Why Is There No Zionist Left Worthy of the Name?

The Israeli left is horrifyingly conformist and lacks courage, and those who do not have courage have no future.

The time has come to give Ehud Barak his due. He, more than any of his rivals in the party, represents the traditional path of the Labor Party as the successor to Mapai, that legendary ruling party of bygone days. Like his predecessors, he sees himself as having been designated to rule, rather than having been called on to serve the citizens and do his best to implement an ideology of justice. Barak's conduct is the answer to the big question: Why is there no Zionist left that is worthy of the name?

One reason, of course, can be found in the prolonged and difficult struggle over the land that continues to this day, and leads to nationalist extremism and a magnification of the cult of power that has always been an integral part of the Israeli left.

The second reason is that here, unlike in Europe, there was no historic working class with a militant ideology, whose residual thought patterns remained even after it disappeared in its original form.

In the distant past, "working-class rule" was a code name for rule by the bureaucracy of the Histadrut labor federation, and "socialism" was a myth that was co-opted to conquer the land. From the start, the government was identified with the Histadrut and Mapai. Sixty years after the founding of the state, Labor still clings to power at any price. If partnership with Avigdor Lieberman is not too high a price, then no price is too high.

That is why Labor's situation today is worse than it was after its historic defeat in 1977 and the dramatic change of government that followed. Then, at least, there was still hope. Today even that has gone. Without leadership worthy of the name, without intellectual content, without a foothold in the periphery and among the disadvantaged, alienated from the youth, Labor has lost its purpose.

Over the years, long-time Labor chairman Shimon Peres, with the aid of party leaders, destroyed everything of value. There was never time to delve into problems in depth because the immediate was always more important than the long-term, tomorrow morning's shady deal always took priority over the future.

The symbol of the times was "the stinking maneuver" (hatargil hamasriah, Labor's unsuccessful 1990 attempt to withdraw from the unity government with Likud and form a government with Shas).

The symbol of our times is Peres' defection to Kadima. Barak, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and their colleagues are all Peres' sons, all cut from the same cloth. The party is not a tool for changing the face of society - a long, complicated process - but rather a horse to be ridden up to the cabinet table, even if that cabinet is dependent on the far right, which in most Western countries would be anathema.

The real problem is that the Israeli left is an artificial, even a false, left. It lacks every one of the instinctive responses that are identified with the natural left - standing with the weak, the oppressed and the working poor against the strong, and against the state itself. The natural left does not accept the injustices and exploitation inherent to capitalism, it is repulsed by the neoconservative term "compassionate conservatism," and even when it does not have an immediate comprehensive alternative it clings by the skin of its teeth to the principles of the welfare state.

In the political arena, the natural left is always suspicious of the government and those in power, of their intentions and their statements. On the other hand, the Israeli left is horrifyingly conformist and lacks courage, and those who do not have courage have no future.

Moreover, a real left thinks that other people also have rights that are worth defending. It is therefore incapable of viewing the destruction in Gaza with indifference, and it is nauseated by the official explanations. In a broader context, had Labor believed that all humans are equal it would not have begun the settlement enterprise the day after the Six-Day War. Had the left genuinely wanted a two-state solution it would have adopted it years ago, and the entire region would look different today.

But the vast majority of the left, from the greatest writers to the elders of the Second Aliyah, the veterans of the Palmach, the "Mapai Young Guard" of Peres and Moshe Dayan, the members of the country's kibbutzim and moshavim, either explicitly supported the occupation of "Greater Israel" or didn't lift a finger to prevent the expansion. The chain was not broken: With Barak as defense minister in the Labor-Kadima government, the settlements continued to grow under the leadership of the Labor Party chairman.

To the left of Labor there has likewise been a fiasco. The farce of a "union" between Meretz and "the new movement" demonstrated the depth of the crisis. The "new people" were not even courageous enough to call themselves "The New Left Movement," much less socialist or social-democratic movement. In the eyes of many, this was an embarrassing move. Some people decided that if the left was on a suicidal path then it would be better for it to be sooner rather than later.