Peace may be the big winner in the 2013 Israeli elections, though that is not yet clear. The votes have been cast, but in Israel that means now the real politicking starts.
The rightist combined ticket of Likud and Ysrael Beiteinu, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had a surprising weak showing and will most likely have to form a coalition with the new centrist party, Yesh Atid. Yesh Atid received the second largest number of votes.
The centrist party’s demands include resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. Thus the new Obama administration may finally have a partner coalition in Israel to resume the peace process.
I am currently in Israel and the West Bank leading a study tour for our Chicago Theological Seminary students. Many both within Israel and without expected the outcome of this election would be a further right-ward tilt in Israeli policies, including an increase in settlement building and the de facto end to the possibility of a “two-state” solution of a separate Israel and Palestine.
But it has become clear to me, since I have been in Israel, that both peace and economic issues were driving new discussions and perhaps the possibility of new political coalitions.
First, there are cracks in the prevailing view of “security.” This is best illustrated by the fact that the 2013 Oscar nominated Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” released in 2012, is still playing in theaters around Israel. This film won the U.S. film critics award and is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand this change, including both Israelis and Americans.
I saw “The Gatekeepers” in Jerusalem this weekend before the election; the theater was sold out and many of those who emerged from the theater after seeing it were crying. It is not clear, however, how many Israelis have actually seen the film. Nevertheless, it is a very powerful case for peace-making from a surprising perspective.
Dror Moreh, director of “The Gatekeepers,” interviewed six former internal security service (Shin Bet) chiefs for the film – Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gilon, Jacob Perry, Avraham Shalom and Yuval Diskin. Startlingly, these central figures in the history of Israeli security now say “they are convinced that Israel is on the wrong track—that the future is, according to the New Yorker, ‘dark,’ as Shalom puts it; that Israel is turning into a colonial power policing a rapidly increasing population of Arabs within its borders.”
These former security chiefs are remarkably direct about how “peace is killing us” because, they say, while Israel “wins” battle after battle with the Palestinians, it is “losing the war” for its vision of a democratic state. One of the retired security chiefs, Perry, talks about the brutalizing work of occupying and states, “These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”
There is another reason why there is a new energy and interest in the center to the left in Israel based on the poor economy, and threatened cuts to social programs.
The re-birth of the left in Israel is dated to mass social protest movements for social justice that reached a surprising peak on September, 3, 2011, when 500,000 Israelis took the streets saying that “the people demand social justice”. Mostly young and from the left, the demonstration most resembled “occupy” rallies around Europe and the U.S.
In 2011, the protests primarily focused on economic issues, especially housing. Recently, an attempt has been made to connect the erosion of the Israeli social welfare commitments and the costs of the settlements and the costs of the occupation.
The labor party, HaAvoda, attempted to make this connection, but it seems, from the election results, where labor polled less well than expected, they did not succeed in this effort.
Saturday night before the elections, my seminary colleague and I took our study tour to hear a presentation at one of the offices of HaAvoda (the new incarnation of the historic labor party that has been revived by this movement base with young people engaged as has not happened in decades. Led now by a younger woman, Shelly Yachimovic, the labor party has a new, younger and more women-oriented profile.
Our study tour group received a presentation from a HaAvoda volunteer, a young woman named Kineret Kahana. She told our group that this election was about the “role of the state” and reclaiming its founding social-democratic vision. She also said she had joined HaAvoda because, “The prime minister doesn’t believe there is a solution to the conflict [with the Palestinians] and that scares me.”
Clearly, in this mixed election result, other Israelis concluded that as well, though seemed to express their views by voting for the centrist party.
Centrist/right coalitions, or even centrist/labor coalitions do not, in the view of some young Israelis, have a vision for real economic justice and real peace in Israel. This is illustrated by another young person with whom our group met, the activist, writer, poet and blogger, Moriel Rothman. Rothman is an American-Israeli based in Jerusalem who describes himself as “situated squarely on the Left, especially here [Israel].”
Rothman explained for the Times of Israel, in a post called “Why I am giving my vote to a Palestinian” in this election of 2013, how he came upon a Facebook page called Real Democracy . He says the idea behind this social media initiative is that Israelis, “who recognize that our democratic elections will likely have a far more devastating impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians living in undemocratic conditions, to say the least, under our government’s brutal and horrific military occupation, we might consider ’giving our vote,’ via a Facebook post, to a Palestinian living under occupation.”
Rothman scarcely expected a “win” by the left, but he, like so many in the world-wide movements of young people we have seen since 2011, is working to find another way to take initiative and not accept the widening inequalities in Israeli society, and the consequences of the occupation of Palestinians by Israelis.
From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements, profound questions about inequality are on the move in the world.
Elections come and go, but when you begin to hear echoes of a similar message from six retired internal security chiefs as in “The Gatekeepers” as you hear from a 24 year-old American-Israeli leftist blogger, you know this much: change is coming.
Change isn’t peace and justice. It is just that the chance for peace and justice got better in elections in Israel this week.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.