Reviving the Israeli Left Is a Ten Year Project, Says Think Tank

Molad - The Center for Renewal of Democracy deals with the lost goblin of Israeli politics: the left.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In a gloomy building behind a gray iron fence on Jerusalem's Emek Refaim street, a group of intellectuals are holding court. They are dealing with the lost goblin of Israeli politics: the left.

The somewhat pretentious goal of the group is to revive the Israeli left, which collapsed 12 years ago following the failure of the Camp David peace talks and the eruption of the second intifada. This revival process is expected to last no less than a decade; and during that time, the revivalists will brain-storm and devise plans and policy positions suited to a resurgent left-wing camp. At the end of the period, these idealists hope, Israel will regain the political structure that characterized it for most of its life before the year 2000: a contested political arena divided into two large ideological camps, the left and right, each with a coherent world view.

The name of the new think tank committed to leftist renewal is Molad - The Center for Renewal of Democracy. Molad's chairman is former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. It is headed by two young people: Director Avner Inbar, a doctoral student in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, and research director Assaf Sharon, from Stanford University's philosophy department.

The center is funded by left-liberal foundations and groups from the U.S. associated with the Democratic party.

A few months ago, Molad conducted a survey that probed the Israeli public's attitudes toward the left. The survey featured 1,000 respondents, and was carried out by Jim Gerstein, a leading American pollster who worked for Ehud Barak during the then-Labor politician's campaign for prime minister. The poll results are fascinating. They bear witness to the Herculean task the Molad center's founders have adopted in their hopes of reviving the left.

The poll projects the left as a lost cause in Israel - the public views it as being non-serious, irresponsible, not credible, elitist, alienated and devoid of realistic solutions to Israel's security problems. If the "left" were a commercial product, the firm that produces and markets it would have gone bankrupt years ago.

On the other hand, in terms of positions taken on fundamental issues, Israel's public seems still to be divided between the left and the right, not the center and the right. Half the public supports clear left-wing positions on war and peace issues, and more than half adopt left-wing positions on socioeconomic issues. It is on this level - positions which people actually endorse, rather than what they say and think about "leftists" - which provides hope to the Molad crew.

"There's a dramatic distance between the public's positions and the way those positions are presented in political discourse," opines Burg.

Here are some major findings culled from the poll: Only a quarter of Israelis believe that the state is "moving in the right direction," while 60 percent believe that the state "has deviated seriously from the right path." When people are asked to state an opinion, positive or negative, regarding the three main political streams, it turns out that the left has the worst reputation: 63 percent of respondents attested to a negative view of the left, as compared to 42 percent who think negatively about the right and center.

Less than a third of respondents believed that the left is equipped to effectively govern the country, whereas 53 percent said that the right does a good job running Israel. The left is particularly weak among young people: Only a quarter of people aged 18-29 have a positive view of the left, while two thirds have a strongly negative view of the left. This appears to be a dire finding, yet it seems to result from the simple fact that an entire generation of young people have never known a political arena that is not governed by a right-wing party (Likud ), or a right-leaning party (Kadima ).

In the next age bracket, comprised of people aged 30-39, only a third expressed positive views about the left, as compared to 60 percent who had strong criticism. When it comes to issues of national security, the left's situation is comparably catastrophic: Only 28 percent of respondents said that the left offers constructive solutions for security challenges faced by the state. The implication is clear: The left has virtually no credibility with regard to a sphere of paramount importance for citizens.

Yet the pollsters found that the right also has areas of vulnerability: 52 percent of the public believes that the right "promotes its own special interests at the expense of most Israelis," and only 42 percent said that the right has "good solutions for socioeconomic challenges posed to Israel." Also, specific positions associated with the left with respect to solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil equality and women's rights have public support.

The left's problem goes well beyond the way it communicates with the public, the Molad thinkers believe. For years, the left has been on the sidelines as the public debates key questions of national importance. The left's disappearing act is reflected in voting figures: In 1992, the year Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, the left claimed 49 percent of voters. In 2009, the left won a paltry 29 percent. The right also took 49 percent of voters in 1992, yet in 2009 it won 52 percent. That pretty much says it all.

The right has increased its strength by a negligible figure of 4 percent in 20 years, but the left has dropped a whopping 20 percent. "The public," says Assaf Sharon, "hasn't moved to the right. It simply fled from the left."

"The right in Israel operates as a united bloc," says Inbar. "Anyone who votes for Lieberman or Shas knows that he or she is voting for a government to be headed by Netanyahu."

In contrast, the left does not present a clear agenda, and lacks the structure of a cohesive political camp. "Nobody makes a commitment to work as an opposition to Netanyahu, and so implicitly everyone proffers him legitimacy," Inbar clarifies.

The left cannot be revived via the refashioning of existing claims, Molad thinkers believe. The left must present reliable, comprehensible policy on key issues, a policy aimed at reviving the left as a credible, viable political force.

The Knesset.

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