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The case for optimism about Israel

A Palestinian woman points at an Israeli policeman in Jerusalem's Old City.
A Palestinian woman points at an Israeli policeman in Jerusalem's Old City.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty

When I wrote this week that Israel appears increasingly bound for a future of authoritarianism and international isolation, as Israelis continue to trade away their democracy to maintain their occupation of the Palestinians, I received two broad categories of counterarguments.

The first, most associated with the Israeli right, says that the status quo is basically sustainable or not worth changing in the immediate future. According to this view, Israel will be able to preserve both the occupation of Palestinians and Israeli democracy in something akin to perpetuity. While this position often acknowledges the occupation as bad, it views the costs of ending the occupation as exceeding the benefits to Israelis.

The second, more in line with the Israeli left, acknowledges that the status quo cannot continue forever and that the occupation is actively eroding Israeli democracy. But in this view, Israeli democracy itself will be able to solve the problem, by appealing to the ideals and long-term interests of Israeli voters to convince them to end the occupation, even with all the short-term risk that brings.

To understand this latter view, I spoke with Naomi Paiss, the vice president of public affairs at the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning pro-Israel organization that works with civil society institutions in Israel to promote and preserve Israeli democracy. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Fisher: You told me earlier that I got the problem right but not the solution. What did you mean by that?

Naomi Paiss: There certainly are anti-democratic trends in Israel, and they certainly have been getting worse for the last five to 10 years. Israel is more polarized. But there are much larger numbers of what you could call pro-democracy Israelis than you indicated in your article.

If you actually look at the election results, for example, what you're really seeing is a split between what they themselves call the democratic camp and the nationalist camp. And the center-left actually gained seats in the last two elections. There's no question that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is sitting better politically right now, but he cannibalized his support from other right-wing parties.

Max Fisher: This is something I noticed in Israeli Democracy Institute polls that asked Israelis whether they see Israel's democratic or Jewish identity as more important. The share that says "both" is shrinking really rapidly, but the share that says "democratic first, Jewish second" is growing. But that seems to suggest more Israelis see an irreconcilable tension between those two identities, that this is one going to force a choice.

Naomi Paiss: There are people who think that choice is inevitable. We don't. Israel can be both the Jewish homeland and achieve sovereign self-determination for the Jewish people, and live up to the declaration of independence in which equality is supposed to be conferred equally on all citizens without regard to religion or national origin.

And how do you do this? Well, you strengthen and you preserve the institutions that protect liberal democracy, which has been under the gun from the ultra-nationalist right for the last five years. That includes the human rights community, the judiciary, the media, academia.

Max Fisher: It sounds like democratic institutions are under siege, then?

Naomi Paiss:They're under siege, but that siege hasn't gotten anywhere. Some of the anti-democratic legislation that's been proposed has passed. One law in particular is already doing damage, called the Admissions Committee Law. That allows small communities to discriminate against people who want to live there on the basis of social suitability. It's what we would call red lining. And that is being used to discriminate against Arab Israelis and other minorities.

However, all of the other anti-democratic legislation that they've passed is either hung up in the courts or hasn't been implemented yet. The human rights and civil rights groups have managed to fight it to a draw, and we think we can do it again, although it's going to be more difficult if this is indeed a narrow right-wing government [taking power in Israel].

And we're going to need some allies. This is going to require that American Jewish organizations step up to the plate and are as quick to condemn in Israel what they would condemn in the United States.

Max Fisher: Is fighting to a draw enough?

Naomi Paiss: Temporarily, yes. The institutions that underlie a movement on the progressive side in Israel are either nonexistent or they're too weak, and they need to be reinforced. They need to be tied together. They need to be funded.

You need to change the narrative that Israelis are hearing. Right now, the biggest newspaper in Israel is [Israel HaYom] the free paper that is funded by Sheldon Adelson that is basically the party line of Likud. The narrative coming from the right-wing is very well-funded and well-coordinated.

So you do what the progressive groups did in the United States in the early 2000s when it looked like they were losing. George W. Bush was president and Republicans held both houses of Congress and you had the Patriot Act, and where was the progressive narrative? It came back because of MoveOn.org, because of the Center for American Progress, because of Media Matters. There were other factors, but we're a civil society group, and we look at how you institution-build.

Max Fisher: Sure, the American left organized, but it also had a counter-narrative, built principally around the Iraq War as a giant failure, that they could point to. But in Israel, the left just has not had a politically persuasive counter-narrative on foreign policy and the Palestinian issue since the end of the Second Intifada. So it seems like it's not just that the left is failing to promote its narrative, but that maybe it doesn't have one to promote.

Naomi Paiss: We are seed-funding think tanks right now that are focusing exactly on that issue. There's a new think tank by the name of Mitvimwhose job is to answer, "What would a progressive foreign policy look like?"

Same thing with Molad [another think tank cited here]. They're the first ones to say that you can't use the Oslo narrative from 20 years ago [when the 1993 Oslo Accords set the current peace process in motion]. You have to find a new way of communicating with Israelis that the occupation is costing them everything. Everything that they value is at risk because of the occupation. That includes continued economic growth; it includes social progress for Jewish Israelis.

There's also the Center for Peace and Security, made up of a lot of guys who come out of Mossad, Shabak [also known as Shin Bet], the army who understand that the occupation is actually detrimental to Israel's security.

Netanyahu Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Max Fisher: It's the issue of security where the left, and former security officials like Shin Bet chief Yuval Dishkin, seem to have a hard time breaking through. It often gets framed as an issue of short-term security versus long-term security. The right says you have to keep the occupation going for short-term security, or you'll have rockets and bus bombings again. The left says you have to end the occupation or years down the line you'll create all these long-term problems. The right's argument seems to sound to Israelis as much more immediate and urgent, whereas the left's sounds more hypothetical and far-off. So you have tremendous political incentive to just maintain the status quo, which means permanent occupation. Is that problem surmountable?

Naomi Paiss: That's why you have to change the framing — you have to talk about what the occupation is costing Israel in terms of international support.

Of course, in that argument you're up against the dedicated Israeli belief in self-reliance, which is understandable, but even Israelis are going to learn that they can't be alone in the world. You make the argument based on the enormous economic resources that are going to the settlements, only about 20 percent of which are publicly visible.

You have to ask, if the Palestinian Authority some day no longer works with Israel to keep security on the West Bank, do you really want your sons and daughters back to doing house-to-house searches in Ramallah and Jenin?

Max Fisher: A point that a lot of people have made to me is that for many Israelis, it feels like the status quo with the Palestinians is working or is at least tolerable. Asking them to change that means asking them to take on a lot of risk, especially short-term. Thus the argument you sometimes hear is that something dramatic or foundational has to happen in order to shock Israelis into demanding change, whether that's the collapse of the PA or something else.

Naomi Paiss: Maybe, but as a civil society group we really believe in incremental change; on every issue it's two steps forward and one step back.

If you look at the last election, you can see how panicked Mr. Netanyahu was in the final 48 hours of his campaign. That's because up until those last 48 hours, the math wasn't looking good for him. And while that's not to say that Israeli voters were popping up to support an extreme left-wing position on the conflict, but they were also not tremendously supporting Netanyahu and the settler lobby and the move toward an eventual apartheid state.

Max Fisher: That gets to what seemed to me like the best argument for optimism, and against the warnings in my article. The center-left has been winning a good number of votes, holding a lot of seats. It's entirely plausible that there will be a center-left government. But then the big question becomes, if that happens, will they have the political standing and authority to find a peace deal?

Naomi Paiss:There is no question that a center-left government would have its legitimacy questioned by the ultra-nationalists every single day. So what? Obama hasn't had a Democratic Congress since the first years of his presidency, and he's managed to get some things done. But as the Middle East gets more and more dangerous, Israelis must come to recognize that building more walls is not going to protect them against everything.

People worry about a Hamasistan in the West Bank, but there are already rockets in southern Lebanon that can reach as far as Jerusalem. That's the challenge of security in a state the size of New Jersey.

The truth is that the status quo is eroding Israeli autonomy and independence every day that it continues. So the challenge is to make common cause with different Israeli groups around economic issues or religious freedom issues and then, long-term, change the power equation, change the environment so that progressive change can happen.

It's the only way to do it. It's long term and there's not going to be a magic bullet. We're just going to have to invest in the right people in Israel because they're there.

Max Fisher: So you're optimistic?

Naomi Paiss: I am, for several reasons. Israelis, including seculars like me who don't go to synagogues, are well aware that Jewish values helped the Jewish people survive and that those Jewish values have never been about, "We will survive at any cost. We will survive as an unjust people. We will survive as people who do the same things to other people that were done to us."

That's never been the way we feel about ourselves. Of course we have the right to self-defense. Of course we have to protect ourselves. But equality and justice are embedded in the Jewish DNA, and we have to believe in that.