The prospects for the Israeli left seem not only grim, but paradoxically so. Ariel Sharon's government has delivered neither peace nor security. Economic prospects are disastrous. The past two years of violence and repression have almost killed the Palestinians' fragile economy; but they've sorely hurt Israel's, too. Israel's international standing is at its lowest ebb at least since the war in Lebanon 20 years ago. Yet far from being poised to benefit from the popular discontent all this evokes, the Israeli Labour Party will almost certainly secure its worst-ever result in the January 2003 elections.
In part, this is just the latest twist in a story of long-term, apparently irreversible decline. Israel was once a country where social-democratic values seemed dominant. Left-wing parties held the high ground in the pre-state Zionist movement before 1948, and in every government until the late 1970s. Their allies controlled much of economic life: not only the large state sector, but also the 20 per cent of industry that was union-owned and the kibbutzim (collective farms) that dominated agricultural production and symbolised the country's "pioneering" and egalitarian ethos. Through the 1950s and 1960s, social democrats everywhere - including British Labour leaders such as Harold Wilson, Richard Crossman and Hugh Dalton, as well as many further left - looked to Israel with admiration, even envy.
There was always an element of illusion in that picture. The "socialism" of Israel's first decades was strictly limited: the welfare state, though extensive, was never fully comprehensive, and its policies, particularly later on, were not radically redistributive. Labour's electoral base is heavily middle class and European-descended, while poorer voters, mainly of North African and Middle Eastern origin, tend more to the right and to religious parties. Today, Israel has one of the most unequal income distributions of any "advanced" country, with Arabs, and Jews of non-European descent, heavily over-represented among the poor.
Moreover, when Labour and its allies controlled the levers of state power, they invariably did so via coalitions with more right-wing or religious parties. The result was that, though a majority of Israelis were secular, Orthodox Jews got a separate, disproportionately well-funded education system, widespread exemption from military service, and, in effect, a right to insist that almost all public services shut down on the sabbath. The power of the religious parties has continued to grow. To many left-wing Israelis today, the encroachments of religious orthodoxy are almost as great a threat as the Palestinian bombers.
Labour policies towards Arabs, internally and externally, were both deeply divided and wildly oscillating. Most Arab-Israelis (or, as ever more of them defiantly label themselves, Palestinian-Israelis) voted for Jewish-led left-wing parties. But this often had more to do with patron-client networks than with a real alliance of hearts and minds. Most Arab areas remained under military administration until 1966. Thereafter, the Arabs' citizenship status became, in most respects, formally equal with that of Jews; but in practice widespread discrimination remained in employment, housing and local government funding.
Perhaps most fundamentally, Labour and the left proclaimed their allegiance both to universalist values of liberty, equality and human rights, and to specifically Jewish and Zionist loyalties. Even to friendlier observers, this seemed to create internal stresses. Could Israel be both "the state of the Jewish people" and one belonging equally to all its citizens? Some on the left began to argue for a ruthlessly self-critical "settling of accounts" with the country's history, especially its responsibility for the Palestinian exodus of 1948. Others pointed out Israel's lack of a written constitution, which left both the rights of citizenship and the very borders of the country undefined. All these strains could only grow as the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian lands stretched into decades. Labour failed to confront the ensuing dilemmas, and thus perhaps sowed the seeds of its own decline.
Meanwhile the rhetoric of socialism, partly echoing global trends, has withered. The kibbutz movement has shifted ever more into private enterprise, and to more conventional family life, but continues to decline. The trade union federation, Histadrut, has dwindled in membership and influence. Even by the 1970s, little distinguished Labour from the main right-wing party, Likud, on economic and social issues. More recently, Labour has tried to reinvent itself, first as "New Labour", then (in alliance with a couple of tiny centrist splinter groups) as "One Israel". It proclaimed in the 1999 election that it favoured a free-market economy, gradual privatisation and deregulation - while also still promoting an ethic of social responsibility. The impact on public opinion has been nil.
Long-run decline is compounded by shorter-term dithering. After Sharon came to power in February 2001, Labour's leaders became junior partners in his coalition. The veteran Labour boss Shimon Peres and his successor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, argued that their presence in the cabinet would moderate Sharon's belligerent instincts and hold open lines of negotiation with the Palestinians. Few observers believe they have achieved anything at all on those fronts. Peres, in many eyes, is a tragic or pathetic figure - still writing and dreaming of a federal, peaceful Middle East, while acquiescing in measures utterly incompatible with his self-proclaimed values. Ben-Eliezer, an obese, unkempt and inarticulate character, has proved as inept as he is uncharismatic. At the end of October - after Sharon refused Labour's demand that he spend less on the West Bank and Gaza settlements, more on social welfare - he finally led his supporters out of the government, precipitating the election.
But for those to Ben-Eliezer's left, including many of Labour's own activists, the split came too late to salvage any credibility as an opposition to Sharon. It was also too late for Ben-Eliezer himself. The party promptly ditched him as leader, choosing the more radical, less compromised, Amram Mitzna.
Mitzna, like so many Israeli political aspirants, is a former general. But he is also mayor of Haifa, one of Israel's few genuinely mixed cities, where Arabs and Jews coexist in relative harmony. His record there commands respect among many Palestinians; at the same time, his promises unconditionally to reopen negotiations with Yasser Arafat and to withdraw from Gaza offer them hope.
But the electoral prospects remain poor. In 1999, the Labour-led "One Israel" electoral list gained 20.2 per cent of the vote. Next month, even in a new alliance with the liberal Shinui party (which scored 5 per cent), it is generally expected to do even worse. To Labour's left, Meretz - one of the numerous small parties encouraged by Israel's ultra-proportional electoral system, as well as by its many social and ideological divisions - won 7.6 per cent of the vote last time, and may well do better next month. It, too, is a coalition, involving members of the "classically" socialist (indeed, in its early years pro-Soviet) Mapam and the more liberal, human-rights oriented Ratz. Today, far more unequivocally than Labour, it supports a Palestinian state, the dismantling of Jewish settlements, and genuinely equal rights for Israel's non-Jewish citizens. It is also more secular, and more radical on how to cure the country's rapidly growing poverty and unemployment.
Other, still smaller radical parties draw most of their support from Arab-Israelis. A "United Arab List" ran at the last election, winning five seats in the Knesset. But its title was a misnomer: its activists range from neo-Stalinists to Muslim fundamentalists. The man often thought most likely to become the dominant figure among Palestinian-Israelis is the fiery Azmi Bishara, leader of the new, also mainly Arab party Balad, which currently has just two seats and 1.9 per cent of the vote. Bishara seems to alternate between the personae of the philosophical left-wing intellectual and the rough-house populist - and between a universalist language of citizenship rights and a rhetoric of Palestinian nationalism. In this, he reflects many of the dilemmas that Palestinians in Israel feel as they decide how to vote next month.
But parallel perplexities haunt the Jewish left, too. Even if a peace process can be revived and coexistence with the Palestinians somehow achieved, they will face hard questions about what kind of society they want. Some still hope that liberal, secularising, indeed globalising, trends are bound over time to subvert narrower nationalist and religious ideologies - both within Israel and across the Middle East. But in the past few years, the currents have all seemed to flow the other way.
Israelis living or travelling outside the country, who come disproportionately from leftish backgrounds, are torn. Many feel outraged and ashamed by what their government is doing in their name. Yet they also feel under constant, indiscriminate, even racist verbal attack, not least from the western radicals and liberals from whom they had expected some sympathy. At home, they are widely regarded as outdated dreamers or even traitors - increasingly, they speak of themselves as living in a kind of internal exile. Abroad, many label them as accomplices in war crimes. It is a bleak, lonely prospect.