In a recent opinion piece for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, journalist Etan Nechin credits the Jewish left in the US for their part in “a sea-change in American public opinion.” Nonetheless, Nechin then goes on to accuse them of “high-minded ideological critiques” and for failing to “feature or talk about a group … essential for any solution: the Israeli left.”

The view that an Israeli left has a role in a just solution for Palestine is not confined to Haaretz columns. It reflects a wider view on the left and the labour movement. Some on the left even appeal to Marxist views on class, arguing that the interests of a Jewish working class in Israel can provide a basis for unity and peace with Palestinians.

The danger in such discussions however is that they reflect what people think should happen, rather than asking how we explain what is happening.

The “Unity Intifada”

Only a month or so ago, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared supremely confident. He believed he had subdued the Palestinians and isolated them internationally. The Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain had been secured, and he had cemented Israel’s alliance with Egypt and relations with Saudi Arabia. The stage was set for further settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inspiring Palestinian revolt blew Netanyahu’s plans apart and sent shock waves across Israel. Despite a decades-long strategy of division, separation and isolation, Palestinians united in revolt across historic Palestine.

What does the recent episode teach us about the nature of the Israeli regime, and the potential to overcome it?

Two populations – apartheid from the river to the sea

Before examining the character of Israeli politics and society, it is important to identify the relationship between the Israeli state and the Palestinians. This tells us more than the declared policies of Israel’s political parties.

In January, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem published a report under the title “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”

The B’Tselem report, and others by Human Rights Watch, document the regime used to suppress Palestinians across historic Palestine. In the West Bank, Palestinians are dispersed into fragmented territories separated by military roads, checkpoints, settlements and the apartheid wall. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians face an endless encroachment of settlements, home demolitions and seizures. They hold residency status, but this can be withdrawn at the whim of the Israeli state.

Inside the borders of the Israeli state, Palestinians—who nominally hold Israeli citizenship—are hemmed into overcrowded towns and villages. They are also subject to a raft of discriminatory laws. Residential building is prohibited, and thousands face the threat of house demolitions and intimidation from settlers brought in from the West Bank.

The two million Palestinians of Gaza—1.5 million of whom are refugees—are caged and blockaded inside the world’s largest open prison. A majority of them are dependent on international aid.

In one shocking but revealing poll, 82 percent of Palestinians agreed with the statement: “Yes, I am worried that Israeli individuals may harm my family or I during our daily life.”

The united character of the Palestinian revolt is rooted in a shared experience and history, and the continued dispossession resulting from apartheid and settler-colonialism.

Lessons from the elections of 2021

In his article in Haaretz, Nechin sees promise in the Israeli Labor Party and the “left-Zionist” Meretz joining the new coalition government. He argues it was “leftist” governments that created a welfare state, and left movements that mounted protests against the 2018 Nation State Law and organised demonstrations for “peace”. For Nechin, all this heralds the possibility of taking Israeli politics in a different direction.

Elections are the most vaunted feature of “democratic states”. Coverage of the new government in the western media has focussed on political haggling, rival antipathies between political leaders, and antagonism towards Netanyahu. This fails to address the fundamental character of political developments.

The coalition consists of a plethora of parties ranging from the secular “left” Labor and Meretz, to the far right settler religious Zionists of Yamina. Labour and Meretz publicly advocate a “two state solution” and an end to occupation. Yamina reject outright any possibility of a Palestinian state, declare settlement expansion as non-negotiable and advocate continued annexation of Palestinian land.

The mainstream explanation for this alliance is a shared hatred of Netanyahu. This is neither an adequate nor convincing explanation. The coalition’s leading figures have all served under Netanyahu in some capacity. There is no difference in substance between the policies of the coalition and the outgoing Netanyahu administration, and every government since Israel’s founding has been a coalition.

The coalition’s centre of gravity is to the far right. Prime minister Naftali Bennett is a far right settler leader and religious Zionist who declared in 2018, “I would not give another centimetre to the Arabs.” The interior ministry is now headed by another Yamina figure, Ayelet Shaked, who once claimed that Palestinian “mothers of martyrs” should have their homes destroyed so they cannot raise “more little snakes”. The “centrist” justice minister, Gideon Sa’ar, is an ardent supporter of the settlers and annexation. The defence minister, Benny Gantz, is another “centrist” whose election campaign boast was that he had bombed Gaza back to the stone age. Intelligence minister, Elazar Stern, advocated turning off all electricity to Gaza, “even if it means turning off dialysis machines for children.” Avigdor Lieberman, the new finance minister, has long opposed peace negotiations and advocates the transfer of Palestinian citizens in Israel to the West Bank.

The architect of the coalition, Yair Lapid, has made clear he will never concede control over East Jerusalem. Like all Israeli leaders before him, Lapid blames the Palestinians for refusing to accept the unacceptable, saying “The Palestinians want to destroy us more than they want to build a nation. And as long as this is the situation, there will be no two states.” In Israeli political discourse “peace” has become little more than a euphemism for Palestinian submission.

Meretz, most closely associated with support for a “two state solution”, gained less than five percent of the vote, with 6 seats out of 120 in the Knesset. It has tagged onto a coalition with Israel’s far right, pro-settler leaders. Despite Meretz’ overtures to Palestinians and a declared aspiration for a just peace, it remains a Zionist party. In this it shares the fundamental founding principle common to all parties representing Israeli Jews.

Opinion polls

The views of Israel’s political elite do not exist in a vacuum. These politics are reflected in increasingly open racist, right wing Zionist views amongst Israelis. On the day Netanyahu agreed a ceasefire over Gaza, almost three quarters of Israelis polled said they believed the bombing should continue. Another poll last year found 62 percent of Israeli Jews agreed “Arabs only understand force”. In a 2015 poll, 67 percent of Israeli Jews agreed that the illegal settlement blocs on the West Bank should remain under Israeli sovereignty. This would effectively render any notion of an independent Palestinian state redundant. Some 65 percent of Israeli Jews believe the occupation contributes to Israel’s security, while only 11 percent believe it does not contribute at all. In a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination, 79 percent of Israeli Jews support “preferential treatment” for Jews.

This trajectory to the right marks a long term trend. This can be traced from the rise of revisionist Zionism and the election of Likud in 1977, to the increasing prominence of the nationalist religious Zionism of the settler movement after the second intifada. Whether religious or secular, the entire spectrum of politics in Israel has moved firmly to the right. Labor, who dominated Israeli politics until the 1970s, now holds a mere seven seats in the 120 seat Knesset.

For those who argue that an Israeli left has a key role to play in a solution over Palestine, there must be some assessment of how we would get from “here” to “there”.

A settler-colonial state

To grasp the character of politics in Israel we must begin with the material basis of Israeli society and the state. Here we face a brutal truth. Every Israeli Jewish citizen lives on land taken from Palestinians. Many live in homes built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, and in the homes of those were driven out in the Nakba in 1948.

As Moshe Dayan, former Israeli chief of staff and defence minister, acknowledged,

“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages… because geography books no longer exist… the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul, Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta, Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis, and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

It is not only a matter of the past. Citizenship of the Jewish state rests on the enforced denial of the right of Palestinians to return, and the enforced exclusion and dispossession of Palestinians inside historic Palestine. This is why the 2018 Nation State Law—which stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people”—is a logical expression of Israeli settler-colonialism. The Nakba is not just a historical event but is an ongoing, intensifying process of dispossession. Every act of resistance—be it a protest, stone throwing, a rocket, intifada, even collective prayer during Ramadan—is a threat.

A history of colonial settlement

Since its foundation Israel has depended on waves of settlement. Each wave has been different in origin, with a specific a historical and political context. It was the mass immigration of European Jews to Palestine from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s that laid the foundations for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Most Jews who migrated to Palestine sought refuge from antisemitism, fascism and the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Palestine seemed the only option as the US, Britain and other major powers closed their doors to Jewish refugees.

Yet there was a bitter reality. Despite the motivations of many who migrated to Palestine, Zionist settlement rested upon the exclusion and dispossession of the Palestinians. The Zionist project could only ever exist as a settler-colonial state.

Labor Zionism provided the three core foundations of the nascent state. These were the Zionist paramilitaries known as the Haganah, the Zionist “trade union” the Histadrut, and agricultural “collectives” and co-operatives to settle the land, knows as the kibbutzim and moshavim.

The Haganah helped the British quell the 1936-38 Arab revolt, led the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during the Nakba and formed the core of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in 1948. The Histadrut organised the double boycott of Arab labour and Arab produce essential in excluding Palestinians from the economy. As a director of the Histadrut construction company declared,

“I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut, we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there… poured kerosene on Arab tomatoes… attacked Jewish housewives in the market and smashed Arab eggs they had bought…”

The kibbutzim and moshavim mobilised young Zionist pioneers to settle on Palestinian land and lay out the defensible territory of a future state. Most Jewish immigrants were urban, often older European Jews, who could not be mobilised as agricultural workers or to defend militarised outposts. This was the creation of “facts on the ground”—the indispensable strategy of occupation and ethnic cleansing from the kibbutzim to today’s illegal settlements of the West Bank. Although the kibbutzim formed just seven percent of the Jewish population in 1948, their members formed the backbone of the Haganah high command and the early IDF. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, noted that without the kibbutzim “it is hard to imagine how the present State of Israel would have remained standing.”

The Histadrut, once described as “the executive arm of the Zionist movement”, acted as the central organisation of the Yishuv— the original Zionist settlements. It was responsible for the absorption of immigrants, agricultural settlement, defence, and new areas of production. After 1948, 80 percent of the economy was Histadrut owned.

These strategic arms of the settler project formed the founding pillars of Labor Zionism. “Socialist Zionism” reflected an important political current amongst European settlers of the pre-war and immediate post-war period. However, once transplanted to Palestine, it was the Labour Zionists who acted as the key drivers of Palestinian dispossession.

Labor Zionism was not the only political current prevalent amongst Jewish immigrants from Europe. However it provided a unique ideological and organisational coherence for colonial-settlement and for establishing the military and economic structures of the new state.

Labour Zionism also fitted the needs of economic development. The Histadrut and the Jewish National Fund acted as the vehicle for state control of industry, land, property and distribution of labour. Labor Zionism provided settler-colonialism with both its material and ideological underpinning.

However no settler-colonialism is static, and certainly not Israel. Today the kibbutz population is 1.5% of the population. The IDF is now largely dominated by nationalist religious Zionists, of which Naftali Bennett is an example. The days when the Histadrut could be described as Zionism’s “executive arm” are long gone.

The first mass wave of settlement after European Jewry were “Mizrahi” or Sephardi Jews from north Africa and the Middle East. By 2005, 61 percent of Israeli Jews were wholly or partly of Mizrahi-Sephardi ancestry. Mizrahi Jews were treated with contempt by the Ashkenazi elite, and their Arab culture and identity was largely erased. Mizrahi-Sephardi Jews found themselves first in camps—sometimes for years—and then the worst jobs and housing. This led to many developing a deep resentment towards Ashkenazi Labor Zionism.

Their roots were entirely different to the pre-war migration from Europe. Many adopted forms of Haredi Judaism. The ultra-conservative Shas party—which plays an important role in Israeli politics—developed its base in large part by providing welfare and community support to poorer sections of Mizrahi Jews.

Further waves of migration were smaller but significant. This included settlers from the Soviet bloc after the 1950s, Ethiopian Jews from the 1980s and Jews from the US, Australia and Europe. However, it was from Russia in the late 1980s and 1990s that the biggest wave of mass settlement came. Russian Jewry were overwhelmingly secular, and up to a third came with non-Jewish family members or their own ancestry was disputed by religious authorities.

The recently appointed ultra-nationalist finance minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself from Moldova, founded “Yisrael Beiteinu” to create a platform for Soviet immigrants. Yisrael Beiteinu militantly opposed “concessions” to the Palestinians, campaigned against religious authorities over restrictions on conversion to Judaism and demanded the end of exemption from military service for Yeshiva students.

Each new settler population has generated competing claims in the process of establishing their position within Israel’s settler-colonial society. This has given rise to an array of political parties, each seeking to assert specific interests and extract concessions or privileges. This is not just political opportunism but rooted in Israel’s settler social structure.

The differentiated character of Judaism in Israel is also framed by settler-colonialism. The nationalist religious Zionism of Bennett and Yamina reflects the mobilising ideology of the settler movement. Nor are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox traditions as “frozen” as sometimes portrayed, often accommodating the interests of the state, and increasingly engaging in politics.

The Haredi tradition insistence on exemption from military service for yeshiva students to study the Torah often invokes bitter conflict with secular parties. Some 40 percent of the population are secular yet a Jewish couple must be married by an Orthodox rabbi to be formally recognised. Whilst the secular-religious divide creates significant tensions, the interweaving of Judaism within Israeli society underpins the claim of Israel to be an ancestral home of the Jews. To openly attack the “privileges” of the Orthodox would risk undermining that claim. Despite being an overwhelmingly secular movement from the outset, Labor Zionism has appealed to Biblical claims and Judaic identity. No government has seriously attempted to infringe on the claims of the ultra-Orthodox.

However, all these vying political and religious claims are entirely secondary to a common hostility to the Palestinian claim to statehood and the right to return. It is this that binds Israeli society together over any other difference or division. Differences over the Palestinians, such as they are, hinge primarily on whether to adopt strategies that enable a Palestinian leadership to police parts of the West Bank or whether to impose naked, direct control. Even here, despite the rhetoric, all camps adopt a mixed strategy. And no party advocates dismantling the illegal settlements or the Palestinian right of return.

There are extremely courageous and principled Israeli individuals and groups, who campaign against the occupation, oppose house demolitions, protect orchards, and protest at land seizures. There are dissenting reservists such as “Breaking the Silence”, and principled human rights activists like B’Tselem. These activists bring relief to individual Palestinians and can play an important role in exposing the reality of Israel to an international audience.

Yet through no fault of their own, none of these organisations have the social weight or base to challenge state settler-colonial structures or provide the social force necessary to build a movement among Israeli Jews. The Peace Now movement, already in decline during the 1990s, lost any purchase after the second intifada. Whilst there have been demonstrations against the Nation State Law, they pale into insignificance compared to the hundreds of thousands mobilised by Peace Now against the Lebanon War in 1982. There are significant strikes by Israeli workers, including social workers and nurses last year. However these never touch on Palestinian rights or raise demands that would be commonplace in Britain such as spending on welfare not arms.

Individual anti-Zionist Israelis—some of whom are revolutionaries—have taken a principled moral and political position and broken with the Zionist project. However, as they themselves often point out, they are an exception that prove the rule.

Every time Palestinians resist, the nature of the Israeli state breaks into plain sight. During the first intifada it was Labor defence minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who called on soldiers to break the bones of unarmed child protestors, maiming thousands. This was the same Yitzhak Rabin hailed as the “peacemaker” of Oslo. When the second intifada broke in 2000, exposing the pretence that Israel would ever agree to an independent Palestine, there was a racist, right wing reaction across Israeli society. The pro-settler parties and those opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians have been ascendant ever since. In 2018 a mere 18 percent of Israeli Jews said “Peace” was the value most important to them.

This points to the fundamental settler-colonial character of the Jewish state. If Israel does not subdue the Palestinians, then who? In this sense the right-wing Zionist position is not an aberration. A Palestinian population on Israel’s borders, unshackled from Israeli control, will always throw Israel’s legitimacy into question. The option of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel was never on the table at Oslo and it never will be.

The demise of Labor Zionism and the Israeli “left” is a political expression of Israel’s development as a settler-colonial state. This is a development that has long left Labor Zionism behind it—and to which there is no going back.

The settler-colonial character of the Zionist project both condemns Palestinians to permanent subjugation and chains Jewish Israelis to a settler-colonial, siege mentality. Only by dismantling the structures of apartheid and settler-colonialism and granting the right of return, can both Jew and Palestinian be freed to live in equality in a single, democratic, secular state.

That dismantling cannot come from within, let alone from a “left” that is complicit in the building and maintenance of settler-colonialism. The agency that can break those chains lies with the Palestinians, the masses of the Middle East and with an international solidarity movement. This will include those on the US Jewish left and elsewhere, who have no material interest in maintaining the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

  • Rob Ferguson is author of Antisemitism: The Far Right, Zionism & The Left available from Bookmarks Bookshop