After Liberal Zionism, the One Hope for a Democratic Israel

Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Leader of the Arab-Israeli Joint List parliamentary group Ayman Odeh attending a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, March 23, 2020

A remarkable thing happened in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on April 21, as the assembly was marking the country’s Holocaust Memorial Day. Mansour Abbas, a Knesset member of the Joint List, the bloc of Arab-Israeli parties, took the podium and delivered a speech commemorating the Holocaust’s Jewish victims. “As a religious Palestinian and a Muslim Arab,” he said, “I have empathy for the pain and suffering over the years of Holocaust survivors and the families of the murdered. I stand here to show solidarity with the Jewish people, now, and forever.”

For an outsider, this gesture might perhaps seem a mere formality. In fact, it was a milestone in the process of change currently redefining the country’s future.

For one thing, it was a first: an Arab-Israeli member had never addressed the Knesset on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day before. Year after year, Arab-Israeli representatives had always kept silent on that national commemoration day, honoring a tacit understanding that, in the state of Holocaust survivors, memory remains a Jewish affair.

True, Ahmad Tibi, another representative of the List, did make headlines in 2010 by publicly commemorating Jewish victims before the House, but he was careful to speak not on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day but on International Holocaust Memorial Day—a different occasion that is of little symbolic import to Israelis. By contrast, Abbas had dared to insert himself into the very heart of Israel’s national commemoration rituals.

The speech took place against a dramatic backdrop. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, his rival for that post through three elections over the past year, had just concluded a new coalition pact that cleared the way for Israel to annex a large tranche of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Abbas’s pledge of unending solidarity with the Jewish people thus came at precisely the moment when Israel’s government was poised to deal a death blow to the two-state solution, effectively ending the dream of Palestinian statehood.

That moment is now imminent. Netanyahu has announced his determination to begin the annexation process on July 1. Meanwhile, Gantz, the former chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces now in his new role as Israel’s alternate prime minister and minister of defense, has ordered the IDF to “speed up” preparations and brace for possible clashes with Palestinians.  

Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Defence Minister Benny Gantz wearing a face mask while attending a cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Israel, June 7, 2020

For two decades now, the diminishing hopes for such a two-state solution have moved in lockstep with the declining political fortunes of Israel’s left. The liberal Zionist opposition to the hegemony of Netanyahu’s Likud party has been dwindling in large part because the two-state solution, which was the once-dominant Israeli left’s defining political agenda, has lost credibility. Back in the mid-Nineties, when two-state politics was in full swing after the Oslo Accords, Israel’s Labor held forty-four Knesset seats. It now has three, and just took them into Netanyahu and Gantz’s coalition. Meretz, once the flagship party of progressive Zionist voters, held twelve seats in Oslo’s heyday, but in the last elections was too weak to run at all on a separate ticket. Campaigning together with Labor, it holds two seats.

The marginalization process of liberal Zionism started in 1995, immediately after Yitzhak Rabin, the last Israeli premier who looked as though he might actually deliver a two-state solution, was assassinated. By now, the liberal Zionist opposition—more familiar in recent years from internationally recognized Israeli writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman than domestic politicians of real stature—is a mere ghost from the past. To the extent that it exists, it is only in the imagination of progressive American Jews, and perhaps of a few European Union officials. It has virtually no standing in Israel’s parliament.

So what political alternative, if any, now remains for liberal Israeli Jews?

At just this juncture, we begin to see what made Mansour Abbas’s speech not just emotionally resonant but also politically consequential. In the last round of Israeli elections, rather than waste their votes on the moribund Labor or Meretz party, liberal Jews began voting for the increasingly influential Arab Joint List. This is a startling development given the new momentum behind Israel’s right-wing, nationalist, pro-settler movement thanks to President Trump’s (or Jared Kushner’s) so-called “Deal of the Century.”

People like my father, a lifelong leftist Zionist, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces in reserve, and the son of Holocaust survivors, have been forced to rethink their shrinking electoral options. In the March elections, an unprecedented number of such Jewish voters turned their backs on Meretz, the last bastion of Zionist two-state supporters, and gave their votes to the Joint List.


For many of them, this was a crossing of the Rubicon. Having identified as Zionists their whole lives, they had never imagined casting a vote for a non-Zionist Arab party. But then Arab leaders like Mansour Abbas and Ahmad Tibi could never have imagined publicly sharing Jewish grief on Holocaust Memorial Day, much less pledging eternal solidarity with the Jewish people.

It is hard to accurately determine how many Jews actually voted for the List, because many of them live in mixed urban centers such as Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. But we do know that in September’s elections, the List received 9,918 votes in areas where Jews comprise at least 75 percent of the population. Five months later, in the same areas, it more than doubled that electoral take, to 20,652 votes. In absolute numbers, this doesn’t sound like much, but it is much more significant than it seems. Israel’s voting cohort is small to begin with, and left-liberal voters comprise a small fraction of it. Meretz, for example, gleaned its two Knesset seats from about 70,000 votes nationwide.

Strengthened by a growing turnout of Arab voters as well as by first-time Jewish supporters, the Joint List achieved its best result in Israel’s history. With fifteen seats, it is now the only party that still stands as a left opposition to the new Netanyahu-led government. At Israel’s main anti-annexation rally, in Tel Aviv last Saturday, the list’s leader, Ayman Odeh, was easily the most senior and significant Israeli politician to speak. Delivering the opening speech, he declared:

We are at a crossroads. One path leads to a joint society with a real democracy, civil and national equality for Arab citizens… The second path leads to hatred, violence, annexation and apartheid… we’re here in Rabin Square to pick the first path.

US Senator Bernie Sanders followed Odeh with a recorded video message. “In the words of my friend Ayman Odeh,” he said, “the only future is a shared future.” The political project of the Joint List, the only credible alternative to Israel’s current drive toward a permanent “one-state” outcome with separate legal systems for Arabs and Jews, depends on liberal Zionism reinventing itself and creating a genuine collaboration—a bridge between Jewish and Arab Israelis.


How far can this project go? Is a new coalition really in the making? What does it mean for Jewish voters and liberal Zionists to back the Joint List? And what are the obstacles to its bridge-building?

In February, as an avalanche of op-eds in Ha’aretz made clear that the trend was growing, its editor-in-chief, Aluf Ben, wrote a column that dismissed the prospect of this realignment of Israeli politics as “messianic”—a leftist delusion of what Dmitry Shumsky, one of Ha’aretz’s top political commentators, had earlier hailed as “civil equality between the Jordan River and the Sea.” Shumsky responded that Ben’s argument was based on a “false political picture.” The Joint List, Shumsky pointed out, formally supports the idea of separate states. A vote for the List, he argued, is a vote for the two-state solution—an idea that remains the only “rational” choice, as “utopian” as it now seems.

Actually, for a collaboration of Arabs and Jews to succeed in filling the vacuum left by the disappearance of liberal Zionist parties, it will have to supersede both Shumsky’s and Ben’s positions. For one thing, clinging to the two-state solution can no longer be presented as rational; increasingly, it seems a willful denial of the facts. In the combined populations of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, there now exists a Palestinian majority. In spite of that, the two-state solution purports to give this majority about 22 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This “utopian” idea is untenable, and not merely because it is unjust.

It should be rejected because penning in the majority of the population in a small, crowded, and discontinuous territory is not the type of compromise that can ever bring peace. And that is before we consider the 650,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, complex border adjustments that would purportedly enable Israel to evacuate “only” 350,000 of them, and pockets of territory annexed to Israel, which, according to all two-state plans, remain at the heart of Palestine’s would-be territory in order to leave in place settlements like Ariel, which are too large to dissolve. If the Joint List is going to offer voters the two-state solution as its main political vision, it will disappear into the same black hole that has already swallowed Israel’s liberal Zionist parties.


As for Aluf Ben’s objection, on the other side, the idea of full civil equality in one state—for example, within a federated system, in which Palestinians and Jews would be equal citizens but exercise national self-determination in separate, autonomous regions—cannot be dismissed out of hand. No doubt, this political vision is a distant dream, the road to achieving it long and arduous, but as Zionist Jews begin to vote for Arab parties, it can no longer be considered “messianic.” Only trust of a much deeper kind than a mere tactical alliance can make Jewish voters see their representation as not dependent simply on their national identity, and instead feel—that’s the right word—that an Arab List represents them better than any other group in Israel’s parliament. By that token, when Jewish Israelis vote for the List, they are not just expressing trust but building it. They demonstrate that it is possible to imagine a bridge to a political future beyond the supposed necessity of a two-state separation that is, in point of fact, no longer viable.

Over recent years, the Joint List has invested much energy in cultivating this trust. One need only consider the name, designed to dispel the notion that it is an exclusively Arab bloc: while Israel’s constantly re-forming center-left parties have in recent years gone for patriotic, not to say nationalist, names like The Zionist Camp, Blue White, or Israel Resilience Party, this Arab grouping branded itself in Hebrew as Ha’meshutefet, meaning “the shared” or “the common.”During a recent Democracy Conference convened by Ha’aretz, the List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, pointed out that the bloc’s chief “handicap” is that it has too many Arab representatives: it must start featuring more Jews as prominent representatives on its list.

But trust and mutual representation will not come on the cheap. In order for Arabs and Jews to engage in a joint political project, they will need to invent that common or shared Israeli identity and recognize that the relationship between identity and citizenship in the country must begin to change. With the disappearance of the last liberal Zionist parties, this process isn’t just necessary; it is already in full swing. A clear sign of it was Mansour Abbas’s Holocaust Memorial speech: it signaled to Jewish voters that Arab members can indeed represent them in the Knesset. Even on Holocaust Memorial Day.

At the same time, by honoring a pan-Israeli duty to remember the Holocaust, Abbas was asserting the right to live among Jews as a fully equal Israeli citizen. His speech also introduced a challenge to liberal Zionists because it includes an invitation to invert their priorities. While purporting to incorporate non-Jews as equals in Israel, liberal Zionists have always reserved the privilege of sovereignty for Jews. But Arabs and Jews can only participate in a joint political project if they agree to give primacy to the shared and equal sovereignty of all citizens, while incorporating a shared and mutual recognition of Holocaust commemoration as historically and permanently integral to the duties of citizenship. By signaling his commitment to that, Abbas was also inviting Jewish Israelis to make the reciprocal pledge.

Israeli Jews would have to listen not just to what Abbas said in the speech, but also to what he didn’t say. He remained silent about the Nakba—the mass expulsion and displacement of the majority of Palestine’s population during Israel’s War of Independence—and the fear that this history, as the government’s annexation program is being officially announced, now threatens to return with a vengeance. While avowing eternal solidarity with Holocaust survivors and the Jewish people, Abbas mentioned neither Israel’s role in expelling his people nor its failure to guarantee that such a mass expulsion event can never recur. His restraint demonstrated not just the ability to commemorate and commiserate with his Jewish compatriots, but also a willingness to forget, for a moment, his own perspective as a Palestinian.

It is incumbent now upon the Israeli left’s Jewish leaders to respond to Abbas’s powerful gesture by supplying what he refrained from saying: namely, that just as Arabs, no less than Jews, must remember the Holocaust, so Jews no less than Arabs must remember the Nakba; that, in both cases, doing so is, and must remain, a civic duty.


It is impossible to overstate the challenges that the Joint List still faces in its struggle to persuade Israeli Jewish voters to accept this priority of citizen sovereignty. One immediate difficulty lies in Israel’s Basic Laws, which stand in for a constitution. According to these laws, the Knesset—charged with regulating the country’s elections—declares that a “list of candidates shall not participate in elections” if it “explicitly or implicitly” negates the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Arguably, a list of candidates that explicitly asserts that sovereignty must belong to citizens generally rather than Jews specifically does just that. Even if allowed to run in elections—and this cannot be taken for granted—an Arab-Jewish coalition will still have to argue for its very legitimacy.

This won’t be easy. In June 2018, just as Netanyahu’s government was pushing through its notorious Nation-State Law, which makes explicit that in the Jewish State, Arabs cannot enjoy the same political standing as Jews, members of the Joint List proposed their own counter-legislation: “Basic Law: Israel the State of All of its Citizens.” The Knesset did not even vote on it; instead, it exercised its power to reject proposals deemed unlawful without a vote. A Joint Arab-Jewish coalition would have to insist not just on canceling Israel’s racist Nation-State Law, as the Joint List already does, but also on returning to legislate its own Basic Law proposal.  

If the obstacles facing the Joint List cannot be overstated, what of the alternative? It is a commonplace nowadays to warn that Israel cannot remain a democracy with an annexation program that will lead to apartheid. Unfortunately, this is too optimistic. Since the population in the areas now claimed by Israel’s government is about 50 percent Arab, we are not in fact witnessing a slide toward apartheid but rather the rapid rehabilitation of the idea of forced “population transfers,” a laundered phrase for ethnic cleansing.

Trump’s “Deal of the Century” already contemplated the possibility of population swaps and the denaturalization of Arab-Israeli citizens, notably in the so-called Triangle Area of Israel. As Israel’s former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, posted on social media on January 29: “In 2004, when I suggested a plan for population swaps, everybody raised an eyebrow. But just now President Trump adopted the full plan… standing by your principles and being patient pays off.” In fact, as recently as 2014, when he was Israel’s foreign minister, Lieberman ran on a platform calling for the transfer of Arab Israelis from Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa to the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries. Lieberman was once considered an outlier, an extremist; today, he is seen as a pragmatist, a moderate, indeed a pillar of Israel’s center.


Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Odeh on the campaign trail in the last general election, Tayyiba, Israel, February 21, 2020

For the time being, the Joint List remains an isolated power in Israel. In the coalition-building negotiations that followed the recent series of general elections, parties of the center-left still chose to ally with the prime minister’s party or with a hard-right politician like Lieberman, rather than join forces with the Joint List in order to topple Netanyahu, who had been indicted on multiple charges of corruption. Yet the inescapable if remarkable conclusion is that the Joint List is the best—really, the only—representative in Israeli politics not just for bereft liberal Zionist voters, but also for progressive pro-Israel international Jewish organizations such as J Street and the New Israel Fund. The same is true for the Democratic Party’s younger generation and for the EU. The international community would do well to start recognizing that, as annexation begins and the post-two-state reality rapidly takes shape, a joint Arab-Jewish politics is the model for any democratic future in Israel; its only viable option is to start lending this nascent alliance legitimacy and support.

With their strong and growing turnouts, Arab voters alone could account for almost twenty parliament seats. If the Joint List can succeed in fielding a slate of candidates that would include a new generation of charismatic Jewish representatives, and campaign effectively in Hebrew, it could win up to five more seats with the support of liberal Zionist voters. Meretz’s base is worth about four seats, and Labor’s vestigial left support about one. While none of these voters had a true home to turn to in the previous elections, many of them would be tempted to join those who already crossed the Rubicon and next time vote for a joint Arab-Jewish party that featured, unlike the Joint List, a strong Jewish presence. This will not be enough to form a governing coalition, but it is easily enough to become the largest opposition party in the Knesset and appoint Israel’s official opposition leader.

According to Israeli law, the prime minister must consult the opposition leader on vital state matters “as necessary, and no less than once a month.” The opposition leader also has the right to speak immediately after the prime minister in parliament and at official ceremonies. For the leader of an Arab-Jewish coalition to play this part, and enjoy international backing, is a development that would carry enormous weight and help bring into being an alternative future for the two peoples who must now finally learn to share a single land. It was the founding father of modern political Zionism Theodor Herzl who coined the motto that best suits this prospect: if you will it, it is no dream.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in