The Real Reason Israel’s Left Keeps Losing

This week's election is more bad news for the Israeli left, after two years of a near-total collapse of popular support. How on earth did we end up here? Could a new left, committed to full equality for all, still arise?

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Protesters at the last weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem ahead of the March general election
Protesters at the last weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem ahead of the March general election.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Ben Reiff
Ben Reiff

For those parties identified as being on the Israeli left, the story of four election cycles in two years has been one of near-total collapse.

Round one saw Labor plummet from 24 seats (as the Zionist Union in 2015) to just 6, before registering only 3 seats of its own in round three as part of a union with Gesher and Meretz. That Labor’s current position in the polls – around 5 or 6 seats – is being heralded as a remarkable success attests to the severity of the demise of a party that was once the dominant force in Israeli politics.

Meretz, for its part, has fared no better: in its various iterations over the past three cycles, it has failed to attain more than four seats. In election number four, according to plenty of recent polls, it may not even muster the minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset at all.

As for the Joint List, fortunes have been mixed. Despite achieving a historic high of 15 seats in round two, its internal tensions have once again proved insurmountable. Having shed Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am, the Joint List is not expected to surpass eight or nine seats in round four, and the aura of excitement that surrounded the party just a year ago has largely dissipated.

Looking at the big picture, the twenty-fourth Knesset is set to have the highest proportion of right-wing representation in Israel’s history by some way. Polls are showing that up to 80 of the Knesset’s 120 seats could be going to parties identified as being on the right – including, for the first time since 1984, disciples of the ultra-right Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane.

Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party head Itamar Ben Gvir alongside Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism list as they greet supporters in Jerusalem.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

So how on earth did we end up here?

First of all, it is worth interrogating what exactly we mean when we talk about "left" and "right" in Israel. Since the late 1980s, left/right self-identification has been reduced almost exclusively to one’s stance vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue, and specifically the two-state solution. As such, economic or class issues have little to do with concepts of right and left in Israel today.

Consider the fact that several parties identified as being on the right tend to promote a more socialist economic policy in terms of government subsidies – albeit only for specific sectors of the population (i.e. those attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivot or living in West Bank settlements). Working-class voters have comprised the base of support for right-wing parties in Israel since long before this phenomenon became a feature of the recent global wave of right-wing populism.

Following the collapse of Oslo and the violence of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, the defining feature of Israeli politics has been the decline of the "left" and the emergence of the "center." In other words, significant numbers of Israelis who had previously been supportive of a two-state solution grew more sceptical, and embraced much of the security-first rhetoric of the "right."

In the past three election cycles, this centrist force has been represented by Benny Gantz’s Kachol Lavan party. Had it not been for the naivety of Gantz, a political novice, Kachol Lavan may well have succeeded in ousting Netanyahu given its impressively strong showing in each round. But Gantz’s decision to enter into a coalition with his adversary – the one thing he promised his voters he would never do – has decimated Kachol Lavan’s support ahead of round four. 

Yair Lapid, head of Israel's opposition Yesh Atid party, campaigns with fortune cookies in the city of Hod Hasharon this month.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

While Gantz’s former running mate, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, has picked up the mantle and now leads the centrist opposition to Netanyahu, many of Gantz’s former voters have found a new home this time around: anti-Bibi parties on the self-identified "right" – namely Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, and even Naftali Bennett’s not-so- Bibiphobic Yamina. 

As a result, a significant number of Israelis who previously identified as leftists, before coming to identify as centrists, will this week be casting their votes for parties on the right. 

So what accounts for this dramatic decline in fortunes for the so-called left camp in Israel? As mentioned, there have of course been exogenous factors such as the impact on the Jewish-Israeli psyche of the collapse of peace negotiations and the intensification of Palestinian armed resistance. However, what essentially amounts to a two-year long election campaign has laid bare the contradictions inherent in the left-identified parties themselves for all to see.

Israeli Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli speaks at her party's election conference in Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv this monthCredit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

Firstly, with the exception of the Joint List’s Hadash, the "left" does not represent the working class in Israel. Despite their socialist roots, Labor and Meretz (and their forebears) have overwhelmingly embraced the right’s neoliberalism and privatization policies since the 1970s, such that they now represent little more than the Ashkenazi liberal elite of Gush Dan and the privatized kibbutzim.

The economic crisis engendered by the coronavirus pandemic presented an opportunity for these parties to re-center class issues and become a voice for the 700,000 unemployed and the two million living under the poverty line; instead, their silence left a vacuum which the liberal right was only too glad to fill. 

The Balfour protest movement illustrates this perfectly: despite mobilizing thousands of Israelis each week to take to the streets in opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu, the "center-left" camp failed to capitalize on the economic distress that many traditionally "right-wing" voters were experiencing, elevating the goal of replacing Netanyahu above all other demands, including economic ones.

Anti-Netanyahu protesters at the weekly Balfour Street demonstrations in Jerusalem last weekCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This has resulted, as we have seen, not in bringing new voters into the center-left camp, but rather in hemorrhaging center-left voters to the right.

Second, the "left" doesn’t represent Mizrahim. This is part of the DNA of the Zionist left and especially of Labor, whose policies in government at the time of mass Mizrahi immigration in the 1950s led to vast discrimination and inequality which still persist to this day. Parties within the Joint List have, at certain historical moments, embraced the Mizrahi struggle in part, but today it barely features on the party’s agenda – and nor that of Meretz. 

Labor has tried in various ways to make amends for its past mistreatment of Mizrahim through issuing apologies to the Mizrahi population and even having Mizrahim lead the party. But it will take more than superficial acts like these to win back Mizrahi voters en masse.

Protesters at the entrance gate of Kibbutz Nir David, in which the Asi Stream is located, Friday, August 14, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Consider, for example, the lack of solidarity from the so-called left with the residents of predominantly-Mizrahi Beit She’an and Afula who have been prevented access to the Asi River, which flows through predominantly-Ashkenazi Kibbutz Nir David. So long as the parties of the "left" remain ideologically and structurally bound to institutions that perpetuate Mizrahi-Ashkenazi inequality, their support will come only from those who benefit from this inequality rather than from those seeking distributive justice.

Third, the very existence of a unified list of ideologically diverse Arab-led parties is proof enough that the other parties of the "left" have failed to represent Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

Arab voters who pushed Meretz over the threshold in the first of these recent elections were rewarded by seeing Arab candidates bumped down the party’s list of representatives when it united with other parties ahead of rounds two and three, while party leader Nitzan Horowitz has rejected initiatives from party members who would like to see Meretz become a Jewish-Arab party.

Meanwhile, the highest-placed Arab candidate on Labor’s list won only the seventh spot, making it likely that all of Labor’s MKs after the election will be Jewish. 

Meretz campaign poster on a bus with the slogan: 'If there's no Meretz [in the Knesset] he [Netanyahu] has 61 [coalition members, including far right and Haredim, enabling him to form a government]Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In recent weeks, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been taking to the streets to protest the inaction of the government and the police in the face of unfettered violence in Arab towns and cities. Their demand is basic: simply that the state start valuing Arab lives equally to Jewish lives. 

Yet where is the Zionist left? If Arab-Palestinian citizens and their interests were truly represented by the other parties of the left (in other words, if Jewish-Arab political partnership were a reality), they would have no need to organize themselves independently just to make their voices heard in Israeli politics.

Finally, the "left" has been unable to move on from the failure of the Oslo framework and the collapse of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, nor to account for its own complicity therein. The flurry of recent normalization agreements has reinforced this failure by undermining the peace camp’s core belief, while proving that Netanyahu was right all along: Israel need not end its occupation in order to normalize relations with Arab states. 

Rather than presenting a new vision around which to mobilize people again in support of a just peace, however, the so-called left camp remains wedded to a separation paradigm that looks less and less viable with every passing day.

It insists on trying to resurrect Yitzhak Rabin by turning to army general after army general to lead the camp back to its former glory, while large parts of the camp remain unable to fathom the possibility that the IDF’s actions in the occupied territories may warrant investigation by the ICC (both of which further reinforce alienation of Palestinian citizens from the so-called left). 

The path to rebuilding the left in Israel is clear; indeed, the seeds are already being sown in the sphere of civil society, and it is only a question of whether enough people are willing and able to tread it. 

It lies in bringing together a wide coalition of all those who are marginalized by the present status quo in Israeli society and politics. It must be committed to full equality for all, which means striving to end the occupation while working towards real economic and social equality in Israel. Building a new, true left means bringing all of these communities and programs together in a united front; neglecting any of them would be a recipe for continued irrelevance.

With this week’s election likely to result in another stalemate, a total reconfiguration of the Israeli left may be the only thing that can break the cycle. 

Ben Reiff is a postgraduate student in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford, and the head of English communications for the grassroots Jewish-Arab socialist movement, Standing Together. Twitter: @bentreyf