Stav Shaffir, 34, became a political leader in Israel during the social justice protests of 2011, the tent protests, and then became a Labor member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Shaffir left the parliament and establishment parties last year when she saw that Labor leaders, Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, were willing to fold in with Netanyahu in order to end Israel’s political crisis. Now she is the leader of the Greens Party in Israel.
Shaffir is a hero to American Zionists (she believes the ideology of Jewish democracy and homeland) and she lately had a talk with the Israel Policy Forum on the decline of the Jewish political left in Israel. Shaffir maintains that the people are way more leftwing than the political class, but they’re not being represented because the rightwing government has the upper hand and has used its advantage to dominate the parliament and the media. I’m going to put aside my cynicism about “liberal Zionism” to pass some of her thoughts along.
Shaffir says that the Israeli Jewish street is actually becoming more and more progressive; over 60 percent believe in the two-state solution. But the left in politics is utterly demoralized by more than 40 years of largely rightwing governments. The left has “no belief in their ability to win….it lost the ability to take leadership,” and Netanyahu has exploited that lack of belief.
The centrist party Blue White is the biggest manifestation of that loss of belief. In three elections they managed to deny Netanyahu a majority. “Victory was very much in our hands. Leadership just decided in the very last minute to give it all up.”
Shaffir said the government has been taken over by the settler movement. She described her own effort as a parliamentarian to expose how much Israeli government money was going to settlements. But the demoralized left was afraid to join her fight. They even feared violence.
“Instead of fighting against settlement funding– one of the core values of the extreme right wing within government– most people on the left in politics were afraid to touch that subject. It was too scary, it created too much political leader fear, mainly. It would get them exposed to even violence, as some of us who fought that fight experienced so often.
“So these kind of things: Not being able to answer the core fight of our time, being the fight for our democracy, for the law itself, for human rights and civil rights, for a separation between us and Palestinians and a real border like in any other normal country. For the end of the conflict, for peace… The leaders of the left decided to give it all up to try and flatter the right wing, and even at times to try and pretend to be more right wing.”
Shaffir reflected that Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had to contend with “violence and threats” when he signed peace agreements, before he was assassinated by a rightwing extremist in 1995.
When Shaffir sought to expose illegal uses of Zionist “Settlement Division” moneys, “I started getting all these warnings from Labor Party leadership that I should stop… It’s not something you want to get into. We don’t need to get in these kinds of fights with the coalition, with the government. It’s a too delicate issue and all of this kind of nonsense.”
In the end she found that Labor was corrupted, it also was benefiting politically from the Settlement Division. That corruption is reflected in the willingness of Labor to sign on to Gantz’s Netanyahu’s annexationist plans– which she says represents “a complete loss of the Zionist dream and of the future of Israel as Jewish and democratic.”
No one talked about that in the election. There were just two discourses in the elections. One was Netanyahu’s “very racist discourse,” a degree of public “hatred” that “I cannot believe can still happen in 2020,” aimed at the Joint List of largely-Palestinian parties. The other discourse was Netanyahu or Not Netanyahu.
Shaffir fears that the center-left’s betrayal of its own voters by signing on with Netanyahu and annexation will further damage the left and take years to fix.
She said the left has lost “the foundations of democratic infrastructure” in Israel: media and parliament.
The media compete to support Netanyahu’s rightwing agenda, she said. “Actually the media became almost entirely rightwing if you count the amount of media exposure that rightwing leaders get versus leftwing leaders or opposition figures in general, you see it gets to 75 percent rightwing.” There is not nearly enough representation in the media of Palestinians or women. On national security issues, women are almost never given a platform.
So the left lost the ability to “to talk and show and expose people to the truth.” Media are highly concentrated and small in Israel. For Hebrew readers there are 3 big newspapers, 3 big media channels. “We need to see much more competition, but a competition over who is telling the truth and not over who is more flattering to the right wing.”
Netanyahu has also dominated the Knesset, often in anti-democratic ways. He jokes on Instagram about corruption, inuring young people to the normality of sleazy politics. And so the people lost their ability to influence politicians, Shaffir said.
P.S. Despite Shaffir’s alarm about racism, there was very little in her discussion about the power of the Joint List and what it means to the future of the left. She is only really interested in Jewish politics, and she speaks about “separation” from “the Palestinians.” It is a continual amazement to me that such attitudes are considered liberal by Americans. But liberal Zionist organizations had almost nothing to say about the racism against Palestinians in the recent elections.