Ex-Meretz MK Yair Golan says rallying cry should be separation from Palestinians and that Jews should lead it; Hadash-Ta’al’s Ayman Odeh counters that this formula has failed
By JACOB MAGID
WASHINGTON — After sustaining a knock-out blow in last month’s election that dropped his left-wing Meretz party below the electoral threshold, Yair Golan might have looked forward to speaking at the J Street conference. At the dovish Mideast lobby’s summit in Washington last week, he was more likely to find an audience sympathetic to his warning against Israel’s continued control over Palestinians than he did at the ballot box.
And sure, Golan received some applause from the 1,000-plus crowd for lines about the importance of Israel taking the initiative to end the conflict with the Palestinians and the Israeli security establishment’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. But his central message about the need for Israel to “separate” from the Palestinians — framed through a security lens — fell flat, with J Street delegates remaining silent in their seats for almost the entirety of the former IDF deputy chief staff’s 12-minute remarks.
They likely would’ve responded similarly to the assertion Golan made during a subsequent interview on the sidelines of the conference that the debate over whether Israel should annex or withdraw from the West Bank is one that primarily should concern Israel’s Jewish citizens, not its Arab ones, and therefore be left for the former to handle.
Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh took the stage after the now-former Meretz MK and presented a different approach.
Odeh spoke of the dangers posed by the hardline coalition being finalized by prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. However, he contended that the antidote was a partnership between Jews and Arabs, which he says his party represents.
“It is this partnership that will change the face of our politics and the course of our fates,” said the head of the majority-Arab party in one of the roughly dozen lines that garnered enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
The two politicians might agree on the general desire for a two-state solution and both purport to represent the Israeli left, but while Golan maintains that the political movement’s comeback will require a pragmatic approach that includes more outreach to Jews in the center, Odeh argues that the resurrection must be driven by values and will fail if those are compromised.
Judging based on the November 1 election, Odeh’s approach has proven more effective, with his party winning five seats in the Knesset and becoming what he described in his Sunday speech as “the largest progressive bloc in the Knesset.”
But those five seats amount to less than five percent of the Israeli electorate, and Odeh acknowledged in his own subsequent interview at the Washington conference that despite his longstanding message of Jewish-Arab partnership, Hadash-Ta’al’s outreach during the previous campaign focused largely on Arab voters amid fears that the party would lose its base and not cross the threshold either.
Golan also argued that the reason Meretz failed was that its members preferred the “old guard” leadership of Zehava Galon, who defeated him in the primary to head the left-wing party last August only to run a national campaign that lacked the straightforward, galvanizing message he’s been trying to present.
While he may not be winning over audiences at home or abroad, Golan insisted he is the “only one” capable of reorganizing the Jewish, Israeli left in order to return to power. He speculated that the next Netanyahu government will continue the long-maintained policy of “de facto” or “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and asserted that the strategy advanced by those looking to replace the next right-wing coalition must be one of “creeping separation” from the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel as a secure, Jewish democratic state.
But Odeh countered in his J Street address that “when they discuss ‘Israel’s security,’ I do not believe that my children’s safety is considered part of the equation,” explaining afterward that he does not differentiate between the Palestinians within Israel proper from those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And while “a Jewish-only Left is doomed to fail… political power built on Arab Palestinian and Jewish partnership can no longer be marginalized or ignored,” Odeh argued. “It is this partnership that is the cure for supremacy. And it is this partnership that will change the face of our politics and the course of our fates.”
A shared frame of reference
Despite their different approaches, Odeh’s speech included a theme quite similar to the one that first put Golan on the political map before he even ended his military service.
In a 2016 speech at a military ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, the then-IDF deputy chief warned that he had identified trends of growing callousness and indifference towards those who are outside the mainstream in modern-day Israel that were similar to those that unfolded in Europe prior to the Holocaust.
“If there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe… 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016,” Golan said then.
The strongly worded speech, uncommon for a military commander, sparked outrage from right-wing lawmakers at the time and Golan issued a subsequent statement clarifying that he was not comparing Israel to the Nazis.
In his own speech on Sunday, Odeh recalled an interaction with the late political scientist and left-wing intellectual Zeev Sternhell during which Odeh highlighted the many achievements of Israel’s Arab minority, despite the discrimination it faces.
Sternhell then pulled out a book that highlighted the achievements of Germany’s Jewish community in the 1930s. “He looked at me and said something I will never forget, and which has haunted me over these last weeks and months. ‘Make no mistake. Without democracy, it is not the failure, but rather the success of a minority that may trigger a deadly turn of events,’” Odeh recalled.
The Hadash-Ta’al lawmaker was more careful than Golan, clarifying in the next line that he was “not comparing current events to the crimes of the Nazis.”
“Still, this is also clear: occupation is not an accident that happened to our history, nor did [incoming national security minister] Itamar Ben Gvir and his violent, supremacist movement, land from outer space. And I fear we have already begun seeing another deadly turn of events,” he said.
Despite the circumstances, Odeh said the majority-Arab party he leads has “joined together with Jewish people who share our commitment to genuine democracy, to end the occupation and achieve a future of social justice and peace.”
Odeh said that he would work in the coming years to build “a broad Arab-Jewish forum” outside of politics with the growing to at least 50,000 Arabs and 50,000 Jews “committed to the idea of a shared and equal future.” At which point, the hope will be to copy this at the political level in the Knesset.
Whose problem is it anyway?
While Golan did not criticize the pre-Nazi Germany reference, he did reject what he claimed was Odeh’s refusal to cooperate “with anyone who isn’t for ending the occupation and for equality.”
“When you place such a high bar, who do you have left as partners?” Golan asked rhetorically during an interview with The Times of Israel.
The former Meretz MK said he too supported those ideals but argued that Odeh should learn from Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, who has prioritized improving the livelihood of Arab Israelis above the Palestinian issue. Abbas’s stance is what led him to break away from the larger Aab alliance known as the Joint List last year.
“If Ayman Odeh wants to grow, he will need to speak in this kind of language, and then he’ll also find partners,” Golan said of the Hadash-Ta’al leader, whose party won the same number of seats last month as Ra’am, which last year became the first independent Arab party to join a governing coalition.
“Think about what Mansour Abbas is saying,” Golan continued. “‘I want equality. If Israel wants to separate from the Palestinians, this is the Jews’ problem, not mine. If Israel wants to annex the Palestinians, this is also their problem.’ He’s so, so right.”
Golan explained that annexing the West Bank will lead to the collapse of the PA and to the demand from the territory’s millions of Palestinians for equal rights. Israel will then be faced with a decision to either grant them those rights and lose its Jewish majority or refuse the demand and face a “Third Intifada” rebellion.
“There’s no chance that an entire public of millions will agree to live without rights. We wouldn’t agree to this so why should we expect that they would,” he argued.
Odeh, for his part, rejected Golan’s framing of annexation as a Jewish-only problem along with the former Meretz lawmaker’s expectation that Arab Israelis ignore the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in exchange for nominal improvements to livelihood within the Green Line.
“I say to the great democrat Yair Golan, what about the Palestinian, Ayman Odeh, who is living in the State of Israel? Do you just pray that he remains only 20 percent of the population and not 60% in order for us to remain a Jewish state? This is the racism that makes up part of what is considered the center-left in Israel,” Odeh charged.
As for Abbas, Odeh accused him of “neutralizing the ability of Arab citizens to be a force for peace and democracy.” Because as a result of Ra’am’s willingness to join coalitions led by opposing political camps, and even preferring ones made up of right-wing parties, the left-wing “pro-democracy” camp as a whole is weakened, Odeh argued.
Golan agreed that the type of discourse he promotes might not attract Arab voters, but he argued that it would be unrealistic to expect Arab-Israelis to vote for a Jewish-Arab party anyways because “people vote based on identity.”
Odeh countered that his majority-Arab Hadash faction for decades had a Jewish chair and is one of the longest-running parties in the Knesset. A Jewish Israeli, Ofer Cassif is one of Hadash-Ta’al’s five MKs.
Golan said that the effort to rebuild his political camp would not be simple, and he didn’t know what party platform he would use to launch his come-back — be it the still-existing Labor or a new political alliance.
Along with a reorganization of the left’s political framework, he said a similar restructuring needed to take place at the civil society level. Golan claimed that there are too many left-wing organizations, leading to the unproductive use of limited resources.
“You don’t need more than ten civil society organizations in Israel with each of them responsible for a specific sector and responsible for enacting change in that sector,” he said. Those ten organizations will meet with donors in the US who will set specific standards to gauge their effectiveness, and those who fail to meet those marks will cease receiving funds, Golan argued, speaking like a military officer.
“It needs to be looked at as a serious process, as opposed to simply turning donations as a way for people to clear their conscious,” Golan said, arguing that the influence of American Jews should be limited to financial resources, and not involved in the decision-making process.
“The decisions are ultimately made in Israel, not in America, and if you profess to support democracy, you need to respect it,” he said, relying on a talking point that some progressive critics of Israel reject.
Odeh countered with an argument far more commonly heard at J Street. “To say I’ll support whatever policy the Israeli government promotes is a very problematic position. If the government promotes occupation, it doesn’t matter? Where’s the moral backbone?”
Asked why he thought his message resonated more with progressive American Jews than with the broader Israeli public, Odeh speculated that it has to do with “fact that Jews in the US are also a minority.”
“They have the same mindset of other minorities like us and are more likely to be supportive of democracy and minority rights,” he said.
Preacher in need of a choir
Golan lamented the lack of attention at J Street to “Palestinian mistakes” such as the rejection of Israeli peace proposals and the Hamas takeover of Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal, maintaining that they’ve made the two-state solution unrealistic.
However, Golan still believes that Israel can take steps to “slowly separate” from the Palestinians on the day after the left-wing camp returns to power.
“The reality on the ground today is a slow process of annexation. So why can’t you create a slow process of separation?” he asked.
Golan proposed starting with evacuations of Israeli settlements located beyond the West Bank security barrier in what would lay the groundwork for an eventual agreement with the Palestinian leadership.
He posited that this would only require uprooting 35,000-40,000 settlers — still, roughly four or five times as many as were evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005 — and that it could be done gradually through a series of incentives while allowing the so-called settlement blocs and nearly half a million settlers to remain beyond the Green Line.
Odeh has rejected this formula, arguing that a just solution would be one based more closely on the pre-1967 lines and he was applauded by J Street delegates when he presented this position in his speech.
“So I received fewer standing ovations, that’s okay,” Golan said, adding that he was still committed to his strategy.
“People here are wonderful, and I want them with me. But I came to speak to them like an Israeli, not like an American who’s easy for them to listen to.”
Times of Israel