Open Zion

04.18.13

Meet The Israeli Left's New Ideas Factory

Barack Obama's Jerusalem speech was an appeal directly to the Israeli public, even mentioning that change must start "not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people." Obama went on at length: "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see." With Israel having just sworn in perhaps its most right-wing government ever just before the visit, Obama's message—and its reception among the students in the room—must have heartened the young, ambitious Israeli liberals who last year started a new think-tank called Molad.

Obama's message was narrowly about peace, but it dovetailed with Molad's. Billing itself as "the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy," the new group aims to foster a liberal political ethos capable of pushing Israel back from its hard-right turn, alleviating both the prevailing economic and geopolitical pressures on Israeli citizens wrought by the dominant factions' policies. "We're trying to be very political. We're not trying to hide it," Assaf Sharon, one of Molad's founders, told me recently at the group's headquarters in Jerusalem. "We're trying to build a political camp and give it ideas."

To do that, Molad draws heavily from the well of lefty activism. Along with Molad co-founder Avner Inbar, Sharon comes from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, a group that organized against evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to make way for settlers. Molad's policy and communications director Mikhael Manekin was the director of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that collects anonymous testimonials from Israeli veterans (Sharon also worked with BTS). The former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg makes for what some call a sort of spiritual guide—though the website lists him as just a "Senior Fellow and Advisor"—and the staff roster and board are rounded out by a few other notable former officials, academics, and young go-getters. (Full disclosures: the Molad analyst and editor Elisheva Goldberg is a friend and former Open Zion editor; Manekin's father Charles is a personal friend.) 

In interviews, both Sharon and Manekin seemed proud of their activism, but recognized the limitations on reaching the political mainstream. "They're great organizations doing great work. But they're not a substitute for a political movement," Sharon told me under the cathedral ceilings of the renovated office on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, a building, naturally, formed of Jerusalem stones. "Part of what we do here is to be more pragmatic." Many of Israel's problems come down to matters of political will, he said, "and we on the left have been doing a bad job of creating that political will."

Molad's aims, according to its website, are to combat "Neo-conserativsm in security and foreign policy, Neo-Zionism in Israeli politics and society, and Neo-liberalism in economics." On the security front, the task is especially daunting: no one in this winter's election contested Netanyahu on his Iran hawkishness and most prominent liberal politicians actively avoided discussing the Palestinian issue altogether. With years of calm under a dominant right-wing, Israelis have lost interest in talk of peace: "The central problem for us is that we're standing in front of a huge problem that our central demographic doesn't understand is a major problem," Manekin told me over coffee at a nearby cafe. "The word 'occupation' or the two-state issue weren't issues in the election." 

New opportunities, however, arose with 2011's social movement, spurred by high costs of living. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets, but the movement split over whether to raise divisive security issues such as the occupation. Like the liberal politicians who seized on the social unrest, Molad seeks to address social and economic issues. But these young men won't let go of their roots: "We're not interested in appealing to the mainstream at the expense of being coherent lefties," Manekin said. "I come from a progressive world, I'm unabashedly anti-occupation." 

That doesn't mean they've yet paved a clear path forward. You'd expect two-state solution advocates to push for talks, but Molad's doing the opposite: ahead of Obama's trip, Manekin wrote a piece in these pages asking that U.S. based peace advocates not press Obama on restarting talks. The reason? "Primarily because the leader of our government"—Benjamin Netanyahu—"does not want two states—at least not in a way that is acceptable to the Palestinians or to the world," he wrote, enumerating the potential pitfalls of yet more failed talks. "So what should we do? The most important thing is to stop idealizing the 'process.' We need a settlement, a deal, not a process." A position paper accompanied the op-ed. Sharon put it consisely in our interview: "There's despair with the solution—namely, two states—and people want to continue with the process—namely Oslo. That needs to be reversed." The headline of a Burg Haartez op-ed last month asked the crucial question: "Oslo is dead, what's next?"

That's emblematic: the group's work is cut out for them, but thus far only raises more questions than it answers. They've dome some polling—finding, for example, that Israelis are politically more split across the spectrum of political issues than electoral voting suggests—and plan to do more. And there's plans to create a national security strategy beyond what seems to be a consensus around dropping the Oslo Process. For now, Molad's production is focused on messaging: for instance, the group's website creates "memes" written over photographs and charts to spread information on social networking sites like Facebook (a look at any Israeli political Facebook page show Israelis' voracious appetite for graphically-presented information). The resulting electronic postcards reminded me of the infographics produced by the Center for American Progress's ThinkProgress blog, where I used to work. "It's very much based on CAP: translating policy and academica into a communications strategy," Manekin said.

Talking with Sharon, he complained to me over a cigarette break that no liberals did systematic push-back against the right-wing the way ThinkProgress did: "The right's been doing it for years," he said. At other times, he spoke of emulating the settler movement, of which he was a follower in his youth. They, too, were in the wilderness in the mid-1990s as the Oslo process flourished under a center-left government: "It was the reverse of now: Bibi and the settlers were throwing stones at a runaway train." But the settlement movement adjusted: "If you look at the settlers, their biggest success is not putting up some outposts, but that they have infiltrated the institutions." One need only look at the make-up of Netanyahu's cabinet to see that's the case.

Like CAP's connections in the administration and on Capitol Hill, Molad has made inroads in the Israeli parliament. Manekin was coy about with whom he works, but told me: "Half the week, I'm running around the Knesset." I asked if the former activist donned a suit and tie. "No, but I do wear a button-down shirt and sensible shoes," he said with a laugh, sticking his Chuck Taylor canvass sneakers out from under the edge of the cafe table.

Also like CAP, Molad is playing catch-up: right-wing think-tanks guided Ronald Reagan's transition to office, but CAP wasn't even founded until 2003. "This kind of think-tank was not part of the political culture of the Israeli peace camp, the liberal camp," the veteran Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar told me. "It was imported to Israel by neocons"—specifically the Shalem Center, a right-wing think-tank associated with Netanyahu's Likud Party and funded, in part, by the American Netanyahu-backer Sheldon Adelson. "We hardly had any think-tanks where we can get some support in terms of research and things like polls," Eldar, an Al Monitor commentator, said. "We got it from academia sometimes, but never from a think-tank per se."

The Adelson issue raises an important one: much of the money flooding the Israeli right comes from the U.S. Now Molad is working Americans, too: it's supported largely from the U.S., including by American foundations. This, of course, draws the ire (hypocritically) of the Israeli right: NGO Monitor, a group which selectively targets the left for foreign funding, frequently attacks Molad. But Eldar pointed out that sharpening the mainstream political discourse in Israel can work both ways, too: "The message is both to the Israeli people and to people like Obama and the Jewish community [in the U.S.]," he said. "You talk about the two-state solution and you say Netanyahu is moving away from it. And you're actually saying exactly what good Israelis—who served in the army, risked their lives, and have family here—are saying."

That, however, is not just a messaging strategy: "I'm Israeli," Manekin told me. "I'm interested in remaining Israeli. Now the question is how do I create a political reality where I can do that." Yet he remains realistic: "I don't think this thing alone will create any revolutionary change," he said—though he did exclaim that he was "energized" when people said the two-state solution was dead: "They've been saying that since the late '80s." Sharon was a bit less sanguine: "I try not to think about that," he responded when I asked, at the end of our conversation, about his prospects for success. "Some days I'm not that optimistic, some days I am." Then Sharon's grey-flecked mustache and beard turned up at the edges of his mouth as a flash of his activist spirit seemed to return to the fore: "We're up against a storm. But we have justice on our side."