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Is There an Israeli Left Left?

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu balancing a strangely adolescent courtship of both his right-wing coalition and the American-led peace process with the Palestinians, murmurs from the Israeli left wing have been especially indistinct lately. Undermined by nearly a decade of right-wing dominance, the Israeli left has found itself farther from power than ever before in the 62-year history of the country. Liberal parties have folded or merged and the Labor Party, the erstwhile left-wing political juggernaut, holds only thirteen seats in Knesset--the 120-seat Israeli Parliament-- or roughly the same amount of seats as the domestic Arab parties.

There are a number of reasons for the impotence of the left, looming large among them, the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Both maneuvers were viewed by many domestically as risks taken for the sake of peace, risks that ultimately ended in more violence. Shortly after the withdrawal from southern Lebanon (as well as the failed peace negotiations under the Labor government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak), the eruption of the Second Intifada busted into chaff what remained of the imperiled Oslo Peace Accords. The two abdicated territories became vacuums filled by Hezbollah -- the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militant network -- in Lebanon and by Hamas in Gaza. Both areas transformed into renascent military fronts against Israel, building to a series of violent conflagrations in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

As a consequence, the status of the pro-peace left wing in Israel was largely relegated to a "Tel Aviv phenomenon," somewhat akin to the often-reflexive way the American right characterizes the mores of its left-wing counterpart as "San Francisco values." With the centrist Kadima party out of the government and unable to differentiate itself, the Netanyahu administration looks poised to be in power for a long time to come.

It's a warm August morning at Orna & Ella, a cafe considered upscale even by the chic criterion of Tel Aviv's Sheinken Street. The restaurant has not yet opened its doors, but Gadi Taub is already sitting inside at a table. Around him, a few of the well-dressed waitstaff are setting down utensils and stocking sugar caddies. He hops up from his chair to unlock the door.

"This place is sort of like my unofficial office," he explains.

Unofficial is already the morning's watchword; I have come to interview Taub about Smol Leumi, or The National Left, an amorphous new left-wing political movement in Israel, and he quickly demurs from allowing a formal affiliation.

"I need to make clear that I'm not part of Smol Leumi in any organizational sense," Taub says.

Taub, 45, however, is interested. As a Hebrew University political science professor with a Ph.D from Rutgers University, a weekly columnist for Yediot Ahronot, Israel's leading daily newspaper, and the author of a best-selling novel about characters in a Tel Aviv strip club as well as an incisive book on religious Zionism, he represents the kind of intellectual cloth from which a burgeoning movement like Smol Leumi is cut. He is an upstart who would bristle at such a designation. In recent months, Taub has spoken at rallies for the National Left and been present at political salons to introduce the movement to the country.

The platform of Smol Leumi was announced last year in a manifesto written by Eldad Yaniv, a lawyer who helped orchestrate Ehud Barak's political comeback, and Shmuel Hasfiri, a playwright. In the manifesto, the two outlined their frustrations not only with the policies of Netanyahu and his government coalition -- largely made up of right-wing and ultra-religious political parties -- but also took aim at the center and left-wing political leadership in Israel, which they view as feckless and disaffected. To fill the void, the organizers of Smol Leumi hope to provide a political alternative that is both liberal-minded and somatically nationalist. A patriotic left.

The political objectives of Smol Leumi consist of three major initiatives. The first is an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank and the fair partitioning of a two-state solution to end the Israeli occupation with or without a peace agreement. The goal is a deviation from a dominant trope in Israel in which pro-peace activists are painted as proponents of a binational state with the Palestinians. Instead, the platform of The National Left charges that the right-wing of Israeli politics will bring about binationalism by allowing both the expansion of settlements and by holding onto the West Bank, actions that will ultimately eradicate the possibility of a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The demographic argument [Israel must retain a Jewish majority] and the democratic argument [Israel must remain a democracy] are the same. And the human rights argument [Israel must not disenfranchise Palestinians] and the national interest argument [Israel must maintain its Jewish character] are the same.

The other two pillars of Smol Leumi are more inchoate: to return Israel to the social-democratic economy of its early years and to strive for an exemplary society by uniting the disparate parts of its populace. While the movement is still young and has yet to declare itself a political party, there have been indications that Smol Leumi might draft some candidates for office if it garners enough support. In the meantime, the National Left tries to flourish in a hostile political climate.

If the Israeli left can coalesce around a movement like Smol Leumi, one which aims to paint the left as the patriotic choice, there will be long-reaching effects in Israel. While wresting power from Netanyahu would remain a remote possibility, the crystallizing of a formidable liberal political machine could force Netanyahu's hand toward peace, a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, or perhaps, impel him to break with his coalition and move toward the center where Kadima would join him to ensure its cachet. Until then, the right-wing will continue to hold and Netanyahu will remain a Levantine Prince Hamlet.

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