Might abusive rhetoric be part of the problem?
Last June 8—four days before the terror attack in Orlando—two Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank opened fire in a Tel Aviv café, killing four and wounding six.
Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, a member of the left-wing Labor Party, was quick to respond—by blaming Israel.
Saying that Israel was “maybe the only country in which another people is under occupation and in which these people have no rights,” Huldai continued:
We can’t keep these people in a reality in which they are occupied and expect them to reach the conclusion that everything is all right and that they can continue living this way…. I know the reality and understand that leaders with courage need to aspire to reach [an agreement] and not just talk about it.
Considering that Huldai is a public official, mayor of a major city, it is putting it mildly to say that his words were full of ignorance and distortions. Israel is not an occupier in the West Bank. There are, however, numerous occupied peoples in the world. Palestinians in the West Bank have the prerogative to elect their own government and many other rights. The large majority of Palestinians—and certainly the terrorists among them—reject any Israeli claim to any land. So many attempts—by Israeli, American, and other leaders—to reach an agreement with the Palestinians have been turned down cold that any realistic Israeli leader understands that, at least for the time being, it’s an impossible goal.
But beyond those points, there’s another: shooting up people in a café is a crime, known as murder. No claim of political grievance is exoneration for murder. That point is widely understood in civilized societies—though not by the mayor of Tel Aviv.
Huldai’s words, which sparked fury, would be less significant if they were an aberration. Unfortunately, statements of that ilk are typical of the Israeli left—including, amazing as it may seem, in the case of left-wing politicians seeking to gain public favor.
Ehud Barak, a lifelong Laborite, is a former prime minister and defense minister. Before leaving politics in 2013, he was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense minister for four years. He was seen as Netanyahu’s close ally and fellow hawk on the Iranian issue, and worked hard—even dividing his party at one point—to keep Netanyahu’s coalition in power.
In a speech on June 16, Barak—who, as Netanyahu’s defense minister, had warned steadily that time was running out to stop Iran’s nuclear program—said that Israel faced “no existential threats.” He went on to accuse Netanyahu of “Hitlerizing” all threats to Israel, saying:
Hitlerization by the prime minister cheapens the Holocaust…. Our situation is grave even without [comparisons to] Hitler….
Barak, however, went on to give his own characterization of the current situation in Israel:
Only a blind person or a sheep, an ignoramus or someone jaded, can’t see the erosion of democracy and the “budding fascism.…” If it looks like budding fascism, walks like budding fascism and quacks like budding fascism, that’s the situation…. In capitals around the world—in London and Washington, in Berlin and Paris, in Moscow and Beijing—no leader believes a word coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth or his government’s.
If it sounds unhinged, vicious, and appropriate for the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, that indeed is what it was. And while Barak, 74, disavowed any further political ambitions, he also said:
I call on the government to come to its senses, to get back on track immediately…. If it does not do that, it will be incumbent upon all of us—yes, all of us—to get up from our seats…and bring it down via popular protest and via the ballot box before it’s too late.
A week later, there is no sign that “all of us” are doing anything of the sort. Barak’s words have been dismissed by some as an attempt by a sidelined, no longer relevant politician to get back in the limelight.
But Isaac Herzog, opposition leader and Barak’s current replacement as Labor Party leader, is an active Israeli politician who still has—or claims to have—political ambitions. Strangely, then, Herzog’s rhetorical style is no more pleasing to the great majority of Israeli ears than Mayor Huldai’s or former minister Barak’s.
In October 2015, Herzog attacked Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, telling Netanyahu to “go home” and take Bennett with him, since their “policies have failed, and are leading us to another Masada”—referring to the mountain fortress where in 73 CE a Jewish group committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by the Romans.
Netanyahu claims to be “managing” the conflict, along with Bennett. The way you are handling the conflict has turned into a knife to stab us in the back, a knife in the back of Israelis.
Now it turns out that, before the March 2015 elections, Herzog offered Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a deal in which Israel would have ceded virtually the entire West Bank, agreed to divide Jerusalem, and kept only a “symbolic” military presence in the strategically crucial Jordan Valley.
Herzog, true to form, had a ready justification:
After rounds of wars and funerals nearly every year and over the past decade, I won’t listen to the mantra that threats can only be subdued through military force…. The right always offers us war and then runs to sign peace treaties. We are just offering to reverse the order and prevent hundreds of fathers and mothers from visiting military cemeteries. The right should also consider this.
Herzog said that in a report from June 19. Two days later it was reported that the Israeli left—which lost in a landslide in 2015—had fared even worse in a new poll, “crashing” and “imploding.” Herzog’s Labor Party had plummeted from 24 seats in the current Knesset to 9, with the whole bloc getting 14 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or at most 34 if one counts the Yesh Atid party—which many consider centrist—as left-wing.
The Israeli left has, of course, other problems besides its rhetorical style. Most of its members no longer claim to be socialist. Israelis rightly view its “peace” ideology as shrill and outmoded. Opposite the repeatedly elected Netanyahu—who runs Israel skillfully as a pragmatic centrist—the left, and particularly Labor, appears to have no clear purpose or coherent critique to offer.
And yet, with all that, the Israeli left seems unable to absorb the fact that blaming Israelis for terror attacks, accusing them of “budding fascism,” painting their leaders as back-stabbers and engines of war, and trying to scare them with talk of “military cemeteries” is also no way to make a positive impression on them. One can wait years for the left to stop striking out blindly and viciously and instead try some introspection. It doesn’t happen.