One of the last countries on anyone’s mind when thinking about how to save Europe from spiralling into a perpetual downturn is Israel. After all, recent weeks have shown that Greece is the one to watch out for, or Spain, or several others. And yet the Jewish state may turn out to be just as crucial as the failing members of the eurozone: as a yardstick for judging the forcefully emerging new Left.
Last month, when François Hollande took over from Nicolas Sarkozy, it became clear that the political ground would shift just as the style of the French presidency had shifted from bling to bland. In Berlin, senior government officials had been prepared for the end of that awkward Franco-German pairing, Merkozy, and steathily began to talk to Hollande’s advisers, seeking out terms on which he would accept Merkel’s fiscal policies — thus making her iron empress of Europe pose even more successful.
When the centre-left Social Democrats roared back in the westernmost of Germany’s states, North-Rhine Westphalia, to take almost 40 per cent in the state election, it seemed like old times in Western Europe. This vote was the third time in recent months that the Social Democrats together with the Greens had joined forces to triumph over the centre-Right. The election results in the European heartlands of France and Germany have discomfited centre-right governments and emboldened their left-wing adversaries, giving them the sense that Hollande’s victory is an indication of more to come.
Will this newly left-leaning Europe embark on a New Labour-style refurbishment of social democratic ideas for the modern age, while the Right indulges in some much-needed soul-searching? I have always been wary of clear-cut distinctions between Left and Right, though I am also bored by the perennially fashionable notion that such terms don’t mean anything anyway.
Academic considerations aside, there is indeed a space opening up which the Left ought use for itself now that the Occupy movement is proving an emptying carnival party and being anti-everything, the stalest form of protest. But attempts to formulate attractive new ideas on “how to do politics” seem not quite up to the job of invigorating the centre-Left. This intellectual weakness is exemplified in Germany by the Pirate party, a curious collection of individuals whose core belief seems to be that more online stuff should be free. Their enthusiastic embrace of digitally-enabled direct democracy is a mirror image of the hippyish hand-waving the world recently witnessed in the assemblies of the Occupy movement.
For me, the seriousness of a left-wing movement in today’s Europe can be measured by its stance towards Israel. That criterion in itself might be surprising, given that the economic troubles of the eurozone’s Mediterranean periphery appear to most Europeans to be much more pertinent than global politics and might seem to put me in the clearly-not-on-the-Left-bracket — although if it does, it only shows there’s provocative room for improvement. Among bourgeois intellectuals of my thirty-something generation, it is chic to be on the Left — and by this I don’t mean to be some kind of activist. In postwar Germany, the tone towards Israel across the spectrum has been respectful, for obvious reasons. Only more recently has that changed to include critical or passive-aggressively dismissive overtones — which are more often than not heard from voices on the Left.
Coming back to Berlin from a trip to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I was struck not simply by the ideological potential of developing a more refined stance on Israel, but above all by the impoverished thinking that is the result of not doing so. Europe’s intellectual vigour depends on paying much closer attention to Israel.
For example, the new centre-right coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu that was suddenly formed last month took Europe, like everywhere else, by surprise. The threat of a nuclear Iran has brought together Israeli politicians of the Left and the Right who would not normally dream of sharing power. But whereas in America Netanyahu’s coup was hailed as the creation of a national consensus, in Europe it was greeted with indifference or cynicism. Just as Europe was slow to grasp the importance of the Arab spring, now it is too preoccupied with its own problems to focus on what this realignment in Israel may mean for its neighbours, particularly the Palestinians.
In short, despite its geographical proximity and historical responsibility to Israel, Europe is too prejudiced or too lazy to try to understand the significance of an event that has transformed Israeli politics overnight. This is the greatest challenge a left-aligned Western Europe faces this summer: to avoid laziness in its thinking. Israel is the most important testing ground for displaying such a versatile stance.