Palestinians carry a boy following an Israeli military strike on the Gaza beach / Getty Images
In the current outburst of violence, perhaps the only pliable and docile actor is Israel’s center-left. Politically speaking, opposition leader Isaac Herzog might as well be cowering in a shelter. He toes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line, supporting both the airstrikes and the ground invasion. True, he popped up to demand an exit strategy from the government, but he did so just as Hamas was rejecting a cease-fire — rendering his quibbles about an exit strategy weak and irrelevant. Centrist Minister of Finance Yair Lapid is even more accommodating, loosening the purse-strings for an indefinite war.
The trouble is that acquiescing to periodic escalations in Gaza makes mincemeat of the mainstream left’s supposed stance on the conflict. It’s a strategic disaster.
Sure, supporting Operation Protective Edge is superficially appealing. Morally, Israel’s south languishes under a frustrating, inhuman siege, and (it seems) something must be done. Politically, when a super-majority of Jewish Israelis supports intensive Israeli military commitment, opposing Netanyahu looks like suicide. So, the center-left adopts the late prime minister Yitzchak Rabin’s slogan: “Fight terrorism as if there is no peace process; pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” So amidst the war in the south, Herzog calls for renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Pushing the peace process is his consistent line: Herzog regularly attacks Netanyahu and Lieberman for the stalled peace process, saying in April, “there is no possibility of taking real steps toward peace on Netanyahu’s terms.” And while Lapid enjoys his powerful role in the government and is thus more circumspect, he too distinguishes himself from the right by insisting on furthering negotiations.
But, whatever its merits in the nineties, a combination of tough military action and dovish rhetoric makes no sense today. The Gaza escalations are “Netanyahu’s terms,” because they guarantee negotiations will be a farce.
Why? First, each sustained Israeli involvement in Gaza supports and emboldens the Israeli right. Enemy bombardment is a political boon to current political leadership, and Netanyahu’s polling numbers predictably surge during these operations.
Nor is Netanyahu — who recently returned to refusing explicitly ever to end the occupation — the only one who wins. In recent weeks, far-right Israeli leaders have urged the decimation of Gaza with the “IDF’s maximum force,” a boycott of Arabs who participated in a protest strike, and war against the “entire Palestinian people.” You may call that atrocious, but it’s also the temerity of an ascendant political bloc. If Knesset elections were held today, the hardline Habayit Hayehudi would grow by more than 50%, to 19 seats. Fundamentally, a reality of rockets and called-up reserves means that Israelis see a violent adversarial war and want security — peace seems like a bad joke.
The same logic applies on the Palestinian side, only there it’s a far bigger problem. Prior to this war, Hamas collapsed financially, forcing it to join a unity government that accepted previous Israel-PLO negotiations. You could imagine a path both to the political marginalization of Palestinian hardliners and to plausible negotiations. But when Israel kills 600 Gazans — no matter how many are terrorists, no matter how moral our cause — two things happen. First, Palestinians wrongly conclude that Israel is a recalcitrant aggressor, and they rally around the resistance. As Noam Sheizaf writes in a great piece on this topic, “The people of Gaza support Hamas in its war against Israel because they perceive it to be part of their war of independence.” Put more bluntly, four Gazan kids killed on a beach does not bode well for Palestinian moderates.
Second, a chasm opens between Fatah and Hamas, threatening the unity government. With the PA’s police doing Israel’s security work in the West Bank, and with Abbas condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks, the unity government is on rocky ground. Whether or not you think Israel can really negotiate with a government that includes Hamas, there are no serious negotiations that do not involve a unity government. That’s so even if the short-term goal of such negotiations is to isolate and weaken Hamas’ recalcitrant, violent wing. At a baseline level, shutting Hamas, who are (disastrously) running Gaza, out of Palestinian politics means that negotiations will remain purely rhetorical.
So in sum, Herzog, Lapid and their ilk promote a self-contradictory, paralyzed program for dealing with the Palestinians. If they advocate sustained exchanges of high explosives with Hamas and then pressure the prime minister for not negotiating more, they are promoting only a confused, ineffectual compromise, one that has nothing real to offer Israelis. Given the choice of Bibi’s iron wall of security and rejection, most Israelis will correctly assess the center-left as self-defeating and ineffectual.
Yes, we have the right to defend ourselves; yes, the situation in Israel’s south has long been inhuman; yes, the IDF makes incredible efforts to fight cleanly. And yes, arguing against serious escalations and for limited, continuous security operations would be immediately unpopular and involve tolerating the intolerable in Ashdod and Sderot. But repeated, intensive battles with Hamas only entrench the right wing in Jerusalem and Gaza. At the end of the day, no matter how painfully, the Israeli center-left has to choose between Netanyahu’s politics of security and the possibility of real peace.