Analysis from Israel

It’s easy to see why political polarization is so bitter today in both Israel and America these days: Moderation is a “lose-lose” proposition, winning politicians no credit from their opponents while alienating elements of their own base. This problem exists on both sides of the aisle. But two unusually candid left-wing assessments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provide a particularly clear example of how it works and why it’s bad for both sides.

In an interview with Haaretz last month, senior opposition politician Tzipi Livni noted (as I have repeatedly) that Netanyahu built very little in the settlements during his 10 years in office. “Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it,” she said, referring to the Palestinian issue.

Moreover, she continued, “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible.”

His problem, she charged, is that he’s under pressure from his rightist base on various issues, and sometimes, “he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in the previous Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations]—his actual positions are different.”

What makes this astounding is that Livni and her compatriots on the left have spent most of the past decade saying exactly the opposite—that Netanyahu is responsible for massive settlement construction, that he’s anti-peace. And this has serious real-world consequences.

The first and worst is that this narrative, which Livni now admits is false, has been widely embraced by American Jews and the Democratic Party. That’s bad for Israel as a whole, as it has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among both groups.

To be clear, I don’t think either group’s alienation stems primarily from Israel’s policies, whether real or alleged. Nevertheless, had prominent Israeli leftists told the truth—that Netanyahu was doing very little settlement building, that his “actual positions” are far from his hardline image—it might have slowed the process.

Second, this false narrative hurts leftists themselves since it impedes Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they favor. Many such policies, like the dearth of settlement construction, are indeed very unpopular with his base, but he could justify them if they were achieving something important for Israel, like maintaining its bipartisan support in America.

In reality, however, they don’t achieve anything. For instance, despite his restraint on settlements, the Obama administration repeatedly accused him of “aggressive” settlement construction, with full-throated backing from Israeli leftists. That makes it impossible for Netanyahu to justify restraint to his unhappy base, which is precisely why he sometimes “caves in to them.”

Finally, this false narrative hinders his ability to form a broader-based government. Far from being the “right-wing extremist” leftists term him, Netanyahu is a center-rightist, and he desperately wanted the Labor Party in his current government to balance the right-wing parties. But after months of negotiations with former Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, it became clear that Herzog had no support for such a move within his own party. So Netanyahu ultimately brought in the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu instead.

Nor is this surprising. Having told its own voters for years that Netanyahu was anti-democratic and anti-peace, Labor would have trouble persuading them that joining the government was justified. But had it instead told the truth about issues like Netanyahu’s settlement restraint and diplomatic moderation, joining the government (and thereby pulling it further to the left) might have been an option.

Two days after Livni’s interview ran, Jerusalem Post columnist Susan Hattis Rolef, who has worked for various senior Labor politicians, published a column lamenting that “in the past Netanyahu could be trusted to block legislative proposals that were blatantly undemocratic,” but today, he “no longer seems to bother himself with acting as a barrier against threats to democracy coming from the direction of his own coalition.”

Here, too, what’s shocking is that Rolef and her compatriots on the left have spent the last decade saying exactly the opposite. Netanyahu has indeed allowed legislation in his current term that he would previously have quashed (most of which isn’t actually undemocratic, but that’s a separate argument). Nevertheless, the claim that he’s responsible for “anti-democratic” legislation didn’t just arise this term; prominent leftists have accused him of that for the last 10 years, even though, as Rolef now admits, he spent most of those years blocking proposals the left considered “anti-democratic.”

Again, the damage is threefold. First and worst, the false narrative that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among American Jews and the Democratic Party.

Second, it hurts leftists themselves, by reducing Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they would prefer. It’s hard for him to justify killing legislation his base supports unless doing so achieves something useful for the country. But in fact, his years of quashing bills the left disliked accomplished nothing since Israeli leftists still accused his government of being anti-democratic, and American Jews and non-Jewish leftists believed them.

Finally, this false narrative impedes his ability to form a broader-based government. Had Labor joined the government, it would have been able to kill any legislation it considered undemocratic, as coalition agreements usually give every party veto power over issues particularly important to it. But after falsely telling its voters for years that Netanyahu himself was anti-democratic, how could it justify doing so?

Many of the same evils obviously derive from Israeli rightists’ favorite trick of calling left-wing opponents “anti-Zionist,” though most Israeli leftists are no such thing. Inter alia, the false narrative that anti-Zionism is widespread on the Israeli left helps legitimatize anti-Zionism as a normative left-wing position overseas.

But since Netanyahu has led Israel for the last decade, the greatest damage has come from the left’s false narratives about his beliefs and conduct. And in the end, everyone has lost by it. Netanyahu, and by extension the entire center-right, has been unjustly tarred as anti-democratic and anti-peace. The left has forfeited its ability to block policies it opposes and promote those it supports. And Israel as a whole has seen its image overseas undeservedly tarnished.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 16, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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