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Liberal Zionists envision a sea change in Israel with success of the Joint List

Media Analysis

The surprising success of the Palestinian Joint List in the September 17 election, winning 13 seats and being courted a little bit by Jewish Israeli leaders, has fired the imagination of American liberal Zionists. After years of the Israeli government going further and further right, including in this election, the liberal Zionists finally have a positive trend to believe in: that Israel can actually be a democracy, in which the Palestinian minority, who are 20 percent of the country’s people, wields real power.

This is of course still a hope. The Joint List is excluded from coalition horse-trading and is regularly derided. The leading vote-getter, the centrist Blue White party, which the Joint List endorsed, promises it won’t include the Palestinians. The kingmaker in the election, Avigdor Lieberman, is a “fascist” who says that the Arab parties are the “enemy.” The prime minister, Netanyahu, calls the Palestinian political parties “terrorists” and “violent,” a complete lie which is arguably a kind of blood libel.

Excluding 20 percent of the population from participating in the government because of who they are is electoral apartheid — although today’s New York Times account of the post-election maneuverings left out this discrimination and made Israel sound like a robust democracy.

Still, liberal Zionists in America are seeing the upside of the election. Palestinian turnout was close to 60 percent, up about one-fifth from the last election in April. The Palestinians were enraged by Netanyahu’s race-baiting, and they took action by going to the polls.

The New Israel Fund is exultant. Its CEO Daniel Sokatch writes of a “vision” of “New Beginnings” for Israel:

[T]here are real reasons for hope. We can take heart from the fact that, in the face of a campaign of intimidation and incitement, Arab citizens of Israel were not bullied into silence. They found their voice and cast their votes.

After the election, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List… reached out to Jewish Israelis to work together to build a better country for everyone…

What a vision: that perhaps it is Israel’s minority citizens, Palestinian-Israelis, long discriminated against and marginalized, who will be the cornerstone of a new and brighter chapter for Israeli democracy.

The New Israel Fund is devoted to the idea that Israel is a democracy, and it worked to get Palestinians to the polls. Libby Lenkinski of that group deplored the racebaiting by Israeli leaders, and today quotes a Haaretz writer imagining that if Palestinian turnout reached 70 percent “even Likud will talk differently and think about the impact of their words on Arab voters.”

The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street is also celebrating the Joint List’s success. It announced yesterday that Ayman Odeh would speak at its conference in October. Odeh addressed J Street two years ago — and got a rock star welcome from the mostly-Jewish crowd.

Evan Gottesman at the Israel Policy Forum also imagines a more equal future flowing from the Joint List’s success. He says that for 30 years, Israeli political culture accepted the idea that only a “Jewish majority” gives the government legitimacy. But Gottesman says this is a racist notion cultivated by the right wing, to which the center bought in.

This past weekend offered a glimpse, however brief, into what may be possible once Netanyahu exits the political scene: three Israeli Arab parties from the Joint List recommended Benny Gantz to be prime minister. This was only the second time in Israel’s history that independent Arab parties recommended a Jewish-Zionist politician to be prime minister, and the first time since 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin took office. . .

Netanyahu and his ideas have held a central place in the Israeli political mainstream for over a quarter of a century, not only on the right, but on the center and left as well. One such idea is that an Israeli government must rely on a “Jewish majority” in order to be legitimate, which, by his own admission, has no legal basis. Netanyahu first advanced this argument as opposition leader in the 1990s in order to undermine Prime Minister Rabin, whose coalition depended on support from the Arab-Jewish communist party Hadash and the now-defunct Arab Democratic Party. . . .

In 1999, Labor’s Ehud Barak won 95 percent of the Israeli Arab vote in direct elections for the premiership. Yet unlike Rabin, Barak shunned the Arab parties once he set about forming a government, in effect internalizing Netanyahu’s “Jewish majority” concept…

Gottesman points out that Labor leaders Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay also promised to spurn the Joint List in government. Still, he’s hopeful.

Steps toward better integrating Arab parties in Israeli political life won’t suddenly extricate Israel from the occupied territories or fully resolve Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel itself. But the past week’s developments do demonstrate that with Netanyahu’s future uncertain, the prime minister’s rivals may be willing to break down the strictures he set and begin to start anew.

Of course none of these liberal Zionist groups really represents Palestinians, who have often boycotted elections. J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the Israel Policy Forum are attached to a Zionist state that ethnically cleansed Palestinians when it was established, then kept Palestinians under martial law for 19 years, and has maintained discriminatory land practices on a racial basis from the start.

Last summer those three groups were among the Jewish organizations that launched a “Progressive Israel Network” to push for the two-state solution. No members of that Progressive Israel Network are Palestinian. Though more than 20 percent of Israel is non-Jewish.

Certainly, Ayman Odeh is a lot easier to sell to American progressives than Benjamin Netanyahu. And even if Odeh turns out to have little effect on Israeli politics, he might be the land bridge that liberal Zionists require to start getting out of Zionism.

Not that the New York Times is giving him any oxygen. David Remnick wrote an excellent profile of Odeh in The New Yorker way back in January 2016. But the Times still can’t seem to find Odeh’s phone number to schedule an interview with him.

James North and Philip Weiss

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11 Responses

  1. echinococcus on September 27, 2019, 12:08 am

    ” the liberal Zionists finally have a positive trend to believe in: that Israel can actually be a democracy, in which the Palestinian minority, who are 20 percent of the country’s people, wields real power.”

    Oh, sure. Define Zionism, just to make sure.

    Given that the above is absolutely incompatible with the definition, here is what the “liberal” Zionists are expecting from the Joint List:

    1. To save the façade of Zionism –put a “human face” on it instead of the Yahoo, Liberman, etc. and look good for the West and continue to get supported, no questions asked, in the genocide of Palestinians;

    2. Divide Palestinians into “non-citizen” slaves and 2nd class “citizen” beasts of burden with no real rights;

    3. Get the Ayrabs to support their own spoliation and genocide.

  2. Elizabeth Block on September 27, 2019, 9:00 am

    The Liberal Zionists want to improve conditions inside the prison, which is better than nothing. But it shouldn’t be confused with freeing the prisoners.

    • echinococcus on September 27, 2019, 4:58 pm

      In fact, Ms Block, the Liberal Zionists advocate humane genocide and moderators seem to protect them.

  3. Misterioso on September 27, 2019, 9:54 am

    Well worth noting:

    South Africa:
    “Jewish resistance to Zionism is on the right side of history” by Jared Sacks, Mail & Guardian, 21 Sept/19

    “In the University of Cape Town Senate meeting last week, there was a failed attempt to reverse a ground breaking March resolution put forward by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) that ‘UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.’

    “A statement by UCT academics and a legal opinion from Professor Emeritus John Dugard, along with a letter from more than 65 South African Jews (including myself) were part of efforts to prevent this annulment. In response to our letter, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) published an angry piece in the Mail & Guardian and an even more unhinged diatribe in the South African Jewish Report (SAJR).

    “The SAJBD accrues its relevance by acting as the civil society body that claims to speak for all South African Jews. It takes a specific Zionist stance on the colonisation and occupation of Palestine, which attempts to absolve Israel for crimes against humanity.

    “When South African Jews speak out and reject Israel’s crimes, the board of deputies — presented with a challenge to its authority — seems to feel it necessary to respond and delegitimise, not only our stance, but our very Jewish identity.

    “The board’s recent M&G piece, signed by associate director, David Saks, refers to us as ‘certain South Africans of Jewish origin’ thereby questioning our identity, our current status as Jews. In an opinion piece for the SAJR, SAJBD National Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev refers to me as having a ‘fictitious Jewish-sounding name.’

    “Like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saks and Zagnoey sees it as their prerogative to ostracise us — to decide who is a good Jew (a real Jew) and who is (merely) of Jewish origin and thus a bad ‘self-hating’ Jew.

    “What gives such leaders of a right-wing Zionist establishment this right?

    “Saks is at pains to belittle us as some kind of radical minority — as if demanding an end to the colonisation of Palestinian land is beyond the pale, as if the fact that we are a minority of the Jewish community makes us illegitimate and not worth listening to.

    “Let us not forget that the majority of Germans supported the Nazis, the majority of white South Africans supported apartheid, and the majority of white Americans supported Donald Trump.

    “Although we are a minority, we will remain a vocal and proudly Jewish one, on the right side of history.

    “What gives me the chutzpah to assert this? Certainly not the kind of arrogance of claiming to speak on behalf of a diverse religion of varying political views. Instead, it is a recognition that we are all human, all fallible, and that when we get into positions of power over other people, we assert that illegitimate authority and derive ideologies that seek to justify our actions.”

  4. Donald on September 27, 2019, 10:50 am

    On the last paragraph, far be it from me to defend the NYT, which is generally racist on this whole subject, but they did give Odeh space for a column last weekend.

  5. genesto on September 27, 2019, 6:21 pm

    So, the Joint List reached out to Benny Gantz to help form a coalition – the same Benny Gantz responsible for the last Gaza massacre in 2014 (and, according to Juan Cole, the likely leader of the next one soon to come)? The Benny Gantz that has expressed pride in that version of war crimes against Palestinians, as well as a visceral pleasure in killing them? That Benny Gantz?

    Assuming that Ayman Odeh isn’t simply being corrupted by his newfound celebrity status, I can see why the List is reaching out, i.e. in the belief that something right now is better than perpetuating the horror in which the Palestinians currently live, and that by reaching out, maybe, just maybe, things will continue to improve for the Palestinians of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza until they are accepted as true citizens of Israeli society. But, the List is forgetting what is the essence of Zionism. Without a basic rebuke of this monstrous pathology, there is no hope for these Palestinians, and their Zionist masters will simply use this ‘warming’ of relations with the Arabs to advance their own agenda – and agenda that will NEVER include them as anything close to equals.

    • echinococcus on September 27, 2019, 10:11 pm

      I certainly wouldn’t want to second-guess Palestinians in the belly of the beast but I guess that the logic with the portion of the List that is not with Balad goes now as Odeh himself has declared: lop off at least one of the heads of the horrible hydra when one can, well knowing that there are many more.
      It may be a valid way of looking at it but the genocidaires will make an arrangement; they won’t give Odeh that meager satisfaction.

      • genesto on September 30, 2019, 1:40 pm

        I certainly hope I’m wrong and Odeh is right with this strategy. And I certainly am wary of judging the Palestinian people trying survive the worsening terror in which they find themselves. But, as you say, “the genocidaires will make an arrangement; they won’t give Odeh that meager satisfaction.” Very well put, and sobering.

        My guess is that, once Odeh sees the error in this move, and while Gazans continue to condemn it as they now have in its aftermath, Odeh will have to find a way to back off from this pledge.

  6. Kathleen on October 7, 2019, 10:52 am

    Still have such a hard time wrapping my head around you define a “liberal Zionist?”

    Also have just as hard of time with “liberal interventionist?’ WTF?

    My last phone call into Washington Journal where I challenge Dennis Ross asking “Should Israel sign the NPT?” and “what do you think about Netanyahu undermining the Iran Deal”

    Peter the host allows Ross to slip away from my specific questions.

    My comments and questions 11:28

    • oldgeezer on October 8, 2019, 12:46 am

      Both liberal Zionist and liberal interventionist are oxymorons. You will find most putative liberal interventionists are either supportive of empire or zionism. Don’t really think there is a practical difference.
      There is a case for liberal intervention imo. The Rohingya episode, whether cleansing or genocide, being one. Rwanda being another. We always seem to be absent when we could be productively saving lives.

      But no, you simply can’t be a Zionist and/or a supporter of Israel and claim to be a liberal support of equal rights.

      Zionism was founded in the worst type of racism. The same type of racism that led to the holocaust. It is no better than that form of racism. It is an abomination. Anyone who adheres to it should be both shunned and shamed.

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