and tendencies, encompassing advocates of a two-state solution, advocates for a single binational state, and a small Islamist faction who more closely resemble Israel’s ultra-religious than their secular Arab partners.

The chief obstacle preventing the List from turning what they have (numbers) into what they want (power) is Israel’s Zionist institutions. One of these is the Knesset, the parliament in which they sit. Although the List are allowed to take their seats and bring forward legislation, as Israel’s defenders never tire of repeating, there are hard de facto limits to their participation. No Arab party has ever formed part of a ruling coalition, nor acted as the official opposition. To invite them in, it is tacitly agreed, would do irrevocable damage to Israel’s Jewish character.

The List’s predicament is further complicated by the terms of their current success, which has more to do with local Arab Israeli concerns than national Palestinian ones. The electoral mandate of their leader, Ayman Odeh, stems from a promise to address the particular set of problems facing Palestinian citizens of Israel: social exclusion, the crime wave sweeping Arab communities, the nation-state law that inscribes Arab citizenship as second-class.

The problem isn’t the focus of Odeh’s vision, exactly — all these problems demand attention. It’s more its scope, and the structural limits imposed upon it by the trifurcation of Palestine into Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel proper. Though all three populations share a common goal — self-determination — their material contexts, and thus their political programs, are no longer meaningfully similar. This was starkly illustrated shortly after the election, when a thirty-thousand-strong crowd gathered in the town of Majd al-Krum to demand, among other things, an increased police presence in Arab towns. All Palestinians are victims of Israeli state racism, but it’s hard to imagine residents of Ramallah protesting under-policing.

More effective policing in Arab towns, jobs programs to tackle Arab poverty, even the cancellation of the nation-state law: all of Odeh’s demands could be fulfilled without materially furthering the Palestinian national cause as such. Provided that the conversation remains firmly on problems afflicting Palestinians inside the Green Line, Israel could even accommodate Arab parties in government without genuine disruption. After all, there’s no more effective Hasbara than the Arab judge who sits on the Supreme Court, or the Bedouin general who leads Jewish troops into battle.

What’s sorely needed is a politician who takes all of Palestine as their subject, rather than the limited portion of it that is eligible to vote. Whether Odeh is that politician remains to be seen: some inside the party seem not to think so, and he has been criticized for being too conciliatory toward Israeli power. But even asking the question may miss the point. Though the Joint List is in a more propitious position than they were in April, their thirteen seats still only translate to 10.6 percent of the voting population, in a country where one in five is Palestinian. If the List is to represent Palestinians living in Rafah and Nablus as well as in Acre, they must first be in a position to extract meaningful concessions on their behalf. Impotent resistance is no use to anyone. They must, in effect, force themselves upon Israeli politics — but they can’t do it alone.

An Arab-Jewish Alliance?

The question of how best to exploit Israel’s democratic structures is a complicated one. Measures like organized busing and a get-out-the-vote campaign might drive up the List’s vote share, but sheer numbers aren’t enough: as noted earlier, the Arab parties are essentially locked out of Israeli electoral politics.

However, because this is only a de facto prohibition, it requires the will of the left Zionist parties — I am thinking here of Labor and Meretz — to overcome it. If the Jewish left parties made the inclusion of the List an immutable condition of their own place in coalition — and if the List had the electoral leverage to avoid being sequestered in some minor ministry — then the prospect of Palestinians holding real power in Israel would, for the first time, become tangible. It would at least force the issue. It is possible, perhaps likely, that the horror of Arab governance would galvanize Israel’s center-right majority to forget their (mostly ornamental) differences and form a government of national unity. But in such a situation, the confidence votes of the left parties would then be sufficient to install the List as Israel’s official opposition, and Odeh as the prime minister’s chief interlocutor.

An Arab-Jewish alliance of this kind could help resuscitate causes that have long seemed lifeless — the liberation of Gaza from blockade, a freeze on settlement construction, perhaps even settlement evacuation. But the promise of such an alliance goes way beyond policy. What it offers, tantalizingly, is a fundamental recalibration of Israeli politics.

Apartheid, no longer limited to the West Bank, increasingly describes the way life functions within Israel proper. The nation-state law doesn’t only etch Arabs’ second-class status into the constitution, it also downgrades the status of the Arabic language from “official” to merely “special.” This is motivated partly by fear: for all their bluster about Iran, what really keeps Israeli politicians up at night is demography, and the prospect of losing their absolute Jewish majority. One way of reading the nation-state law is as a model for a post-two-state society, in which Israel combats this prospect by creating a formal hierarchy of citizenship, with Jews on top.

The radical potential of an Arab-Jewish alliance is to suggest a post-two-state alternative — an equal, democratic future for all those who live on the land. It would redraw, in a fundamental way, the political map, constituting Palestinians as political subjects in a country premised on divesting them of political power.

For liberal Zionist Israelis, there are two principal reasons to favor an Arab-Jewish alliance. First, the rejuvenation of Israel’s democracy, which has been degraded by ten years administration by Netanyahu and his allies to the right. In service of legitimizing the occupation, hard-right politicians like former justice minister Ayelet Shaked have created an authoritarian, interventionist judiciary, transforming the law itself — previously the best weapon the liberals had — into an instrument of settler domination. Getting some genuine opposition back into Israeli politics would inject some life into its ailing democratic institutions.

Second, an Arab-Jewish alliance would neuter the ultrareligious camp, helping stall Israel’s increasing theocratic drift. The rapid growth of the Haredi community has given their parties immense political power, which they have used to resist the growing rancor elsewhere in Israeli society about their dependence on welfare programs and exemption from military service. Resentment of this camp runs deep for secular Israelis, but dependence upon it is not inevitable: at 12 percent, Haredis still comprise a relatively small portion of the population and only occupy their privileged position because of the political exclusion of Israeli Arabs.

An Inclusive Alternative

All this might be read as hopelessly optimistic: after all, I began by describing the desperate state of the Jewish left. But even here there is uncertainty: does the invisibility of Left parties reflect an absence of leftism, or are left-wing Jews afflicted by a sense of learned helplessness, because there is no Left party to represent their views?

There is good evidence that a lot of Jews would flock to a genuine, inclusive alternative, if it were on offer. A 2018 poll suggested that one-fifth of Israeli Jews support the Palestinian right of return; the same poll showed that one-fifth support a single democratic state — a position totally unrepresented in Jewish electoral politics. And in September’s election, the Joint List received eighteen thousand Jewish votes — not an earth-shattering figure, but significantly higher than ever before.

Moreover, the prospect of an Arab-Jewish alliance is not as distant as it might seem. Before September’s election, Israel’s leftmost Zionist party, Meretz, shifted to the right by forming a temporary electoral alliance with the hawkish former prime minister Ehud Barak — more evidence, seemingly, of the Left’s terminal decline. But far from being inevitable, this was in fact the result of an intraparty struggle that had briefly threatened to resolve in a far more radical direction.

After a dismal showing in April’s election saw the party nearly fall short of the electoral threshold, a faction within Meretz proposed that they become a fully-fledged binational party, led jointly by Arabs and Jews. The proposal eventually came to nothing, and Meretz settled on Barak as an alternate means of passing the threshold. But it shows that the death of two-statism has brought a clarifying energy — if not an equivalent sense of urgency — to the Left. The choice is clear: Do they shift right to preserve Israel as it is, or abandon separation and try and create something new, something better?

A New Politics

With coalition talks deadlocked, Israel appears to be barreling toward yet another election in which Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and its center-right rivals Blue and White will battle it out for the third time in the span of a year. If Netanyahu’s pending corruption trial forces him to resign, the chances of a unity government increase significantly, and the prospects of the Joint List entering government correspondingly diminish.

But the idea of an Arab-Jewish alliance is bigger than any one election. It points beyond itself: not only would it provide an embryonic binational left with an institution through which to operate, it would act as a model for the new politics its proponents are trying to build. There is no future but a shared one.