The Long Paralysis of the Israeli Left

Yitzhak Rabin addressing Israeli troops, Sidon, Lebanon, 1985
David Rubinger/Corbis/Getty Images
Yitzhak Rabin addressing Israeli troops, Sidon, Lebanon, 1985

The Israeli political system is in a weird stalemate. Two general elections in under six months have so far failed to produce a governing coalition. The sticking point is entirely personal—the fate of Bejamin Netanyahu as he faces multiple criminal indictments. After more than ten years in office, Netanyahu continues to dominate Israeli politics. As the recent election results show, this is not because he enjoys the support of a solid majority of voters, but because of the lack of a persuasive alternative. Israeli liberals are cowed by the right’s political thuggery, demoralized by decades of failure, and weakened by mediocre leadership. Afraid to articulate their values and terrified of challenging Netanyahu’s nationalism, many on the left have reverted to a meaningless centrism, assuming that the only way to defeat him is by offering a more civilized, noncorrupt version of his politics.

Thus the recent elections became a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, lavish lifestyle, and entanglement in various corruption scandals. But as Avner Inbar explained last spring:

Unlike his challengers in four consecutive elections, Netanyahu stands for something. While many Israelis find his actions and style odious, his opponents persistently fail to realize that in politics, a flawed something is still better than nothing.1

Two recent books recount the momentous events that began to shape this pattern almost a quarter-century ago.

Most Israelis above a certain age remember where they were on November 4, 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot at a rally in Tel Aviv by an Israeli nationalist named Yigal Amir. I was on a bus, on my way to the rally. At the time, I was a soldier on unpaid leave, and attending political rallies was not my preferred pastime. I mostly wanted to hang out with my girlfriend, and I didn’t particularly like Rabin. But in the fall of 1995, supporting the Oslo Accords, which broke a generations-long impasse by giving a measure of self-government to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, felt like a necessity.

Rabin had just signed the second Oslo agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that September, and the country was seething with opposition. For months, the spokespeople for the settlers in the occupied territories who sought to expand control over them had been ruthlessly attacking Rabin’s government and flooding the streets with protesters. His supporters were in the majority and had until then largely sat out the demonstrations. But as dissent grew more vehement, with some openly calling for Rabin’s elimination, the November 4 rally became a call to arms for defenders of the Oslo process.

“The announcement [of Rabin’s death] plunged Israel into a haze, a gloomy twilight zone where everything seemed surreal,” the journalist Dan Ephron recounts in Killing a King. There…

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