The Left Must Abandon Its Comfort Zone in Order to Survive

Zionist Union and Meretz have failed to truly connect with Israel’s social protest movement and lacked the wisdom to learn from previous mistakes.

Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross
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An ad for Meretz on a Tel Aviv shuttle bus. "We must not lose Meretz," the ad states, next to a photo of chairwoman Zehava Galon.
An ad for Meretz on a Tel Aviv shuttle bus. "We must not lose Meretz," the ad states, next to a photo of chairwoman Zehava Galon.Credit: Michal Fattal
Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross

OK, so let’s blame the people that need to be replaced, or the Arabs, the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern origin], the purists. Everyone except ourselves. Let’s be disappointed and surprised, even though the writing was clearly on the wall. Here’s a news flash: That won’t get the left anywhere. A number of factors need to be considered if we want to understand the election result, which was not really surprising.

In this election, as in the previous one in 2013, the social protest continues to be present. Even though to a large extent it failed, its greatest success was in creating an understanding that “the cost of living” and people’s economic circumstances were political issues that should influence the way they vote.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s rise in the last election represented (among other things) this realization, and of course Moshe Kahlon’s rise with Kulanu this time represents it very clearly.

The left’s tragedy is its failure, for the second time running, to get the votes from the very people that demanded social justice. In the previous election, the Labor Party seemingly had the ideal conditions for this: a party head, Shelly Yacimovich, who is identified with that agenda, along with two of the faces most identified with the protest ticket – Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli – on its slate.

That didn’t really help. With his questions about “Where is the money?,” Yair Lapid succeeded in riding this wave, despite quite a rightist economic platform. Lapid also got the votes of “the center,” those who roam among the changing parties that fill that space – formerly Shinui and Kadima, now Yesh Atid.

Why did the parties of the left fail to get those votes? It is a mistake to narrow the answer down to just one reason. Before all the usual self-flagellation, it must be remembered that the left’s messages are not especially popular today.

Let’s take Meretz as an example. It is the most “social” party on all dimensions (a word about that in just a moment), but it is also for the Palestinians, against the occupation, pro-asylum seekers and against imprisoning them, and also pro-feminist and pro-LGBT. How many supporters of such a package are there in Israeli society now? Therefore, we can’t talk about the fall of the left, and of Meretz in particular, without addressing the difficulty of selling these messages in today’s society.

On the one hand, the message with which Meretz is most identified – peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and the belief that these negotiations will bring peace and security – has lost its standing in Israeli society, particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada: The lynching in Ramallah in October 2000 [when two IDF reservists were murdered and mutilated by an angry mob] killed this message, and it is not by chance that Meretz has not been able to replicate its double-digit achievements of the 1990s. The more the party is identified with this message, the less popular it becomes and the greater its difficulty in attracting voters.

It is much easier to be Yesh Atid, which in the best case is vague on the Palestinian issue and in the worst case adopts the nationalist discourse. It is easier to be Yesh Atid, which supports both imprisoning the African asylum seekers and the incitement against them, than it is to be Meretz.

The other side of the coin is the nabbing of the two-state discourse by the center and even the right, where supposedly they also, in principle, support the same solution as Meretz. However, at the same time they send the much more popular message that the entire responsibility for the failure to reach an agreement rests with the Palestinians, and support the continuation and deepening of the occupation, and the blockade and killing of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

No matter how important it is to do so, in an era of terror and missiles it is difficult to break through this narrative with a dovish message that itself requires updating. It is even more difficult in the framework of the existing discourse, which is waiting for the two states to point out the absence of democracy in elections in which many of those under the Israeli government (the Palestinians in the territories) are not entitled to vote at all.

In face of this reality, it is therefore difficult to be leftist with regard to the peace process. But the left’s failure does not lie only here.

The left has also failed to provide a home for the many voters actively looking for a party, who want parties relevant to their lives and the demand for social justice.

Labor and Meretz have remained too alienated from the public – not only because the public is rightist and no longer believes in negotiations and withdrawal, but also because the parties did not take active steps to build new frameworks of which they would be a part. These would include for those “transparent people” about whom Arye Dery spoke, and being identified with the housing crisis, like Kahlon.

Identification of this sort is needed at the levels of representation, consciousness and discourse – because the level of legislation is not enough. Nor is the level of human rights and the High Court of Justice, as these are identified mostly with civil rights and, for the most part, not welfare rights that concern poor people the High Court has disappointed many times over – populations that feel human rights serve the citizen with a full stomach, not the hungry one.

If in previous elections Mizrahi voices were heard saying they did not have anyone to vote for, it was the responsibility of the left-wing parties to learn how they could change in order to be relevant to those people and identify new frameworks with which they could cooperate – for example, public housing activity – as part of new political structures.

Some of this has happened, but only on the margins, not in the heart of the parties’ activity. The spirit of the social protest could have been a way for new cooperative efforts and frameworks. The left needed, and still needs, to leave its comfort zone much more if it wishes to survive.

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