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Was there ever a left wing in Israel? Yes, between 1967 and 2000 there was a dovish and courageous Zionist left. It took shape on the seventh day of the Six-Day War, when a small but farsighted group quickly grasped the moral significance of what had been conquered. At a time when the public was swept away by triumphal euphoria, that small avant-garde saw clearly that there was calamity bound up with the victory.

Although it was castigated, the Zionist left was not deterred. It foresaw the Yom Kippur War, warned against the repercussions of the settlements and tried to block the center-right's march of folly. Gradually, reality proved that it was right, and the narrow circle expanded. In 1992 the party of the Zionist left, Meretz, won 12 seats and in 1993, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin adopted its stance in Oslo. From an inspiring but inconsequential group of bohemians, the Zionist left fostered a mainstream movement that shaped the national agenda.

In the 1990s, problems arose. Just when the left's program was broadly accepted it turned out there was a wide gap between its beliefs and reality. Against expectations, Yasser Arafat wasn't Nelson Mandela. Against hopes, the Palestinian national movement's conduct was not patterned on the deeds of Mahatma Gandhi.

However, the Zionist left stood firm and did not allow the facts to get in its way. With admirable resolve, it refused to distinguish between its justified view of the occupation and its mistaken view of the prospects for peace. It continued to presume - and to promise - that because occupation was doomed, peace was inevitable.

The truth struck home in the summer of 2000. Ehud Barak proposed the establishment of a Palestinian state and the partition of Jerusalem, but the Palestinians rejected the offer out of hand. It struck again in December 2000, when Bill Clinton made the Palestinians a peace offer they couldn't refuse but they did, and again in January 2001 at Taba, when Yossi Beilin made Israel's ultimate offer, and the Palestinians said no once more.

The fourth time that the truth struck home was in September 2008, when Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians everything, and they simply disappeared. Over eight years, four attempts to end the occupation peacefully failed. Four decisive attempts that tested the left's concept of reality simply proved them wrong.

A panel of inquiry that examined Meretz's failure in the 2009 elections has blamed a number of factors. The ultra-Orthodox, the traditional Mizrahi Jews of Oriental descent and the Russian immigrants were all to blame.

In advertising terms, the campaign, the branding and the positioning were all to blame. So was the uncharismatic leader.

No, no and no. In fact, Meretz's failure can actually be attributed to its lack of intellectual honesty.

The right can bluff, and so can the center, but a left without solid internal honesty is a left without hope. Because the left has for the past decade failed to confront what reality has dealt it, it now has no solid, reliable, internal truth to stand on.

The left has not done any soul-searching, has not confessed its historical errors, has not drawn bold conclusions. In contrast to its courage in the 1970s, it has been faint-hearted in the 2000s. Its inability to acknowledge that it led Israel into a dead end has caused it to end up in a dead end itself.

The proposals put forward by Meretz's inquiry panel could have been formulated by the TV satirists of "A Wonderful Country": maybe remain a "boutique" party, maybe join up with Labor or Kadima, or perhaps with Hadash. A party that can't make up its mind between Kadima and Hadash is a party that's lost its way and its raison d'etre.

But the left does have a reason to exist. It is the left that must lead the way to the end of the occupation while ensuring Israel's existence as a Jewish, democratic and enlightened state. To do so, the left must go back to being Zionist and realistic. It has to suggest a practical way of getting out of the territories without endangering our national existence.

It has to represent the essence of Israel and not condemn it. It has to come up with a positive, constructive ethos and not a negative, hate-ridden one. If it dares to do this, it will be possible to say that not only was there a left in the past, but there will also be a left in the future. With or without Meretz, the Israeli left has to create itself anew.