As election season progresses in Israel, how Israelis are seeking to position themselves is becoming clearer than ever. In its attempt to unseat Bibi Netanyahu, the joint Labor-Hatnua slate is billing itself as the “Zionist Union,” a moniker that rankles many, including prominent Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua in a recent piece in Haaretz. The left-wing Meretz slate, which features a young politico who happens to have proud cousins in the Ottawa Jewish community (disclosure: I am one of them), is taking a different tack, underscoring the degree to which its policies differ from what has come before. “Revolution with Meretz,” its campaign posters declare. Most fascinating to me, though, is one of the ads coming out of right-wing-nationalist Naftali Bennett’s campaign.
In it, Bennett, head of the Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) Party, is dressed as a bearded hipster. As he makes his way around Tel Aviv, he is afflicted by a comedic apology problem. In a café, the waitress spills coffee; he apologizes. On a narrow residential street, his car gets rear-ended; he apologizes. On Rothschild Boulevard, a fellow denizen makes her way to a rented bicycle after he’s claimed it; he anxiously backs away, apologizing. Finally, he is shown on a park bench, reading the liberal-leaning Israeli broadsheet Haaretz, where he is reading a reprinted column from the New York Times, headlined “Israel needs to apologize.”
“From now on, we’re going to stop apologizing,” Bennett tells the camera, removing his costume. “Join HaBayit HaYehudi now.”
It’s a bit of brilliant campaigning, the message is seeking to appeal to Israelis’ collective core sense of self. No one wants to feel that their very existence requires an apology.
The policy question, of course, lies in whether Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians entails giving up the country’s core identity, or whether there is something else going on, namely the occupation. It’s an ongoing tension in how we understand the situation. On one hand are contemporary depictions like those in the otherwise excellent series The Honorable Woman (now streaming on Netflix) that suggest that Israelis and Palestinians just need to leave each other alone and peace will prevail. The unspoken truth, though, is that there is a very real overlapping set of territorial claims being cruelly manifested not only by Hamas rockets from Gaza and terrorist attacks from east Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also by the Israeli occupation. There, in the West Bank, day-to-day Palestinian freedom of movement is curtailed by settler-only roads and staffed checkpoints.
As Bennett has made clear in his increasingly vocal policy pronouncements, under his rule, the occupation would not end – it would simply morph into a sort of apartheid-like area in which Israel annexes part of the West Bank, with Palestinians granted autonomy in the others. In other words, no Palestinian state.
Bennett’s ad suffers from another problem: a reluctance to consider the idea that so much mutual pain has been inflicted by both sides – whatever one thinks of his annexation plan – that some conflict resolution measures may need to include mutual apology, just as mutual recognition has been an important currency of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
There is one area where Bennett’s ad does contain some wisdom: in identity politics. But it’s really only half a serving of wisdom. The crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been that neither side has been willing to truly recognize the material and identity needs of the other. Through riffing on the idea of apology being absurd, for Bennett to imply that Israel has a right to exist, is fine. But unless Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinians to the same, Bennett’s platform will appear to exist in a moral, political and strategic vacuum.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.