Democratic National Convention Should Make Israel's Center-left Intensely Jealous

Estranged from minorities and devoid of coherent social commitment, Netanyahu’s opponents can only dream of forging the kind of unity that might lead Biden to defeat Trump

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Benny Gantz during a campaign meeting in the central Israeli city of Rishon LeZion, February 4, 2020.
Benny Gantz during a campaign meeting in the central Israeli city of Rishon LeZion, February 4, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Israel’s proportional elections and parliamentary regime are so inherently different from America’s two-party elections and presidential rule that they have traditionally defied analogy or comparison. In recent years, however, the controversial and oddly similar tenures of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have changed the equation, turning differences into similarities and opposites into parallels.

Netanyahu’s domineering personality, divisive politics and authoritarian tendencies not only beg comparison with Trump in and of themselves, they have also cemented the hitherto porous delineation between right and left and created two distinct political blocs, as in the United States. Given that the main fault line between the opposing camps isn’t ideological as much as personal, i.e. pro or anti-Bibi, the resemblance seems more pertinent than ever before.

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The analogy between Trump’s GOP and Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is far from perfect, but nonetheless also easy to make. Both are dominated by charismatic personalities who base their political power on intensely loyal political bases consumed by a cult of personality.

Netanyahu’s coalition is comprised of a Likud core of lower- and middle-class Israelis who feel eternally deprived and aggrieved by so-called “elites”. They are aligned with ultranationalists and archconservatives with more than a sprinkling of chauvinists, xenophobes and outright racists as well as religious Jews spanning from moderate to the zealously inclined. It’s an electorate that Republicans, mutatis mutandis, should by now be intimately familiar with.

The Israeli center-left is another matter altogether. The deep split between Jews and Arabs carved by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates an unbridgeable gap, alienating the supposedly liberal Israeli left from Israel’s largest and most underprivileged minority. The virtual and ongoing Democratic National Convention, in which minorities are not only embraced but incorporated into the party’s soul and identity, provides a stark contrast.

In this image from video, New Mexico State Rep. Derrick Lente speaks during the state roll call vote on second night of the Democratic National Convention, August 18, 2020.Credit: ,AP

Compounding the left’s predicament is the undeniable fact that most if not all of the minorities and other underprivileged or aggrieved groups in Israeli society – including Haredim, North Africans, Jews and non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, as well as the bulk of lower-income Israelis and the poor – are all firmly ensconced, for various historical and demographic reasons, inside the right-wing camp. In Israel, it is Netanyahu who heads the so-called “coalition of the downtrodden,” while the center-left is comprised in the main of better-off, middle and upper-class Israelis. It’s as if the Democratic Party was left with only its white, liberal, theoretically progressive and generally well-to-do component.

The lack of a constituent minority and the alienation from Israeli Arabs make the Israeli left into rebels with hardly a cause. As a result, the left has increasingly concentrated its efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent decades and has neglected, if not abandoned, its social-democratic origins and creed along with its will to fight for social equality. Rather than serve as a proponent of sweeping and much-needed reforms, the left has become a champion of the existing status quo.

The demise of the once-powerful Labor Party, which could very well cease to exist before or after the next election, symbolizes the disappearance of the clear line that once divided the socially conscious center-left from the ostensibly free-market capitalist right.

The relegation of the social justice agenda to the sidelines has also impacted the fight for women’s rights. Their cause is disdained by mostly male center-left politicians, in stark contrast to the Democrats, where full gender equality is taken for granted and is now being showcased up, front and center throughout the virtual spectacle of the Democratic Convention.

Center-left followers of the nightly two-hour DNC broadcasts can only marvel at the sweeping social reforms, in health, education, tax distribution, government-funded initiatives and more, proposed, argued, adopted and promoted by the party and its leaders. While the battle between left and right in Israel is mostly confined to the future of the occupied territories and whether Netanyahu is hero or villain, Democrats and the GOP are distinctly split and diametrically opposed in their entire worldviews, including economic and social policies.

But what should really fill Israeli center-leftists with intense jealousy, and even rage, is that the two-party system compels Democrats, like Republicans, to choose a single leader and, as the DNC is trying to project, to unite all its disparate factions behind them, despite their differences. Israel’s multi-party proportional system creates a formidable stumbling block to a united front, but one that was more logical and acceptable in an ideological past, when even the slightest differences in policy split movements apart and justified the creation of new and separate others.

Bernie Sanders (L) and Joe Biden during the Democratic Party primary debate, 2020.Credit: Matt Rourke,AP

The days of rigid ideologists who navigated tortuous political ways, however, are long gone, never to return. Ideology may still rule on the fringes, but today’s center-left mainstream is ideologically amorphous and pragmatic in practice. Lacking a distinct ideological core, the center-left is mostly defined by its resistance to the values and policies pursued by its right-wing rivals, focusing on the occupation and on the ongoing battle against religious coercion.

The center-left elevated defense of the rule of law to the top of its priorities only as a reaction to Netanyahu’s assault on the legal system that decided to prosecute him for corruption. It is the center-left’s consistently growing antipathy to Netanyahu that unites its separate factions and provides the fuel for whatever is left of its drive.

It is the burning desire to see Netanyahu defeated that galvanized the center-left in the three previous elections held this year, compelling it to unite behind Benny Gantz and leaving it abandoned and forlorn when the Kahol Lavan leader split his party in two and committed the cardinal sin of reneging on his main campaign pledge and joining Netanyahu in a broad-based coalition.

Benny Gantz (L) sits alone while Miri Regev, Shir Cohen and Tzahi Braverman huddle around PM Netanyahu, during a special government meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If Israel went to the polls tomorrow, the center-left would split into four separate parties at the very least: Kahol Lavan and its remnants, including the Labor Party, led by Gantz or possibly Gabi Ashkenazi; Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, who now fancies himself Netanyahu’s chief rival; Meretz or some other Zionist-left configuration; and the predominantly Arab Joint List, if its four constituent parties manage to remain joint. If you believe persistent rumors, a new and non-affiliated list of well-known Israeli personalities could also join the fray, splintering the center-left even more.

The significance of the four- or five-way split is that no single center-left party can even come close to the Likud in terms of Knesset seats nor can its leaders legitimately lay claim to the title of Netanyahu’s main challenger. The center-left’s hostility towards Netanyahu and its abiding fear of his destructive assault on democracy, the rule of law and sound governance is no less pervasive or powerful than the Democrats’ aversion to Trump; nonetheless a show of unity that even comes close to the show put on by organizers of the Democratic Convention remains nothing more than a pipe dream.

Joe Biden may not win the elections, but at this point at least, it won’t be for his party’s lack of trying. The Israeli center-left’s prospects of defeating Netanyahu are low from the outset but as things stand now, it will only have itself and its superfluous internal splits and divisions to blame for its impending loss. Netanyahu’s opponents can only gaze at the Democrats’ virtual hoopla, united behind Biden in adamant opposition to Trump, and cry out in jealousy and anguish.