Analysis |

New Israeli Center-left Alliance Should Take a Page Out of the American Politics Playbook

The left is learning that it needs to unite to beat the right, but if it wants to succeed in the long term, the Democratic Union can't be democratic in name only

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Ehud Barak, Stav Shaffir and Nitzan Horowitz launch their election campaign as the newly-formed alliance Democratic Union in Tel Aviv, July 25, 2019.
Ehud Barak, Stav Shaffir and Nitzan Horowitz launch their election campaign as the newly-formed alliance Democratic Union in Tel Aviv, July 25, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

An enormous and fundamental political battle is breaking out throughout the democratic world, and in Israel, too. The battle between forces based on conservatism and nationalism, which are challenging the values at the heart of the democratic system, and the liberal and progressive forces that want to defend them.

The independence of the legal and judicial systems, human rights wherever they may be, the status of women and the LGBT community, the separation of religion and state, environmental protection and welfare policy have become controversial values under global attack. This is the biggest political war of our generation; everything else is derived from it.

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To fight back in this era, it is only natural and logical that the political camps are now consolidating accordingly. Unions within broader camps, in this war between two competing fundamental world views, is a process that clarifies the voters' choices and empowers the groups against their rivals. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a good reason to do everything in his power to ensure that the right wing unites into slates that will pass the electoral threshold and not waste a single potential vote – and he won't hesitate to make use of any partner if it means victory.

The linking on Thursday morning between Meretz, Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel and those who left Labor is the beginning of a response to these efforts on the right. But on the left, much more than on the right, they always cling to the differences between the sub-sects – what we call the “purists.” Barak is problematic in their eyes for this and that, and Stav Shaffir is not good enough because of etcetera, etcetera – and so on and so forth. These analyses are usually accurate in their own right, and every candidate has their issues. Nothing is ever perfect, both in life and in politics. But this criticism does not in any way contradict, or need to contradict, unity on the basis of broader understandings.

There is no reason that large-scale mergers on the left and on the right can't preserve the important internal differences between members of the same camp. There's not a group in the world without its internal differences and struggles. These differences will not disappear, they will simply become inter-factional. What has to be truly important for those who are disappointed by the broad incorporation, not all of whose members reflect their positions, is the defense of the internal democratic processes of the camps. Or in other words: Building a democratic union within the Democratic Union.

Internal elections, in all their forms and with all their disadvantages, allow activists who care to shape the character of the camp. You think Barak or Shaffir are not good enough at fighting the occupation? With an internal mechanism, you can pressure them, steer them in the right direction or remove them. The union will still benefit from the strength of the largest team in the game, which isn't teetering on the electoral threshold, and whose activists can influence the figures who will represent them from within the party.

Consider the Democratic Party in the United States today. Sure, there's Joe Biden, but also Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. True, it’s not the same political system, but they prove it is possible to benefit from the power of a united camp together with the internal tension that shapes its image.

Regrettably, that is not what's happening today. More and more parties in Israel are becoming non-democratic and are giving up on the “complications” of the primary election system in favor of complete power for their leaders, who choose their representatives themselves and do with them what they wish. Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid are among the founders of this system, but many others from all sides have come down with the disease.

In practice, this has become the most common system in a period when parties are renouncing their old party mechanisms in an attempt find new solutions. It makes sense why this would happen when a new group or confederation is established and there are not enough time and activists to hold primaries. The party slate is set undemocratically in the shadows by power brokers – but this cannot become the status quo.

If the new Democratic Union of the left truly wants to build a serious and sustainable camp that promotes liberal values, it must soon integrate the internal democratic structures that will enable its supporters to influence its future character. This is the answer to all those who want a stronger left, but have their reservations about some of its present figures.

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