Israelis Abandon Political Left Over Security Concerns After Oct. 7


Maya Mizrachi grimaced at the group of eight Israelis calling for peace with Palestinians in front of Israel’s military headquarters this month in Tel Aviv.

A year ago, Ms. Mizrachi, 25, had protested alongside them, carrying a sign that called for Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank. Now, she had bumped into them by accident, on her way home from a nearby rally calling for the return of Israeli citizens held hostage in the Gaza Strip.

“I don’t think there are more than eight people in all of Israel who would protest against the army right now,” said Ms. Mizrachi, who is a student. “I can’t even bring myself to do it.”

She is one of a growing number of Israeli citizens eschewing the politics of the left — ideas that include promoting peace talks with the Palestinians, ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and supporting a two-state solution — since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen crossed into Israel in a surprise attack and killed roughly 1,200 people.

In the wellspring of sadness, anger and fear that has gripped Israel since that day, a consensus has emerged that Israel needs to take a harder line with the Palestinians and embrace an even more militarized state. And while public opinion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is faltering, support for the policies upheld by his right-wing government is growing.

If the left has lost mainstream support, Israel’s peace camp has been driven virtually underground. Activist groups say many members have abandoned the cause, and those who remain committed have struggled to find public places willing to accommodate antiwar protests.

The few calls for a cease-fire, which have gained traction with the public, have been driven by the families of Israeli hostages abducted to Gaza on Oct. 7. Those families have asked the government to pause the fighting to negotiate a return of their loved ones. While those calls grew stronger this week after the Israeli army announced it had mistakenly killed three hostages, most of the families have stressed that they broadly support the war effort, and think it is necessary.

According to polls conducted in the two months since Oct. 7, Israelis have moved decidedly to the right on a number of political issues, including support for settlers in the West Bank, endorsements for far-right politicians, and even the re-establishment of a military occupation of Gaza.

“The trauma of what happened on Oct. 7 shifted Israeli society. It made them question the most basic tenets of whether they were safe in their homes,” said Tal Schneider, a political columnist for The Times of Israel. “They are calling now for more — more military, more protection, more hard-line policies.”

Left-wing parties in Israel have seen a steady decline over the past 20 years. In Israel’s last election cycle, the center-left Labor Party won only four seats in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, a significant decrease from the 19 seats it held in 2015. The Meretz Party, one of the few left-wing Israeli parties to have held a seat in the past decade, failed to get enough votes to qualify in the last election.

Last week, the head of the Labor Party, Merav Michaeli, announced that she was stepping down amid criticism that she was responsible for the party’s poor poll numbers.

“Nobody in this country wants to talk about peace right now,” Ms. Schneider said. “Being a leftist has become a dirty word,” she said, adding that while socially progressive causes, like government-backed welfare, remain popular in Israel, they are increasingly divorced from Israel’s left-wing movements. “Many Israelis want more government welfare programs, but a conservative political leadership.”

Polls conducted in Israel since Oct. 7 show the extent of the political shift. A survey by Israel’s Channel 12, one of the country’s most popular broadcasters, found that roughly one third of Israelis described themselves as “moving to the right” in the month after the Oct. 7 attacks, while far fewer reported that their politics had shifted more to the left.

In another poll, Israel’s Tel Aviv University found in November the share of Israelis in favor of a two-state solution was down from just a month earlier, falling below one third of respondents.

If the war has accelerated the left’s decline, it has also hurt Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity.

For months before the war, the prime minister held together an unruly coalition of far-right parties that controlled 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. Recently, vigils for slain Israelis have turned into protests over Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership and calls for him to resign.

“The country has lurched to the right, but they no longer want Netanyahu as the leader of the right,” Ms. Schneider said. “It is a question of who can represent the new right-wing views held by so many Israelis today.”

Longtime Israeli peace activists said Israel’s lurch to the right is tangible. In the offices of Standing Together, an organization jointly founded by Israelis and Palestinians, the mood has been somber since Oct. 7.

Membership has dropped, said Alon-Lee Green, a founder of the organization. When the group has tried to hold solidarity rallies between Israelis and Palestinians in public places, they have found themselves turned away by local municipalities and the police.

“We are being banned from public places,” Mr. Green said. “We are being told there isn’t an audience for our message today,” he added. “There has never been a more difficult time to call for peace.”

The group has resorted to renting private venues, like restaurants and wedding halls, to hold their rallies, Mr. Green said.

He said he understood the urge, among many Israelis, to call for more security and a greater military presence since Oct. 7.

“I remember in the days after the attacks, I was constantly looking over my shoulder,” Mr. Green said. “You can’t underestimate what that type of thing does to your psyche, to be afraid in that deep way.” But, he said, he ultimately feels more certain than ever that fighting for a peaceful future is the only viable path forward.

“I came out of my fear and realized this was the most important moment in my life to fight for peace, even if it feels more out of reach than ever before,” Mr. Green said.

But many other longtime Israeli peace activists said they could no longer support the movement.

The towns and agricultural communities that line Israel’s border with Gaza were once bastions of the left. Many villages there were founded as kibbutzim, socialist agricultural communities. Over the years, many residents used their proximity to the Palestinians in Gaza to help deliver aid and run solidarity campaigns.

On Oct. 7, the closeness of those communities to the border made them vulnerable to the attack by Hamas terrorists. Well-known peace activists, including Vivian Silver, a founder of Women Wage Peace, were among those killed. The attack made the survivors rethink policies they had previously championed.

Before Oct. 7, Larry Butler, 73, a resident of Nir Oz, considered himself a leftist. As a member of Peace Now, he participated in rallies calling for the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Gaza, which were disassembled in 2005.

Now, displaced in a hotel in Eilat, a resort town on the Red Sea, Mr. Butler has questioned his beliefs. “I guess I’m somewhere in the middle,” he said, “but I’m definitely not left and I’m definitely not right.”

In Tel Aviv, Ms. Mizrachi’s turn against the left came soon after Oct. 7, when she discovered that a high school friend was among those killed at the Tribe of Nova music festival.

“The irony is that she was the biggest peace activist I knew,” Ms. Mizrachi said. “She was the one who got me involved in the movement to begin with,” she added. “I used to joke that she made me a leftie. Now I can’t say that I am.”

Adam Sella contributed reporting.

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