Amid the Gaza War, is Israel’s pro-peace camp facing extinction or resurrection?

Even without projecting left-wing anti-occupation fantasies onto the huge crowds at Israel's antiwar and anti-Netanyahu protests, it is still safe to say that a growing number of Jewish Israelis are disillusioned with their government's warmongering ways – to the point that they could conceivably make common cause with the defiant, enduring left

Israelis protesting against the war in Jerusalem, 10 May 2024

Dahlia Scheindlin writes in Haaretz on 14 May 2024:

Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 could have been a wipeout for the Israeli left. That might be true in the future, but it isn’t yet.

There are two critical points that help explain why all is not lost for those who support what we call “peace” – an antiquated shorthand term for an agreed political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation.

First, when looking at the paltry numbers of the self-identified left and dismal electoral predictions for left-wing parties, remember just what a terrible position the left was in prior to October 7. It sounds like cold comfort, but the change between bad and dismal isn’t actually very big, and those who remain in this camp are more committed – even if they are more depressed – than ever. Surveys even show a slight recovery for the left since October, matched by a renewed urgency of activism in society.

Second, over seven months of war have led much larger groups within Israel to take positions that make common cause with the left. And their numbers are far more impressive.

These two key observations – the enduring presence of the self-defined left, and a rising tide of mainstream Israelis who share some common causes with the left – can be found both in polls, and on the streets.

The floor and the kernel
Israelis have been migrating rightward since the start of the second intifada in 2000 – the Jewish population, that is. Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel show such different trends, and mean significantly different things by these terms, that analysis is best done separately. And the reality is that Jewish voters determine government policy in Israel.

During the early 2000s, the portion of Jews who defined themselves as left wing dropped by half, from roughly 30 percent to about 15 percent. Right-wing self-definition began to cross 40 percent. Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, and the combination of his rabble-rousing nationalism, right-wing outbidding between Likud and its competitors, and numerous rounds of fighting with Hamas in Gaza during these years (which felt very much like wars), each accompanied by a maelstrom of anti-Palestinian rhetoric, drove right-wing attitudes above the halfway mark in the early 2010s. By the end of that decade, Jewish right-wing self-identification hit 60 percent in my surveys.

Mainstream Israelis looked at the peace camp with contempt, if they remembered it at all, or levied accusations of treason when things got tough. By 2019, the left was drifting to the range of 11 to 14 percent, moving toward the lower end over time.

Something unusual happened in 2023. An August survey of mine found a slight upward trend for the left, and a modest decline of right-wingers among the Jewish population: from 64 percent in 2022, to 55 percent in August 2023. Could this have been a trend reflecting the massive national backlash against Netanyahu’s crazed government?

We’ll never know; the war broke out just over one month later. The 55 percent of Jews who said they were right wing in August went right back up to as high as 68 percent in an-aChord Center survey. In November, I wrote with the foresight of a primate that the left could hit single digits, and soon just 9 percent described themselves as left-wing in a survey of mine in January.

IDF soldiers on the border with Gaza in May 2024. A group of reservists recently wrote a letter against advancing on Rafah

But then things shifted again. The Tel Aviv University Peace Index showed that 12 percent of Jews self-identified as left wing in April. It’s just one data point, but recovery could be real: the Israel Democracy Institute polling shows a similar trend. Those polls use a different scale of answers in their standard ideology question, yielding a slightly higher portion of left-wingers over time (self-defined centrists always hover around one-quarter). In September 2023, the Israel Democracy Institute found about 20 percent who called themselves left wing. That dropped by half to just 10 percent in December. But in May 2024, nearly 18 percent of Jews said they were left wing.

Neither 12 nor 18 percent is exactly a breakout moment, but the recovery to prewar attitudes looks real. That’s an admittedly low range, but it seems to represent the floor – the lowest possible point for the left. And the people on the floor can be compared to a tough kernel of committed left-wingers, the kind that doesn’t break when you step on it.

So far, there could be a similar floor of support for the general concept of a two-state solution. In late 2022, our joint Israeli-Palestinian survey found support among Israelis at a low point – barely 40 percent. Arab respondents brought the average up; among Jews, just 34 percent supported the two-state solution then, and for most of 2023, according to Peace Index surveys.

Support then declined incrementally during the war, to 27 percent of Jews in January, according to the Peace Index. Three months later, that portion is statistically unchanged at 26 percent support among Jews in the as-yet unpublished April Peace Index (with two-thirds support among Arab respondents, 33 percent in total support it). This isn’t quite a recovery, but the same study found some retreat from right wing positions: In the January Peace Index, 53 percent of Jews supported establishing civilian settlements in Gaza – frankly, a shocking number. But the current survey found 45 percent, an eight-point decline.

Something’s happening here, but what?
Strong caveats are needed for a time of severe uncertainty and unstable attitudes. But to understand these trends, tidbits in daily life become meaningful.

After October 7, there was a spasm of hitpakchut – the Hebrew term translated loosely as “seeing the light” – that is used in Israel’s right-leaning mainstream to describe left-wingers admitting the error of their ways. It made for saucy headlines, but in daily conversation, many mainstream center-left types say that the current situation proves more than ever that the conflict must somehow be resolved, through some sort of two-state solution. “There’s simply no other way,” is a common conclusion.

Left-wing activism also regained its footing over time. After the disarray, shock, loss of life and loneliness of the first few months, the pro-peace, anti-occupation communities have become increasingly active.

As a board member of Land for All, which supports a two-state confederation, I can report that our group is mobbed with requests. International policymakers are desperate to hear from those with fresh ideas for peace, with buy-in from both Israelis and Palestinians. And Israelis too are filling rooms to hear about ideas for ending long-running conflict; these may be small rooms, but notably they are often populated by young people.

Think tanks are releasing “day after” and long-term peace plans, and holding public discussions. Standing Together, a grassroots Jewish-Arab civil society group, has taken a leading role in shared activities to advocate for peace and support a cease-fire. And small but tough clusters of pro-cease-fire, anti-occupation demonstrators show up at all street protests, sometimes as a discrete group, or joining in with the larger protests flooding the streets weekly.

Room to grow?
The most far-reaching potential is also the most uncertain. Could the pro-peace camp find support among unusual bedfellows? In recent months, a large portion of Israelis are changing their minds in profound ways. They’re not flocking to the peace table or demanding an end to occupation. But the ugly war is sparking grave doubts – about whether the war aims can be achieved and, most of all, about the politicians leading it.

Clusters for a cease-fire and incremental survey recovery is good, but nothing says “stop the fighting” like 47 percent of all Israelis (Jews and Arabs) who want a complete end to the war in return for a full hostage release, in a survey by Kan News last week. An absolute majority of 52 percent of all Israelis, according to a Channel 13 survey, don’t believe that a major Rafah operation can bring total victory; nearly two-thirds of Israelis don’t believe Netanyahu when he says the country was just a step away from that victory, in the Kan poll.

The change over time is extraordinary. In a survey commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute, conducted by the Madad, the portion of Israeli Jews who were certain of victory declined from 74 percent in October to just 38 percent today.

The trends are matched by mobilization-expressing doubts about the leadership. In late April, parents of soldiers now serving in the army sent a letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, also in the war cabinet, to express their deep sense of abandonment. The tone is anguished, and the parents accuse the leadership of recklessly risking their sons’ lives in Gaza with “political” motivations.

“To our sorrow,” they wrote, “we must say as forcefully as possible – we don’t trust you anymore!” Simona, who initiated the document and preferred to be identified only by her first name, said there are 1,900 signatories, including over 600 parents of soldiers, but they have received no response. Simona says she has voted for right-wing parties her whole life, never for the left.

Recently, a group of reservists also wrote a letter against advancing on Rafah: “Beyond endangering our lives and the lives of innocent people in Rafah, entering [Rafah] won’t bring the hostages back alive. … It’s Rafah or the hostages, and we choose the hostages. Therefore, if the decision is made to go into Rafah instead of a hostage deal, then we [reservists] will not report and will not participate in forsaking the lives of the hostages by undermining another deal. The time has come to choose life.”

The organizers have not yet revealed how many have signed or followed through on the threat not to serve; but the sentiment is notable.

Demonstrators for hostage release are on the streets nearly every night, while Saturday nights bring out tens of thousands in Tel Aviv and around the country. These protesters are now thoroughly mingled with the anti-government crowds shouting and singing about government corruption and criminality, and demanding elections. Increasingly desperate family members of hostages are prepared to throw themselves in the line of increasingly aggressive police. Peace and cease-fire activists mingle among them, while the more hard-core anti-occupation activists have revived the “bloc against occupation” from the protests of 2023, on a corner of Kaplan Boulevard.

There’s no point projecting left-wing fantasies onto the mainstream crowds, but there is every opportunity for common cause. Ending the war to release the hostages, and toppling the government are now aims shared by at least half or a majority of Israelis, respectively. These are the baseline conditions for pro-peace aims of the left. And after living through disaster, there may be more allies for the left than its embattled members would have guessed.

This article is reproduced in its entirety

© Copyright JFJFP 2024