Amram Mitzna and Mahmoud Abbas

Wanted: A progressive leader

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The left side of the political map is in total disarray.

The gathering of the leadership of the Israeli “peace camp” on Sunday in Ramallah under the auspices of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and almost the entire leadership of the PLO was its largest get-together in the past 10 years. What is left of the Left is a small group of dedicated individuals divided into splinter groups of political initiatives and non-government organizations sharing a very similar platform with a common sense of urgency and a total inability to work together.

The irony is that it took the PA leader to gather all of those forces together. It is doubtful if any single Israeli leader could pull all of these people together.

Another interesting event happened on the way to the Mukata – Amram Mitzna showed up and found himself as the undeclared new leader of the Left. He was seated next to Abbas, not the serving MKs from Kadima, Labor and Meretz. Mitzna was the main speaker after Abbas.

The army of journalists ran after Mitzna to interview him when the event ended. It all seemed so natural and even called for. Out of the desert and back into the limelight of politics, Mitzna was a welcome addition to a camp searching for a leader and badly needing unity.

I approached him and appealed to him “Run Mitzna, run.”

He replied, “Before we run, we have to know what is our goal,” to which I replied,

“To return to running the country to ensure that Israel fulfills its dream of being the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens, living in peace with its neighbors and capturing its rightful place among the nations.”

In his interview outside at the end of the meeting, Mitzna said: “The window of opportunity for making peace with the Palestinians is running out; now is the time to do it.”

He, like every person in that meeting room, knew that unless Israel ends the occupation and makes peace with its neighbors, it will cease being a Jewish and democratic state. It must change from within. US and international pressure on the government may be effective at helping to make hard decisions, but real change will only happen when there will be a shake-up of the political map that will bring progressives back into power.

The idea that “only the Likud” can bring peace is great in principle; the problem is that the Likud led by Binyamin Netanyahu will not bring peace. The Likud will not solve the country’s socioeconomic problems, the Likud will not create a more egalitarian society and the Likud will not create a citizen’s partnership of Jews and Arabs, religious and nonreligious. The country needs a progressive political force that will bring peace, end the occupation and create social justice, environmental justice and a base for real citizenship partnership and solidarity.

PROGRESSIVES HAVE no political home today that can lead the nation. Knesset elections may take place in 2011 or 2012, and progressives have no idea whom to vote for. We need a new and revitalized progressive political force that does not yet exist; it must be created, shaped, nurtured and presented to the public to join.

There are many initiatives trying to launch a new progressive political force. Meretz is searching for direction, for new members, for youth appeal. The Labor Party is splintering into fragments and, under the failed leadership of Ehud Barak, is now at six seats in the polls with a leadership contest already launched that emphasizes the divisions within. The Green Movement party has turned inward and will focus its activities on the municipal level, leaving national politics for the distant future.

Former Prime Minister’s Office director-general Yossi Kuchik has been holding meetings bringing together former Labor people for discussions on their political direction. Avrum Burg has launched the creation of a joint Jewish-Arab political party called Shai – Shivyon Yisrael. The National Left is another interesting development, but it has not addressed the need to be inclusive of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in political change.

Shaharit – a small progressive think tank within the Heschel Center – has been working on how to create a political movement. Hadash continues to attract young Jewish supporters; however, it continues to be perceived as an anti-Zionist alternative that most Jewish voters reject. In short, the progressive side of the political map is in total disarray.

For a progressive political party to succeed, there must be unity. The lack of unity and the absence of a convincing political platform that can be a reasonable alternative to the current right-wing, religious regime is irresponsible and dangerous.

The lack of an agreed leader or a leading political party has devolved into the multiplicity of small and disjointed efforts to create a new force. None of these enjoys any real public support or has the ability to transform into a real political force.

It seems that the various players spend at least equal time bad-mouthing each other as they do supporting the building of coalitions.

THE AGENDA for progressives in Israel is clear and it unifies much more than it divides. Our agenda is based on the Declaration of Independence that promised the country would be founded on the principles envisaged by the prophets – ensuring complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the UN Charter.

This country needs progressive values. It needs a culture of communication and it needs to shun extremists who scoff at the rule of law. It needs to end the conflict before the state loses its Jewish majority and turns into a place of minority rule. It is a choice between ending the conflict or having the conflict end the Jewish and democratic state.

What unites us progressives is our profound commitment to making this country a place where Jewish and non-Jewish citizens can thrive and achieve and live peacefully – even productively – with each other. No group, not even the Likud, has a monopoly over our state symbols – we are as patriotic and proud as anyone.

Our agenda is to celebrate every positive side of being Israeli and Jewish and even the positive side of being Palestinian-Israeli.

This is a dynamic country with tremendous potential. Its achievements in its 62+ years are remarkable.Its democracy is vibrant and offers vast opportunities for citizens to affect public policy. This kind of positive attitude is the narrative we claim in our efforts to recruit a genuine groundswell of progressive support.

But democracy is under real threat from the right-wing regime and from the increasing support of the racist discourse advocated by the politics of Avigdor Lieberman, Shas and rabbis who cynically use Jewish texts to justify racism. They must be challenged and that challenge cannot wait for tomorrow.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin