The progressive camp in Israel has been trying for years to find its way back to the corridors of power and influence. So far unsuccessfully. Those seeking ways for change often wonder whether the solution to Israel’s problems will emerge from outside, for example driven by international action. Or if it may come from within, by convincing and mobilising the Israeli public. A third option to this dichotomy has emerged in recent years in the shape of combined and coordinated moves, both within Israeli society and in cooperation with allies abroad.
The counter reaction to the global rise of nationalism, populism and the far-right encourages partnerships among progressive forces around the world as well as the creation of shared frameworks and coordinated action. Such cooperation occurs in both the political arena and civil society. The grim state of Israel’s progressive political camp makes it hard to realise potential ties with political parties and leaders in other countries. However, Israeli civil society is forging significant international cooperation born of its distinct and well-honed progressive ideology and the wide array of highly motivated organisations and activists seeking change: Israeli progressive NGOs are increasingly fostering links with like-minded partners abroad, including through participation in multilateral networks, and their representatives are appearing more before international audiences to share their worldview and expertise. Greater emphasis on forging international partnerships is a key stage in the renewal of Israel’s progressive camp and its empowerment.
Israel’s most recent election campaigns demonstrated the extent to which the a-liberal global network operates as a de facto political alliance. Netanyahu’s allies around the world – Trump, Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban and Salvini – mobilised one by one to help him position himself as an arch-statesman and garner public support. Their ‘aid package’ consisted of meetings, photo-ops, diplomatic goodwill gestures and friendly pronouncements. As they helped their friend Netanyahu, these leaders had no reservations about being accused of interference in Israel’s domestic politics.
The heads of Israel’s centre-left political camp, however, have avoided encouraging their foreign friends to act, fearing accusations that they were trying to exert external pressure on Israel and to encourage foreign intervention in domestic politics. They were also concerned that expressions and actions by outsiders critical of the Israeli government on the eve of elections would rather unite public ranks against the centre-left and drive voters into the arms of the political right.
Inter-party progressive ties have proven complex and failed to yield appreciable benefit in recent years. For example, the decision of Israel’s Labour party to join in 2020 the Netanyahu-led coalition led to friction with Social Democrat parties in Europe. Real progress, however, is evident in civil society cooperation between Israeli and international organisations. This stems from several factors:
Firstly, a conceptual change within Israeli civil society organisations regarding ties with counterparts abroad has begun in recent years, leading more of them to relate favourably to international activity and cooperation. The change stems from the recognition of the fact that progressive movements in other countries are confronting similar challenges and from the intensifying threat to Israel’s liberal democratic values, which has prompted a search for new tools and partners to confront it. The change also stems from the understanding that in the absence of a significant political alternative to Israel’s right-wing leadership, it is up to civil society to fill the opposition vacuum: from the growing accessibility of information about foreign organisations on social media, facilitating contacts, and from the growing representation of Israelis in international forums and multilateral organisations.
Secondly, today, there is a more egalitarian relationship between Israeli and Western organisations. The interface between progressive Israeli organisations and European and American partners did not tend toward equality over the years. Besides the fact that Western organisations are generally larger, more established, and wealthier, their representatives usually arrived at meetings with Israelis with a desire to give rather than to receive. Changing political realities however have prompted a change. Trump’s election and the rise of the European far-right created an egalitarian discourse, as many countries were facing similar problems. In this need for joint action, the Israeli organisations – used to their opposition role against the governing political right – were now the ones that could advise and help their foreign colleagues who are forced to adjust to a changing political landscape.
Thirdly, there are new connections with organisations in states where democracy is eroding. Israeli civil society groups largely ignored organisations in central and eastern Europe for many years. These states did not play a key foreign policy role in the EU, they lacked financial resources to grant to organisations in the Middle East and they did not display great interest in the Israeli political arena either. Two intersecting processes in recent years have resulted in change: the erosion of democracy on the one hand, and the political alliance between the leaders of those states with Netanyahu on the other. This alerted Israeli organisations to seek connections, to exchange knowledge and tools, as well as to establish cooperation with pro-democracy actors there. Organisations in the European countries were often the ones that took the initiative of seeking partners in Israel’s progressive camp.
These trends gave rise to different forms of cooperation between civil society groups in Israel and abroad – in terms of organisation, ideology, politics, and contents. This includes progressive partnerships that are not only international but also inter-sectoral and that bring together political, diplomatic, and civil society elements. Grassroots organisations and think tanks that promote ideological worldviews, generate ideas and initiate action have an impact on political parties, politicians, and policy makers. This interaction is still not played out sufficiently in Israel, certainly not on the political left. But it appears to be gradually developing, and international partnerships can help it grow. This increased activity on the progressive side has prompted intensified efforts to undermine it in Israel – for example by attempts to curb the international activity of civil society organisations and to curtail foreign funding.
The formation of international partnerships is a goal of prime importance for Israel’s progressive camp. And it must constitute a central part in the process of its ideological, political and organisational renewal. The international arena is riper for this, given the need to confront the common threat faced by liberal democracies due to the rise of populism, nationalism and the far-right. The Israeli arena is also in need of such change with the weakening of the left-wing political parties that have jettisoned some of the values and beliefs they claimed to represent. Israeli progressive parties and civil society organisations must keep this in mind. They can find like-minded partners not only in Israel but also abroad. And investment in developing ties with them will yield benefits both in terms of advancing local change and empowering the liberal counter-wave to the rise of nationalism and the far-right.
The progressive camp in Israel must free itself from the de-legitimisation of its international activities, which the political right imposed on it. After all, the political right is heavily involved in partnerships with like-minded groups abroad – with considerable success, as shown before. Progressive organisations and parties in Israel that open themselves to the world and present a coherent ideological alternative to current policies will discover a wide range of opportunities. This in itself will not bring about the change that is hoped for in Israel, but it will provide a significant impetus to efforts to generate that change. And it could contribute to instilling progressive ideas in the public opinion, advancing progressive solutions to current problems, and catapulting progressives to leadership positions.
This idea also aligns well with the concept of intersectionality that is gaining traction in the progressive camp – in the US and beyond – based on the assumption that different organisations, each working in a different field for different goals but guided by a shared compass of values, must help each other in dealing with shared issues. In Israel, pro-democracy, human rights, peace, Arab-Jewish equality and social-economic justice groups still operate separately by and large. But signs of cooperation and networking emerge in the face of shared challenges, such as the threat of an Israeli annexation in the West Bank.The Covid-19 crisis and its repercussions on the progressive camp, chief among them a growing sense of solidarity, acknowledgement of the need for joint action in the face of global challenges, and the desire to bolster organisations and mechanisms for international cooperation are expected to encourage this trend in Israel and beyond. Israeli progressives should make the most out of this opportunity and reach out more to their international partners.
*This is a shortened version of an article first published, in Hebrew, in Telem, a periodical journal of the Berl Katznelson Foundation.
The Israeli right: authoritarianism and ethnic supremacy, by Roee Kibrik.
Progressive politics in the Middle East: Israel and the region, by Ksenia Svetlova.