An Israeli television debate has been making the rounds on social media over the last few weeks, featuring Yotam Ya’akoba, Head of Public Relations of Peace Now, and Daniella Weiss, a prominent leader in the Gush Emunim settler movement. On the face of it, the clip presents nothing out of the ordinary. As is typical in Israeli politics, what begins as an argument regarding the seeming politicization of the Israel Prize in favor of right-wing figures quickly transforms into a much broader conversation on the worldviews of each camp, complete with predictable talking points. Each side appears to have played its traditionally assigned role: the settler camp trumpets divine right to justify Israel’s hold on the occupied territories, while the liberal-democratic camp focuses on the rule of law and international norms in guiding Israel’s behavior, decrying the settlement enterprise and its illegality.
I readily admit finding myself far more drawn to Mr. Ya’akoba’s worldview, and believe he did an excellent job countering Ms. Weiss’s assertions. But in our curated world of social media in which partisan walls grow more impenetrable by the day, I imagine the conclusions drawn by those on the right were far different, namely that Ya’akoba failed to convince Weiss because of the inherent flimsiness of his argument, God’s promise to the Jewish people trumps the niceties of Israeli and international law, and the left once again showed its disdain for the Jewish people by ignoring its deep-seated ties to the land. With the exception of a brief statement concerning his familiarity with the West Bank, Ya’akoba did not stray far from the accepted wisdom that has defined left-wing discourse. It should also be noted left-wing outlets too are guilty of sensationalism and a lack of self-awareness. An article in the Hebrew-language edition of Ha’aretz, entitled “The Leftist Who Dared Tell Daniella Weiss the Truth” is hardly a revelation, simply reiterating a fact the settler right has long rejected: Israelis beyond the Green Line do not reside within the officially recognized boundaries of the State of Israel.
Of course, it would be unfair to encapsulate the entirety of the dispute over the nature of settlements, or judge the worldview of each side based on a single clip. Neither the views of Peace Now nor Gush Emunim represent the broader political leanings of their respective camps, nor can I read the innermost thoughts of Mr. Ya’akoba regarding his opinion of Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Yet, watching the debate, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to the current partisan crisis of identity politics engulfing the United States, and the resentment of many right-wing voters, whose perceived neglect helped propel Donald Trump into the White House.
Many liberals have spent the aftermath of Trump’s November 2016 victory hand-wringing over their inability to predict the election of an individual initially written off as a punchline, but who was nonetheless successful in exploiting the wave of populist anger currently defining the national political conversation. Some of that conversation has focused on coming to terms with the ramifications of “the smug style:” the notion that the left’s primary focus on facts, presumably at the expense of emotional appeals, has alienated those on the right for whom facts alone will not suffice, and who require, at the very least, some acknowledgement their anxieties over the future are not being callously ignored. The dichotomy of “facts versus feelings” is itself a problematic explanation, however, essentializing the respective motivations of individuals in each political camp. It is also a bit of a misnomer; while the phenomenon of fake news seems to be an increasingly problematic factor in reinforcing partisan divisions, the left does not have a monopoly on the truth. Rather, it is the frequency for those on the left to believe their presentation of facts as the be-all-end-all, dismissing the abstract, but very real, concerns of those skeptics who might otherwise be swayed by their arguments. The recent rise of European far-right wing parties in Europe is proof of this: concerns over immigration, inequality, and globalization have repeatedly been condemned as right-wing paranoia, leaving the door open for nationalist parties who continue to benefit from voter resentment.
Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude has been prevalent in Israeli politics for some time, and has long stymied efforts by the left to regain power. One need only observe how the right has, for many years, monopolized the conversation around security, successfully painting its opponents as incompetent peaceniks liable to endanger the very existence of the country. It is, after all, likely one of the reasons that despite his overall lack of popularity (a recent Channel 10 poll ranks him at being most suited for the role of Prime Minister, at a dismal 26 percent ), Netanyahu has been able to win election after election. Without a leader of stature on the left who can be entrusted with the country’s safety, Netanyahu’s corruption and undermining of democracy looks positively quaint in comparison and can therefore be justified, in the short term, as the lesser of two evils.
Acknowledging there are concrete security concerns that heavily influence voting patterns is, one would think, a fairly obvious conclusion at this juncture. Yet time and again, the reaction from left-wing politicians is not to pursue some sort of happy medium that would allay these justified fears with a humane approach to defense. It is to either ignore the subject entirely, focusing instead on matters related to the economy, or adopt overly hawkish rhetoric in the hopes of prying right-leaning voters away from the rightist bloc. Recall, during the 2015 elections, then Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog’s ugly declarations about Arabs and his election ad made with the elite 8200 intelligence unit complete with race-baiting rhetoric that could have easily been uttered by Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, or Yair Lapid’s racist allusions in 2013 about refusing to court any party from the Joint List in a future coalition.
Troublingly, we see history repeating itself as left-leaning politicians once again pander to the worst inclinations of voters regarding the fate of the territories. Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay’s recent exclamations about pursuing peace while simultaneously leaving settlements in place is a wonderful soundbite that may win him short-term accolades, yet has no bearing in reality. One simply cannot square the circle of signing a peace deal with the Palestinians while leaving in place sizeable Jewish communities that would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Likewise, the once staunchly secular Yair Lapid’s constant donning of tefillin and prostrating himself in front the Kotel, and his declarations of an undivided Jerusalem insults religious and nationalist-minded voters whom he apparently believes are foolish enough to ignore his past statements and his seeming contempt for religious Israelis.
Recognizing the very real attachment that many Israeli Jews, particularly on the right, display towards land beyond the Green Line, and their concern for its fate following the signing of some form of accord with the P.L.O., should not be a problematic endeavor. It doesn’t require Peace Now, Meretz, the Zionist Union, or Yesh Atid to emblazon their campaign posters with romantic portraits of Hebron or Rachel’s Tomb, or call for solidarity visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It doesn’t require, as Shelly Yachimovich learned in in the 2013 elections, to wax nostalgic about Labor’s hand in helping establish the settlement enterprise. Nor, however, should it lead to condescending dismissal of these concerns as the province of racists and ultra-nationalists, especially when there is a great deal of history justifying such anxiety, including the Jordanian annexation of Jerusalem’s Old City following the war in 1948, (which left the Jewish Quarter devastated and devoid of Jews for nearly two decades), attacks on Jewish sites in the West Bank during flare-ups of violence, and UNESCO declarations that appear to ignore the Jewish history of the Temple Mount.
Attachment, after all, is not the same as sovereignty, and a deep and abiding connection to these sites does not negate the option of recognizing a realistic peace accord will more than likely mean relinquishing control over many of these areas. The peace camp must force itself to have this painful conversation with voters, lest the right continue to fashion itself their sole protector and monopolize yet another crucial facet of Israeli and Jewish identity. It must therefore take advantage of this opportunity to present a vision for the future that is twofold: one that is pragmatic, championing above all else the maintenance of a Jewish and democratic state, while remaining acutely aware of the West Bank’s central place in the story of the Jewish people.