Israel was established and ruled for decades by WASPs: White-Ashkenazi-Sabra-paratrooper. You’ve heard of them; think Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon. It wasn’t just a matter of political leadership, but the dominance of a very specific kind of elite.
These WASPs also constituted the DNA of what was once “the Israeli left.” Labor governments led Israel from 1949 to 1977, shared power from 1984 to 1988, governed again from 1992 to 1996, and have joined a number of governing coalitions since (following the 2001, 2006 and 2009 elections). But they’ve been a junior partner with very limited impact on policies.
The not-so-mysterious death of the Israeli left, six weeks to the election. LISTEN
And since Ehud Barak’s resounding defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 election, the Israeli left has been on a steady course of ever-diminishing political power and relevance for forming governments. More significantly, the left has become a relic of yesteryear, disdained by a majority of Israeli voters.
This may seem perplexing because contrary to the conventional wisdom of some politicians and pundits, the Israeli body politic hasn't fundamentally shifted to the right. Voting patterns and inclinations have, but on some specific issues, Israelis have actually moved to the left. A Palestinian state became accepted by larger parts of the electorate, as have LGBTQ rights. Most Israelis feel antipathy toward settlers and the extreme right-wingers.
So what went wrong for the center-left and the left? A lot, it seems.
First, large swaths of Israeli society have grown inhospitable and at times outright hostile to the basic tenets of liberal democracy. Currently, a very sizable minority in Israel is neither committed to nor adheres to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Israel’s formative document is similar to France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, England’s Magna Carta and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, the Arab community, the far right, and parts of the religious-Zionist public all have their own reasoning to object to various portions of the Declaration: anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-secular, anti-equality. They may have very little in common, but together they comprise over 40 percent of the electorate.
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So when Israeli liberals, on both the right and the left, preach a “restoration of the principles of the Declaration of Independence” and an open, liberal democracy, they're in a varying degree of denial of Israel’s sociopolitical-demographic reality. Despite what Theodor Herzl dreamed of, Israel is not a “Vienna on the Hills of Judea,” nor is it a model social democracy predicated on social justice and economic equality, as its founders hoped it would become.
Demographic trends, a dysfunctional political system and the populist and divisive politics of the Netanyahu era have put Israel on a trajectory leading to an illiberal democracy. Not everyone likes to admit this reality.
Of course, there have been tremendous accomplishments. As described in part 1 of this series, Israel’s founders had no democratic traditions. Jews as a national-ethnic-political unit didn't benefit from the formative experiences of the rise of democracy such as the American and French revolutions. Most Jews who immigrated to Israel, whether from Europe or the Middle East, didn't come from Democratic societies.
So the left’s idea – and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s liberal-right vision that Israel would naturally evolve into a liberal democracy – was wishful thinking at best, and delusional if one adopted a harsher approach to history.
Aside from the absence of a democratic political culture, there were formidable mitigating circumstances: a fledgling state of immigrants born out of war and facing a state of belligerency for most of its history. But more relevant to the current political climate is the fact that the insistence on a liberal democracy has been attributed to the liberal left, the center and a smaller, dwindling liberal right (now ostensibly represented by the parties of Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar).
Second, the left became a victim of both “cross-cutting cleavages” and “reinforcing cleavages”: The resentment toward the left had to do with other cleavages dividing an already tribalized society.
It sounds very simple: Left equals elites, which equals secularism. Left equals affluence, which equals access and privilege. Left is a liberal culture that translates into condescension and snobbery. Left is the peace process, which equals “caring for Palestinian rights more than Jewish lives.”
The left that espoused a liberal democracy, checks and balances, a strong judiciary and a peace process is “Israeli” and cosmopolitan. The people are “Jewish” and love their country. Irrespective of how distorted and false these characterizations are, each appealed to a different group that feels left out of the “Israel as a liberal democracy” vision.
Third, the left made a strategic and political mistake by consistently conflating the need to “end the occupation,” a concept increasingly accepted by some on the right, with “peace,” a goal increasingly rejected by a majority on the grounds of perceived Palestinian rejectionism. There was, and still is, a majority in Israel that doesn’t want to control the Palestinians for ages. But very few Israelis believe that peace with the Palestinians is a real possibility.
Fourth, years of Netanyahu’s incitement and incendiary remarks have turned “left” into a derogatory term. The left is unpatriotic, the left cares about Arabs’ rights, the left is weak and brittle. Unlike Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s opponents over the last decade have been left and center-left politicians of little or no gravitas who failed miserably to develop a coherent rebuttal.
Finally, in historical perspective, the Israeli left had three major organizing and defining elements. The first was laying the foundations and establishing a state – a goal that was accomplished admirably and impressively. The second was to build a society on a social-democratic model. This was also achieved, to some degree, as demonstrated these days by how Israel’s government-run health system is leading the world in COVID-19 vaccinations. But more broadly, the social-democratic model exhausted its appeal in favor of consumerist capitalism.
The third element was the peace process. The left consistently identified itself with efforts to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians. This became such a core and defining value that any disillusionment, resentment and fatigue Israeli voters had with “the peace process” inevitably was directed against the left.
As a result of all these processes, the “WASP” left lost its leadership role and political relevance. The upcoming election will essentially be decided on the right, with the main fault-line being either pro or anti-Netanyahu. The center-left may very well find itself in a governing coalition if Netanyahu fails to win 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but the center-left’s impact on the election itself will be minimal.