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Israel’s Zionist left: A chronicle of ambivalence

The recent carnage in Gaza has revealed the true colors of the anti-war movement in Israel
Israeli right wing protesters attack left wing activists during the first demo in Tel Aviv against the war, July 12 (MEE/Oren Ziv)

Israel’s most recent attacks on Gaza brought to light concerning facts about Israel’s left. Anti-war demonstrations are organised and executed, by many, for one singular purpose; safeguarding the moral integrity, international reputation and overall security of the State of Israel. The human rights of the Palestinians, on the other hand, seem to be, among these groups, an inferior issue. While some leftist groups stood unwavering behind the army’s actions, others protested, others remained silent. The fractured responses of these groups has led many to lose trust in the intentions of the Israeli left altogether

The left-bloc

The Zionist left and the anti-Zionist left in Israel have always had their disagreements, but also much cooperation. What is termed today as the left-bloc starts at the center of the map with the Labor party, which has non-apparent differences in agenda from the now in power right-wing “Likud” Party. Moving further left there is the Zionist Meretz party, the Arab-Jewish party Hadash, and the Arab-Jewish Da’am party, which failed to cross the minimum threshold to the Knesset in the last elections.

Outside the parliament, one finds the Zionist Peace Now movement, which lead the popular protests against the Lebanon War in the 1980s. At the height of its activity, Peace Now managed to mobilise over 400,000 Israelis. In the beginning of 2000, at the peak of the Second Palestinian Intifada (al- Aqsa’s Intifada), the movement was protesting under the demand, “get out of the territories for Israel.” This slogan sums up the Zionist left approach to what is termed “the conflict”: Every agreement signed is about keeping a Jewish majority between the 67’ borders.

At the height of the Second Intifada, probably the lowest point for the Israeli left after the Camp David talks, a small group of anarchists issued a flyer that sums up the radical left’s criticism on the Zionist left:

“The Israeli left is not capable to stop the brutality of the [Ariel] Sharon government (or Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Yitzhak Rabin before him) because its hands are tied in obedience to the army. The Israeli left declares it does not believe in a military solution, but at the same time, he will recruit to the army and give it full backup [...] by that, the Israeli left dismantles the potential it has to stop the Israeli war machine.”

Recent anti-war protests

Over a decade has passed since these lines were handed out in the streets of Tel Aviv, and they are as true now as ever before. Over ten anti-war protests were held in Tel Aviv by Israeli activists during the latest attack on Gaza. Only one of them was organised by the Zionist left.

A few days after the Israeli army found the bodies of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach and 24 hours after Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, Israel launched its attack on Gaza. Two- hundred left-wing activists from Anarchists Against the Wall (AATA), Coalition Women for Peace and Da’am party were out protesting on the street.

Israeli left wing activists protest against the war in Tel Aviv July 26. Meretz and peace now did not join the demo. (MEE/Oren Ziv)

It wasn’t long until Palestinian cities inside 48’ Israel were holding protests of thousands, facing harsh police brutality that lead to dozens of arrests. The steadfast activists in Tel Aviv were facing violent attacks from right-wingers, who came to protest against them. A few small groups of right-wing nationalists followed the dispersing crowd and attacked left-wing protesters on their way home. Others were injured and needed medical care.

A prominent activist who asked to stay anonymous told us about the dynamics between her group and the Meretz party:

“We asked them to join us in the protests we were organizing. At the third protest, a few of their grassroots youngsters came, but no big numbers. Meretz leaders say that they were opposing the war from the beginning but they were not out there on the street, and they didn’t go public against it while it was happening.”

In the days following the attack of left-wingers, Peace Now called to stop the incitement against lefties on their Facebook page. Peace Now CEO, Yariv Oppenheimer, helped to clarify this position:

"During a war, our position is very complicated. The state does have the right to defend itself, on the other hand, our understanding is that we were not supposed to be at this point from the first place. It is hard to keep a patriotic message that opposes escalation. Hamas is not making our life easy by opposing a two-state solution and using violence. People from both sides are angry with us: from the left because we did not protest more and from the right because we were not backing the government 100 percent.” 

Oppenheimer also explained to Middle East Eye why Peace Now did not join the more leftist groups:

“We didn’t not agree with their message. Some people in Peace Now felt the message of the radical left does not represent them, and we do need to take under consideration the wider public. We have a lot of frustration and anger with the right taking “ownership” of the army and of patriotism. The right creates a false appearance that there are no ‘lefty’ soldiers, and the best way to approach this is to prove there are tens of thousands of soldiers holding a left-wing agenda, and that they are fighting now a war that the Israeli right is claiming as its own. The big problem today is the public discourse categorizes all criticism on the government as criticism of the army. And this is fatal to any democratic discourse.”

On 17 August, during one of the fragile ceasefires, a large demonstration was organised by Peace Now, Hadash and the Meretz party, where about 10,000 protesters were estimated to be in attendance. Zehava Gal-On, Meretz party Chairwoman, was up on the stage declaring that she had been against the war from day one, although she did not attend or support any of the prior protests.

MK Zehava Galon form Meretz party speaks during a protest for peace in centre Tel Aviv, during a ceasefire in the war, 17 August (MEE/Oren Ziv)

But most of the radical left groups that by then had been protesting for almost a month on, did not attend (Saturday’s demonstration) as they felt the overall message of the protest was too soft on the government.  

Remarking on the protests organised by the above-mentioned groups of the left-bloc, Gal-On said to Al-Monitor: “They held a demonstration in Habima Square [in Tel Aviv] on Saturday night [19 July], and someone from Meretz asked me why I wasn’t there. I told him that while I support their right to demonstrate as long as there is no incitement to violence, under no circumstances will I participate in demonstrations in which they chant, “We are all Mohammed Deif! [leader of the Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades]” and in which they call Israeli pilots “murderers.”

Gal-On refused to answer our questions regarding the ambivalence of Meretz during the war and the above de-legitimizing remark. Nir Nader from Da’am, an Arab-Jewish party which was protesting consistently against the attack from its first day said that, “Meretz were supporting the ceasefire negotiations but didn’t think it was possible to take people out to the streets. When Hamas started targeting Tel Aviv, it was a good excuse for them to stand behind Prime Minister Netanyahu and keep silent.”

Nader continued: “Meretz’s conduct during this attack points to a harsh truth, the extreme right in Israel is no longer the problem, Benet and Lieberman aren’t the problem. The problem is the center, the majority of people in Israel that don’t think in favor of a real solution of the conflict. There is only one test for a party during war, and that is how they address the public, and that is done on the street.”

Video credit: Oren Ziv & Yotam Ronen