Can the Israeli left reinvent itself?

To overcome voter disillusionment, left parties must unite Jews and Arabs with a progressive vision for the country’s future.

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Israelis head to the polls today for an unprecedented third time in 11 months. Elections in April and September yielded impasses, with no party managing to achieve a governing majority of 61 Knesset seats. For months, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud has battled its main rival, the centrist Blue and White, a new party headed by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces. For those Israelis who want to defeat the country’s longest-serving PM, whose corruption trial is due to start a mere two weeks after the vote, Gantz seems the most obvious option. Meanwhile, Labour and Meretz, the traditional parties of the Israeli left, have remained weak. In advance of the election they united on one slate to surpass the electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent. 

“I think that Meretz and the Labour Party have finished their historic role,” Zehava Gal-On, an Israeli peace camp veteran who led Meretz, the smaller left-wing party, from 2012 to 2018, told me. “I say this with sadness, with pain. I only voted for Meretz from the day I could vote, I didn't vote for anything else in my whole life, but I understand the political system, I can see what's happening.”

Israel’s Labour Party is associated with the founding of the state, and for decades was the party of government. As recently as 2015, Labour, then rebranded as the Zionist Camp, in partnership with former foreign secretary Tzipi Livni – won 24 seats in the Knesset. In the April 2019 election – the first of the three – it plummeted to six. Meretz, founded in 1992, fell from five seats in 2015 to four in April. Both won less than five per cent of the vote. The electoral threshold in Israel’s proportional representation system is 3.25 per cent.

This decline is an old story, however, and some would argue that it reached its trough long ago. The trend dates back to the aftermath of the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s and the violence of the Second Intifada in the 2000s. Voters on the left moved to the centre, explains pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, “because they got mugged in the Second Intifada”, an allusion to the quip that a conservative is “a liberal mugged by reality”. These voters supported a two-state solution and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s push for peace, “but then they bought the narrative on the Second Intifada, the Palestinians just aren’t ready, what can you do, we have to wait, so they are basically the same people. They got bitter, they got despairing.” 

According to Scheindlin’s surveys, the decline stopped in the mid-2000s, with around 20 per cent of the Israeli electorate, 15 per cent of whom are Jewish, self-identifying with the left ever since. Around 23-25 per cent identify as centrists. The left and centre trade votes because “they are basically similar kinds of people,” Scheindlin says. “About half of people who self-identify as centre came from the left, they have the same worldview. 

People who think of themselves as left wing have voted for parties of the centre, such as Kadima, established by former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon, and Yesh Atid, set up by former journalist Yair Lapid. Yesh Atid won an impressive 19 seats when it first stood in 2013, and lasted for two election cycles. Lapid is now part of Gantz’s Blue and White party. 

If the 20 per cent of voters who self-identify as left voted for left-wing parties, that would translate to 25 Knesset seats. That isn’t happening, explains Scheindlin, partly because there is lower turnout among Arab voters, but also because many left-wing Israeli voters are prioritising the defeat of Netanyahu. For those who want a genuine ideological alternative, the Joint List, a slate of four parties, one of which is mixed Arab and Jewish, is an option. Even if not all of the parties on that list would describe themselves as left, they are – at the very least – all committed to equality between Jews and Arabs.

During Netanyahu’s incumbency, the motivations of left-wing voters have become less ideological. “Over the past year all three of these elections were about one thing: yes Bibi, no Bibi,” says Gal-On. “And then many leftists who define themselves as people of the left wanted to vote for the party that is closest to fulfilling the idea that Netanyahu wouldn’t be in power any more. And that is the Blue and White Party.” 

One of Netanyahu’s persistent tactics has been demonisation of the left. The term has become a way of insulting opponents. When former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition last April, forcing the country to stage a second election in September, Netanyahu denounced him as a leftist, the ultimate put-down. This constant attack has also weakened the left. “It's really hard to be on the left,” says Gal-On. “All the time they say to you that you are a traitor, that you are a leftist ... and then because it’s hard it's more comfortable to bend to the consensus, and the consensus is in the centre.” Those who are still voting for parties such as Meretz end up with "this sort of soul searching: what do we do? what is [the left’s] historic role? how can it forge a new path, how can it continue to represent its values?” 

There is a broader question of whether Israel’s left has ever been truly liberal and progressive. Israeli historian Yair Wallach, who teaches at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says that the minimum requirement for parties of the left is equality between citizens, but that in Israel “that was never the logic of the state”. Gal-On doesn’t regard Labour or Mapai, its predecessor which merged into today’s Labour Party, as having led left-wing governments either.“It was a generation that built that state and thought it was allowed to do anything. Issues of human rights, citizen rights weren’t at the top of its priority list in these [earlier] years.” The Labour movement’s key role in the establishment of settlements in the West Bank from 1967 is another case in point. “I can't say they were left-wing in any way, maybe their approach to social issues was more socialist ... but I wouldn't define the left as having been in government.”

Gal-On is depressed by the state of the left, but she has a solution: forging a new Arab and Jewish movement. “There is a goal today that is a lot bigger than to be nice on the left, we need to join with everyone who is a partner to our views ...There is a war here with the right, and the centre is centre-right. If we think we have to end the occupation and not annex settlements, and we have to protect human rights and minority rights and fight against all the messianics who God promised the right over this land, then this is what needs to be done.”

Whatever the election result, and whether Labour and Meretz gain or lose seats, the Israeli left needs to transform itself into a true alternative. In order to move past years of voters motivated by anti-Netanyahu pragmatism, it needs to develop something new and meaningful, and that can only come from a movement that unites Jews and Arabs with a progressive vision for Israel’s future. Otherwise, the left risks being represented by parties of nostalgia, voted for by people who don’t want to see them become obsolete, but who are not committed to what they represent. And with no one ruling out a fourth election just yet, time could be short.

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

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