The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue
Field Notes

“Liberalization” and the Search for Radical Change in Israel

2019 has been a very dramatic year in Israeli politics. A political stalemate resulted in the government’s collapse, followed by two consecutive elections due to the failure of Benjamin Netanyahu, usually considered a political miracle worker, to put together a new governing coalition. That in itself should have had the Israeli left looking for a way to reinvent itself, to take advantage of the political crisis. No such luck: throughout 2019, what one used to consider the Israeli left remained, for the most part, dormant. As I’m finishing writing this essay, the political stalemate continues: Netanyahu has failed to put together a coalition government for the second time, and, barring a last-minute miracle, Benny Gantz (Netanyahu’s main political rival), has also failed to do so, after Israel’s second 2019 election. It is not at all clear what will happen next. By the time this essay is published, this uncertainty will have probably disappeared, and the situation decided, at least for the time being. The following should therefore be read as a proposal for the future, regardless of the immediate political situation. However the political drama plays itself out, the proposal elaborated here, based on the potentialities and tendencies that became visible over the last several months, will remain relevant.

There are at least two leftist ways to give up hope in relation to Israel. The first, which is the more common one, is to stay loyal to the position of the older left—that which pushed for a two-state solution, and has by now shriveled to near extinction. The fact that at least 100 out of 120 members of the Israeli parliament could support, at least passively, Israel’s murderous “securitization” approach to Palestinians attests to the complete triumph of the Right, from the perspective of the old left. Not to mention that developments on the ground (construction of huge settlement blocks and substantial infrastructure investment in the West Bank), as many have argued, make the older two-state solution almost impossible to implement or even imagine, which renders resistance to it particularly high. To take up this leftist position today is implicitly to subscribe to the current state of affairs, for this position is safely neutralized: the great majority of Israeli politics is premised precisely upon its rejection.

The other leftist way to give up on any change in Israel is to insist on adopting an explicitly class-based political line, opting for a socialist or communist rhetoric. It is important in this respect to think about the lessons of Syriza in Greece, Chavismo in Venezuela, or other leadership elected on the basis of anti-austerity platforms. It turns out that it is very difficult to act on such commitments, despite good will. These failures tend today to boomerang very fast, producing horrible counter revolutions in response to any attempt to implement socialism directly. (That Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, if elected, would face the same danger, should be obvious.) To this one should add that the overt codes of class politics do not enjoy in Israel the same renaissance that they do in the United States. This kind of leftism, then, is also a useless exercise, politically speaking.

The point of this depressing opening is this: if we refuse to conserve the current situation we must look for the possibility of transformation in every new conjuncture. The frustrating thing is that all the “safe” leftist positions, those that are marked in advance as undoubtedly leftist, seem ineffective (though this is a contingent situation, not a necessary one!). This is the basic starting point in trying to detect, in any situation, where potential for transformation actually exists. It is here that one has to remind oneself of an old truth: in a capitalist society, the contradictions of capitalism are always mediated in the political realm—they are always already there, in the guise of some discursive code; and thus, any intervention in political life is always an intervention in capitalism, even if awkwardly or indirectly so. Nor should we think that the codes of anti-austerity or socialism are somehow the best codes for charting a political path forward. Recent cases in which socialists capitulated in the face of our neoliberal reality prove exactly that. Even if Marxism is the best way to perceive the structure of reality, it does not immediately translate into a political agenda.

Therefore, intervening in any political field must be done immanently, using the options available in that field. The fight against capitalism is always already immanent to this field, as I just noted. If any concrete political perception starts by analytically “reducing” the field to two antagonistic positions, the old Israeli left, for which peace with Palestinians and the formation of a Palestinian state were the political goal, clearly does not constitute one of these poles. In fact, if one belongs in this camp, one sees the entire political field as right-wing. Adherence to the old left point of view produces a blindness, an inability to see where potential for change resides. Such blindness is the surest sign of an obsolete political position (think about how hopelessly barbaric the entire political field seemed to a royalist like Balzac in post-revolution France).

How, then, can we dichotomize Israeli politics today? First, it is important to observe that some kind of polarizing dynamics definitely exists. Even the political chameleon “Bibi” Netanyahu has failed (twice!) in forming a coalition government in Israel. If everyone is on the right, as an “old” leftist would claim, this would be an unexplainable state of affairs: why is it so difficult to put together a coalition government if everyone is on the same side? So instead we should try to take seriously the field’s own way of thinking about this polarization: let’s treat those parties of the “large right” as the entire political field and look for what divides them.

What follows is a detailed discussion of Israeli politics, one that is necessary for my argument, but might bore some readers. Jumping several paragraphs down, to the one starting with “my argument is” will bypass the political nuts and bolts.

It was the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, I think, who started speaking about a “broad liberal government,” a formula that he might soon come to regret. Lieberman and his party have been instrumental in bringing about the current political crisis, breaking with Bibi’s coalition government because of its failure to advance Lieberman’s “liberal” reforms (fiercely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties. This split between the religious and the “liberal” right is Bibi’s biggest problem: without a compromise between Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox, he has no coalition.

Meanwhile, the split between “liberals” and the old guard is also evident elsewhere. Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz’s number two, is a proponent of such “liberalism,” but from the slightly-less-right-wing of Israeli politics. The pairing of Gantz and Lapid that won the second election is an imaginary reconciliation of the older Zionist order (with its reassuring generals) with an agenda of radical liberal individual equality, in which separation between religion and state features prominently. In a strange way, Lapid is much closer to Lieberman’s uncompromising “liberalism” than he is to Bibi’s purely opportunistic politics.

Even if Gantz and Lapid were never very good at defining their difference from Bibi, that difference had to exist for them to actually signify an alternative, something beyond mere disdain for Netanyahu and the wish to see him out of office (and hopefully in jail). Gantz’s statement that he did not rule out the Arab parties as potential coalition partners marked perhaps the most important moment in Israel’s political drama of 2019. The Arab parties’ own significant political act during the second election was recommending Gantz for Prime-Minister, rather than recommending no one, as they usually do. That immediately prompted Bibi’s propaganda machine to portray Gantz as a lover of Arabs, a despicable leftist traitor. Netanyahu continued to say such things even as coalition talks were going on after the second election. But what is important to notice is that the Israeli public didn’t buy Bibi’s demonization of Gantz: Gantz won the second 2019 election. That Bibi himself, as it turns out, approached the Arab parties for possible support after the first 2019 elections should tell us how close we are, despite the prominence of alarmist, racist rhetoric, to the possibility of the Arab parties being part of a coalition government.

In fact, the decisive political act, the one that distinguished Gantz from Bibi, was precisely the potential of including the Arab parties in a coalition government, something that has never happened before in Israel. Strangely, without anyone noticing or predicting it, the Arab parties’ inclusion in a coalition has become not only thinkable, but also possible, given the existing political fault lines. And the following point should not go unnoticed: that the Arab parties’ inclusion in a coalition government would be the clearest case of true “liberalization” in the loose sense in which the term is used in Israel right now: a radical equalizing of individuals. The unspoken apartheid rule that the Arab parties can never be part of the executive branch is one of the most blatant anti-“liberal” norms of Israeli politics. It is true that a government that includes the Arab parties, as I imagine it here, would not necessarily include Lieberman’s party. It could just as easily rely on the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are historically less prone to using anti-Palestinian rhetoric than Lieberman. That this scenario is possible was recently demonstrated when an Orthodox member of the Knesset suggested a member of the Arab parties as a possible candidate for Minister of Justice (eliciting alarm from the far right). Yet, not only is Lieberman more politically bold than the Orthodox parties, his agenda is also more in line with the general project of “liberalization” I’m trying to define here. Still, the possibility of an Arab-ultra-Orthodox coalition definitely exists, and it, too, would constitute a historical opening.

“Liberalization” includes all the civil issues that inform the Arab parties’ agenda, at the top of which is crime, especially violent crime, among Arab-Israelis, an issue that has been very visible in Israeli news lately. Other forms of structural neglect, like the near absence of development and construction plans for Arab-Israeli towns, and other infrastructural and state services issues, belong there too. So a future “liberalization” project would include these too. The possibility of a Jewish-Arab coalition government might depend on Lieberman and the Arab parties’ agreeing to be part of the same government. But it should be clear to both sides that advancing their “liberal” agenda—Lieberman’s secularization and the Arab parties’ investment in Arab-Israelis—stands or falls precisely with such a compromise. The inclusion of the Arab parties in a coalition government, which suddenly became a possibility in Israel’s second election of 2019—which would also depend, of course, on these parties’ willingness to join one—is the sine qua non of any leftist political project in Israel that would center around “liberalization.”

In short: it is possible to imagine a leftist political project in Israel today under the banner of “liberalization.” The reason I keep the term in quotation marks is that it doesn’t quite designate what one would mean by “liberalism” in the American context (either the old, welfare-state liberalism, or the anti-state neoliberal one); nor is it simply reducible to classical liberal emphasis on individual freedoms. Perhaps a better term will emerge in the future.

Two things must be emphasized here. First, it is important to understand that gradualism is always an illusion. The political option I’m talking about has become possible in a very sudden, non-gradual way, defying all theories about the impossibility or impracticality of a leftist project in Israel. It has happened in the wrong time, when we least expect it (echoing here the truism that all radical transformations depend on such a “leap,” not reducible to the conditions in which they emerge). The second point that bears emphasizing is that this project is already under way. The localized projects of “liberalization,” be they Lieberman’s or Lapid’s, are a tendency already existing in reality. These separate, localized, demands simply need to be symbolically unified under one project, a transformation, one could say, from in-itself to for-itself. That several months ago Lapid already suggested such a unification to Lieberman, should again signal to us that such an emergence is closer than it might seem.

This is the main polarizing force animating Israeli politics today—not the oppression of the Palestinians, no matter how horrible it is. It is in this field of meaning that the left needs to be reinvented. That this already-existing antagonism is very serious should be clear from the fact that in the past the ultra-Orthodox parties used to be easy partners for coalition for both left and right. That suddenly these parties would become intransigent, putting at risk their own ability to control public life, is a dramatic development, one that even Bibi cannot solve very easily. The “liberal” forces have themselves undergone a radicalization in the last decade, taking bolder and bolder stances against religion in schools and public spaces. (Of course, in the background of it all is the demise of what was known as the Status Quo that used to govern the relationship between religion and public life in Israel, which was mostly a matter of unwritten rules of conduct. These have eroded gradually and have by now completely disappeared with the waning of the welfare state in Israel.) It is this social antagonism that invites a decisive intervention, and in relation to which the left has a possibility of renewal.

So a truly daring political act today in Israel is to fight for “liberalization”: the curtailing of special privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews, a greater separation of state and religion, and the treatment of Arab Israelis as equal citizens. It is precisely this possibility that is feared and denounced by those who are trying to preserve the current situation. The anti-Arab sentiment which Bibi has been trying to mobilize is aimed at this possibility, rather than at the old two-state peace project, which is a political non-starter in Israel today.

One should spell out the possible horizon of such a “liberalization” project. I’ve already argued that radical transformative possibilities are not predictable outcomes of gradual developments, but always first appear suddenly, out of place or at the wrong time. Thus the potentialities I elaborate here might seem impossible or unthinkable now; but they could suddenly become possible as other, seemingly unrelated, projects transform the coordinates of our imagination. For example, if Arab Israelis would finally become equal citizens, their conscription into the Israeli military, with no exceptions, might be inevitable. With the additional ultra-Orthodox being conscripted, the military might expand its involvement in projects unrelated to warfare (like education, construction, and others). But more importantly, the horizon of the “liberalization” project could one day include a one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem. The most disenfranchised population under the control of the Israeli government, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, are the “final frontier.” Their inclusion as equal citizens in a single state would be the ultimate feat of “liberalization.” And of course, that would allow us to drop the reified commitment to the now impossible two-state solution.

Am I not just turning into a common liberal (oy vey!) by taking this position? Here I need to go back to one of the truths with which I started this essay: that the contradictions of capitalism are always expressed by overt political antagonisms, even if none of them revolve around overtly class discourse. How is the “liberal” position I’m suggesting here related to capitalism’s contradictions? This is not a difficult question to answer, if we remember what Marxists mean by the term “uneven and combined development.” The main point of this long phrase is the following: in certain situations, the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist society depends on the preservation of some pre-capitalist social hierarchies. Colonial situations provide perfect examples for this puzzling survival of the old within the new. Many times, the ability to introduce capitalism into a society involves having the local socially dominant classes sanction this transition. The continued existence of older hierarchies on which these groups symbolically depend—ones that defy the absolute equality legislated by the capitalist market—becomes paradoxically necessary for the existence of capitalism. Thus, the survival of older social forms within capitalism is many times not some aberration that will easily disappear on its own, as capitalist development continues. Rather, the existence of these older forms become a necessary condition for capitalism. Of course, this is not a logical necessity, but a historical one: borne out of a set of contingent conditions, some of which shed this contingency as they become necessary for the new system that was formed.

The important point here is that Palestinian inequality constitutes precisely such a case of uneven development in Israel, especially if you take the “liberal” position to mean working towards a one-state solution. The connection between the 1967 Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and neoliberalism is highly important in this regard. The occupation became a necessary part of Israeli capitalism, when poorer Israelis started finding refuge in large, non-ideological, West Bank settlements. The existence of these settlements, and the “welfare state” that exists in them, makes it possible for the rest of Israel to be thoroughly neoliberal. Thus, the persistence of the pre-capitalist ethno-religious hierarchy between Jewish Israelis (all of whom enjoy citizens’ rights) and non-Jewish Arabs (who to a large degree are not citizens) has become a condition for capitalism’s operation in Palestine/Israel.

In this situation, the seemingly innocuous “liberal” position I elaborate above, with its demand for equal rights for Palestinians, becomes a challenge to the conditions of capitalist accumulation. The political wager here is the following: followed without compromise, the demand for full “liberalization” in Israel will necessarily come into contradiction with capitalism. In this way, class conflict itself is immanent to the “liberalization demand.” True, one does not have any guarantee that this way of mounting a challenge to capitalism in Israel/Palestine will lead to communism. The contradiction between “liberalization” and capitalism could, as in many cases, be resolved by some reconfiguration of capitalism. But the possibility of such futurity is at least opened up by such a struggle.

An earnest taking up of the cause of “liberalization” necessarily means intervening in an existing political situation, one that is not of our own making, doesn’t speak our political language, and is not guaranteed to lead to a better situation. But, as I suggested earlier, aren’t all revolutionary beginnings such wagers? Don’t all of them take place at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons? And don’t they all begin as antagonisms—such as the antagonism between secular and ultra-Orthodox in Israel—that seem to have nothing to do with appropriate class analysis? Any overthrowing of capitalism, it seems, must start as a contingent affair that only later, if successful, would be revealed to have been a necessary condition for the world to come. In this situation, to maintain fidelity to older leftist moral codes, or to “pure” and explicit class struggle, is to take a position against the oppressed classes—even if it is done under the opposite banner. In contrast, the demand for “liberalization,” in the current conjuncture in Israel, is where true class struggle lies, even if those currently engaging in it would disagree with that judgment. And yes, this struggle might fail. But the looming possibility of failure should not deter us, when the left in Israel has precisely nothing to lose.


Oded Nir

Oded Nir teaches courses on Israeli culture and society at Queens College, CUNY. He is the author and editor of multiple essays and volumes on Israeli culture and history, and Marxist theory.


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