Portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu by Fahed Halabi

Lessons for American progressives from Netanyahu’s Israel

In the decade Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel, his right wing narrative has come to dominate the country’s political discourse while the progressive minority shrinks, flails, and finds its voice drowned out. But there is a way forward, and the prescription has powerful lessons for American progressives searching for a way to win back the White House

By Dahlia Scheindlin

Israel has, over the past decade, appeared to be part of the global wave of right-wing populism. Parties considered far-right just over a decade ago are now seen as moderate, while extreme-right fringe parties are increasingly legitimized. The Svengali-like Benjamin Netanyahu has won every election since 2009. The right wing bloc of parties will probably win again in Israel’s national election on April 9 , with Netanyahu once again forming and heading the governing coalition.

Israel’s lurch to the right is not, however, the work of a single political figure. Benjamin Netanyahu, the master political puppeteer, rode the right wing wave to buoy his personal fortunes, but his political success is rooted in events and ideas that developed over decades.

A populist narrative

The modern start of Israel’s shift to the right began with the collapse of the July 2000 Camp David Summit between Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader. The failure of those negotiations led right-wing leader Ariel Sharon to make a provocative visit in September 2000 to the Jerusalem holy site that the Muslims call Haram al-Sharif; the Jews call it the Temple Mount. That event precipitated the Palestinian uprising that is now called the Second Intifada.

During the violent years that followed, Jewish Israeli voters who had, until then, identified as left wing, defected en masse to the center and center right. Their change in political ideology was a response to the narrative proffered by Ehud Barak — i.e., that he had offered Arafat everything at Camp David, and not only had the Palestinian leader refused, but he had then set off the Second Intifada. This is a widely accepted narrative among Israeli Jews today.

By 2005, the center had eclipsed the left wing. By 2008, a poll I conducted showed that nearly half of Israelis identified as right wing, up nearly 10 points from before the Intifada.

Since then the percentage of voters who self-define as right wing has climbed to the low 50s; meanwhile, the Jewish left has been stable at around 15 percent, ever since the mid-2000s (20 percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish Arab Palestinians).

Another narrative that has taken root amongst Israeli Jews is that Ariel Sharon made a peace offering in 2005 by unilaterally withdrawing IDF bases and Jewish settlements from Gaza; but that Palestinians responded with rocket fire on southern Israeli towns and a Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, which forced Israel into three wars.

There are other interpretations of these events, but they have little traction in Israel. Israelis rarely consider the accusation that Ehud Barak is at least partly responsible for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 because he tried to dictate the terms with little leeway for negotiations. Or that Israel responded to the Second Intifada with collective punishment, temporary re-occupation of cities, suffocation of Palestinian economic livelihood and, as always, settlement expansion.

Israelis definitely don’t recall that Ariel Sharon’s own advisor once said that the withdrawal from Gaza was politically calculated to stymie the peace process, by dividing Palestinians and weakening their leadership. Those arguments never registered in Israeli discourse, which largely explains why there is almost no domestic opposition to Israel’s 12 year-old, ongoing military siege of Gaza.

Netanyahu won the 2009 election because he skillfully leveraged the popular Israeli version of recent events, the one about the Palestinians responding with violence to all of Israel’s peaceful overtures. But he combined that narrative with a deeper and older story — one that began more than four decades earlier.

The roots of resentment

In 1977 the Likud beat the Labor party for the first time. It did so by channeling the resentment and anger of Mizrahi Jews, those from Middle Eastern backgrounds, against the Ashkenazi (European) Jews. At the time, Ashkenazi Jews were Israel’s elite, dominating every aspect of the country’s economy, polity, and culture; Mizrahi Jews were the marginalized underclass. This class/ethnic dynamic still exists, although the manner in which it manifests has changed.

Prior to 1977, Labor — Ben Gurion’s party — had dominated Israeli politics without interruption since the state’s founding in 1948. The Likud won in 1977 largely based on party leader Menachem Begin’s direct appeal to Mizrahi voters, whom he identified as a constituency that had been neglected by Labor. Since then, generations of Likud voters have remained unstintingly loyal to the party, which they consider the authentic, anti-elitist voice of the people.

Netanyahu perpetuated the idea that the “people” vote for the right wing parties, and that a small cadre of the leftist (read: Ashkenazi) elite has for decades been fighting a relentless, bare-fisted battle to maintain their control over Israel’s major institutions — such as the media, for example.

The deep-seated populist resentment that helped fuel Donald Trump’s success has plenty in common with the the worldview espoused by Netanyahu’s base.

Since the investigation into corruption allegations against Netanyahu began to close in on the prime minister, his narrative has expanded. Now he accuses the Israeli justice system, the Attorney General, the police, and civil society of coming under the influence of the elite that he insists is trying to oust him, a democratically elected leader, from power. He repeatedly accuses them all of succumbing to subversive leftist political pressure to bring him down at all costs. Sound familiar?

Many Israelis agree that Netanyahu is the victim of a vast, left-wing conspiracy. The day after the attorney general announced he was likely to indict Netanyahu on criminal charges, 42 percent agreed that the AG had succumbed to pressure from the media and the left.

With substantial parts of the public on Netanyahu’s side, and a new level of extremist right-wing parties moving into the political mainstream, the upcoming elections are unlikely to bring a significant change.

How the left can win (again)

But this does not mean that liberals are permanently defeated. There is a way forward.

Those who support a progressive agenda must commit to playing a long game, with better strategy. To achieve their goal, progressives can take a number of important steps.

First, Israel is in urgent need of a coherent ideological alternative. The left has for years been apologizing for its beliefs and obfuscating its goals, out of fear that the right wing narrative is so all-powerful that anyone who tries to express an alternative view will fail at the voting booth. The result is the perception that the left is hiding something, with the subtext that it is hiding something nefarious.

If they want to win, the progressive parties must be clear about their agenda. They should say that they want to end Israel’s occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories; that they want complete separation of religion and state; that they want to strengthen democratic norms; and that they want to strengthen civil society, to integrate minorities and marginalized populations. It wouldn’t hurt to adopt other progressive causes that are generally ignored in Israel, such as climate change.

To be sure, Meretz, the party that represents those who are furthest left while still on the Zionist spectrum, openly promotes these basic goals. Meretz also faces the perennial danger of falling below the electoral threshold and seeing its political presence evaporate.

Meretz’s problem is partly rooted in the current left-wing camp’s insistence on continuing to promote stale solutions that long ago lost their political credibility. The second major step, therefore, is for the Israeli left to propose new approaches to its core problems. For example: while nearly half of Israelis and a majority of Palestinians believe that a two-state solution is no longer feasible, the left-wing parties cling to this ever-more remote idea. A new generation of activists examining alternative solutions, such as a two-state confederation, can breathe new life into the debate because they recognize the failure of old approaches.

Given that just 20 percent of Israeli society (Jews and Arabs) self-identify as left wing, there is no way for the left to win an election solely on votes from its base. Progressive parties need a compelling message that can win over voters from the center and even from the moderate right. In order to achieve this, they will have to swallow a bitter pill: they will have to humanize the right. And that is the third important strategy.

Like anyone else, the Israeli left can be guilty of disparaging and dismissing those who disagree with them. But while Israel’s right-wing can afford to alienate their adversaries, the reverse is not true. Progressive forces, if they want to win, will have to forge partnerships. That means reaching out and being inclusive.

Finding common ground

“Reaching out,” however, cannot mean imitating right-wing themes. This fourth point is essential: progressives pretending to be hardline will never win votes. This lesson proves itself time and again; at present, the Israeli Labor party is barely crossing the electoral threshold in surveys, largely for this reason.

Appealing to the right without imitating them means searching for specific areas of common cause, and forging partnerships where possible.

For example, a majority of Israelis support positions that are generally viewed as liberal and progressive in the United States. Israelis across the political spectrum enthusiastically embrace LGBT rights, including support for surrogacy, adoption and marriage for same sex couples. Israel saw a vigorous wave of #MeToo exposés already in 2016, the year before it began in the U.S., and surveys regularly show high overall support for further gender equality and representation. Israel has a broadly liberal de facto approach to abortion; it has growing support for marijuana legalization, a strong universal health care system and widespread expectations of a strong social safety net.  

Instead of assuming that everyone who is fearful of the Palestinians in the midst of a violent conflict is a fascist, progressives should help release Israel’s inner liberal spirit. This final prescription might not end the occupation overnight. But in the long game, perhaps Israeli Jews will recognize that their policies in the occupied territories are antithetical to the kind of society the majority wishes to build at home.

There are lessons for American progressives in this prescription for Israeli politics. Pandering to the right will never be a winning case for voting left. Clarity about values, acknowledging what didn’t work in the past, and creative policymaking for the future are much more attractive. That’s the kind of approach that might cause a 2012 Obama voter who defected in 2016, to consider coming home.  

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion expert and a political consultant. Her articles have been published in Foreign Policy, the Forward, Haaretz, the Guardian, and the Huff Po and she is a frequent commentator for the BBC, Aljazeera, and France 24. She co-hosts The Tel Aviv Review podcast and writes regularly for +972 Magazine. Dr. Scheindlin lives in Tel Aviv.