Election Buoys Center-Left Here


Like other veterans of this country’s pro-Israel and Zionist left, Kenneth Bob has seen prospects for a two-state solution rise and fall several times in the past four decades.

Many of Bob’s counterparts have grown weary over that time, especially with the second intifada and, later, the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister whose commitment to peace talks is viewed by those on the Zionist left with suspicion at best.

In the past few years, that weariness has grown into desperation for some, especially as the Knesset considered — and, in some cases, passed — a series of measures they viewed as anti-democratic. And in the past few months, the sense of desperation grew even more acute as Netanyahu’s Likud party shifted further to the right and as polls predicted a solid victory for a right-wing bloc that now includes those who would annex portions of the West Bank.

For his part, though, Bob has never given up hope that Israel’s political direction might shift again — and the outcome of last week’s Israeli election may have proven him right.

“It’s not a sea change,” but Israeli voters have certainly sent a message to Netanyahu, said Bob, 60, who joined the Habonim Dror youth movement as a teenager and is now national president of Ameinu, a group of progressive American Jews formerly called the Labor Zionist Alliance. In between, Bob made aliyah and lived for 14 years on Israel’s Kibbutz Gezer.

The right-wing bloc lost about eight seats in last week’s election, Bob pointed out, referring to Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), which ran a joint list, and Naftali Bennett’s nationalist, pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). At the same time, he added, two parties that placed their commitment to peace talks front and center during the campaign — Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnuah (The Movement), each took six seats, a three-seat gain for Meretz.

Those developments came on top of the surprise showing for Yesh Hatid (There Is a Future), the centrist party led by Yair Lapid that won 19 seats, which would make it the second largest faction in the Knesset. While Lapid favors a return to peace talks, he focused on economic issues during the race, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and took two positions that are considered nonstarters by the Palestinians: support for a unified Jerusalem, including the largely Arab East Jerusalem, and his opposition to parting with any of Israel’s large settlement blocs, including Ariel.

As a result, Bob and others say there’s an opportunity for movement in the peace process while cautioning that no one knows how Lapid might act in this area. Several organizations on the pro-Israel left, including J Street, the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now, have posted statements on their websites in the past few days welcoming the results while pointing out that challenges remain.

APN’s statement noted the organization’s fears during the campaign, saying that the election took place “at a time of great cynicism in Israel about the chances for ever achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Like many others,” the statement continued, “we were deeply concerned over polling and reports purportedly showing a surge in support for Israeli politicians and parties that are openly anti-peace, pro-settlements, and anti-democratic.”

But the results told “a more optimistic story,” the statement said — a conclusion that Ori Nir, the organization’s spokesman, discussed in a phone interview with The Jewish Week.

“That the party that stood for normalcy — a future Israel that’s progressive and at peace with itself — won so many votes is something we view as very significant,” said Nir, who worked for many years as a correspondent at the Israeli daily Haaretz. Like Bob, Nir also pointed to the number of mandates for Meretz and Hatnuah, saying they reveal “a pretty strong core of Israelis” who continue to make peace with the Palestinians their chief concern.

Mark Rosenblum, a founder of APN and a professor of history at Queens College, called the outcome “a potential re-centering of Israeli politics. … The center re-emerged,” he said, moving a dovish point of view “from the hinterlands” to the position where it could influence talks over the next coalition government.

The huge question mark for those on the Zionist left involves Lapid, the strength of his commitment to peace talks and the ultimate shape of the next government.

One of the skeptics is Ron Skolnik, executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel, who predicted a “standstill” in the peace process, mirroring the past four years, unless the Obama administration presses the Israelis and Palestinians. Skolnik, whose group is closely associated with Meretz, said he bases his prediction on two reasons: that the government will continue to be led by Netanyahu, who, he believes, “would be pleased about kicking the can down the road,” and that Lapid is more concerned other issues, apart from the peace process.

Others, though, note the prominence of doves and progressives on Lapid’s hand-picked list, as J.J. Goldberg did in a recent Daily Beast column. The list includes Yaakov Perry, former director of the Shin Bet security service, and Yael German, a two-term mayor of Herzliya and a long-time leader of Meretz.

Writing for the same website, Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” suggested that the election weakened Netanyahu, shifting “the power dynamic” between the Israeli prime minister and the American president toward Obama. “If Obama wants,” Beinart wrote, “he’ll be well-positioned to hasten Netanyahu’s demise, and push Israel toward elections that just might produce a Lapid-led government more open to a viable Palestinian state.”