For the mainstream media, explaining Israeli politics is difficult work. A country where the poor and disenfranchised immigrants from the Middle East have traditionally supported the party of the right (Likud) while the wealthy and the upper middle-class of largely European origin are the last strongholds of the political left does not translate easily into American political context. In the United States, political culture is rooted in very different concerns than those of the average Israeli, where security issues and attitudes toward the Arab world still dominate. The temptation to make flawed analogies, it seems, is still irresistible. That led to the New York Times’s attempt to ascribe reactions in Israel to Secretary of State John Kerry’s astonishing attack on the Jewish state last week to a divide between “red state” and “blue state” Israeli voters. The piece not only failed to effectively analyze the Israeli response to the Obama administration but also the reason why the Middle East conflict hasn’t been solved.
New Times Jerusalem bureau chief Peter Baker isn’t entirely wrong when he says that there is a stark divide between left and right in Israel. For some who live in secular and liberal Tel Aviv, what goes in Jerusalem and even along the border with Gaza–let alone West Bank settlements–has sometimes been of little interest. I can recall conversing with Tel Aviv residents about a visit to Sderot in the south eight years ago, which at the time was besieged by Palestinian missile fire, in which they reacted as if I was speaking of what was happening in Afghanistan. The disconnect between the minority who blame their own country for the lack of peace and the majority who correctly see the problem as the function of Palestinian intransigence is great, even if Hamas’s 2014 missile attacks on the secular metropolis erased some of the left’s complacency.
Yet the left-wing establishment that once dominated Israeli politics and society was effectively marginalized by the collapse of the peace process in the carnage of the second intifada. In the wake of the Palestinians’ refusal of an offer of statehood from the last Labor-led government in 2000, the even split between left and right that had characterized Israeli politics since the 1970s was transformed into a new reality in which power rested with a dominant right and an ever-changing roster of centrist parties. The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now serving his third consecutive term in power and that the only viable alternative comes from Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party speaks volumes about how little influence leftist organs like Haaretz have, even as it continues to support attacks on the Jewish state from foreign critics like Kerry.
Even Baker had to acknowledge his red state/blue state analogy falls short because of the decline of the left. Many liberal Israelis took umbrage at Kerry’s speech just as they were appalled by Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009. The one-sided, anti-Israel bias of both speeches, as well as the way Kerry and Obama have worked hard to treat Jewish Jerusalem as being as much of an illegal settlement as the most remote West Bank hilltop settlement, discredited the administration in the eyes of many Israelis. That, and Obama’s appeasement of Iran, only strengthened Netanyahu’s continued hold on power.
There’s a broader problem with the red and blue story line. The Islamists of Hamas make no distinction between the settlers that Obama let the UN brand as outlaws and those blue state Israelis lounging in Tel Aviv cafes sniping at Netanyahu. They want them all dead. The moderates of Fatah sometimes pay lip service to a two-state solution. But when pressed to say the words that would mean they are giving up the war against Zionism for good–a recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn–they also still refuse and continue to praise terrorists and foment hatred of Israelis and Jews that fuels violence.
Whether or not they oppose settlements or embrace a two-state solution, the vast majority of Israelis understand that what happened at the UN was an effort to strip their country of any leverage it might have in the peace talks the Palestinians refuse to rejoin. Whether or not they like Netanyahu, a clear majority know that Palestinians have repeatedly rejected peace and still have a conception of national identity that makes peace impossible for the present. Israeli society is split along religious, economic, security, and political fault lines. But when placed in the context of Palestinian hate, international anti-Semitism and Obama’s betrayal, the cultural divide between right and left is not quite as great as Israel’s critics would have us believe.