Imagine that Bernie Sanders had fallen in love with Israel during his brief 1963 sojourn in a kibbutz and had made aliyah instead of heading back home. Perhaps he would have Hebraized his name to Dov Alexander (if he goes by Sanders) or Benjamin Shem Tov (if he prefers his father’s original surname Gitman). It’s hard to say how Sanders would have fared, but one thing is certain: If he had gone into politics, he would have been ejected long ago.
Radical left-wing firebrands like Sanders were prevalent since the early days of Zionism and well into the first two-three decades of Israel’s existence, when the socialist Mapai party and its satellites to the left dominated Israeli politics. But the old guard failed to produce worthy heirs, the gifted orators of party Central Committee meetings were felled by slicker politicians who mastered TV and then social media, ideology succumbed to expediency and the left began its extended slide into irrelevance.
The services of socialist ideologues such as Sanders, who may emerge as the Democratic frontrunner if current polls about the February 3 Iowa caucuses are borne out, are no longer in demand in Israel. Sanders’ stump-style politics are obsolete, his share-the-wealth proto-socialism is anachronistic, his ideals of social justice are seen as naive and his demand for Palestinian statehood and an “even-handed” U.S. approach to peacemaking are considered treacherously beyond the pale.
When the 22-year-old Sanders was working the fields at Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim, the parties that comprised today’s so-called leftist bloc had a solid 61-seat majority in the fifth Knesset. In September’s election, their successors in Labor and Meretz garnered 11 Knesset seats. If the two parties don’t get their act together and agree to merge before Wednesday’s midnight deadline for submitting candidate lists for the March 2 ballot, both could fall short of the 3.25percent threshold. The last remnants of Israel’s once predominant labor movement would disappear.
But it’s not just Sanders. The entire Democratic Party would struggle to find a place in Israel’s political arena today. Some of its more centrist figures, from Joe Biden to Amy Klobuchar, might have found a slot on the left wing flanks of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, but most would be fighting for their lives over the meager pickings of Labor and Meretz. The Democrats’ focus on minority rights, social justice, separation of church and state, the rule of law, along with their aversion to military entanglements, would place them well to the left of the Israeli mainstream.
One need look no further than the recent Pew Research poll in which Israel was second only to the Philippines in its love for Donald Trump. Seventy-one percent of Israelis said they “have confidence” in Trump’s handling of global affairs compared to 29 percent who said they didn’t. Outside of his Republican Party, Trump would be hard pressed to find such a dedicated and loyal fan club anywhere. And this was before Trump’s approval rating undoubtedly soared following last week’s killing of Iranian strongman Qassem Soleimani, which was met with widespread approval by Israelis long accustomed to so-called “targeted killings”.
With such disdain for the values espoused by Democrats and such admiration for a president that most Democrats despise, Israel could itself be seen as one Grand Old Party, with Democrats relegated to the sidelines. If one continues with the trans-Atlantic transference, the upcoming March 2 election can be viewed as a battle between the GOP as it used to be and the Republican Party as it has mutated under Trump. In essence, the election pits the Never Trumpers, led by Benny Gantz, to the Israeli version of Trumpkins, whose main allegiance is to their party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Gantz’s Kahol Lavan is often depicted as “center-left,” but it is nothing of the sort. It is led by three hawkish former military chiefs of staff – Gantz, Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. The “leftist” part of Kahol Lavan is supposedly represented by the fourth member of the party’s ruling quartet, Yair Lapid, who blanches at the thought. In reality, Lapid represents the Israeli upper middle class and its worldview, has never shown any special interest in workers’ rights or social justice and is one of the most vociferous critics of left-wing Israeli dissent.
Gantz can himself be seen as an amalgam of well-known Republican figures: He is an amiable army general with a reputation for integrity who was parachuted into a top spot in politics, like Dwight Eisenhower. He is a moderate, tongue-tied but resolute hawk with extensive experience in national security, like George H.W. Bush. His values are deeply rooted in his religious beliefs and even his foes concede his basic decency, like Mitt Romney.
Seen in this light, the Gantz-Netanyahu faceoff can be compared to a theoretical Romney-Trump showdown. Like Gantz, Romney would accentuate his tough foreign and defense policy credentials. Like Gantz, Romney would depict his rival as a corrupt inciter and divider, an enemy of democracy and a threat to the rule of law. Like Gantz, Romney would appeal to his voters’ patriotism and love of country, pledging a return to the supposedly sane old days before Trump’s meshugas distorted the GOP and all it stands for.
Romney, like Gantz, would be depicted by Trump as a traitor to the cause, a leftist in Republican drag, an enemy of “the real America” and a witting or unwitting agent of the sinister leftist conspiracy that seeks to oppress the downtrodden, which only Trump can combat. He would be subjected to a concerted social-media campaign of innuendo and smears, disseminated by supposedly unknown groups whose roots are quickly traced back to their source in the White House. He would be enthusiastically backed by those who view Trump as a mortal danger to America and vociferously attacked by others who worship the ground Trump walks on.
If Gantz wins – an unreasonable assumption if Meretz and Labor don’t unite – leftists will rejoice, just as the Sanders/Warren wing would rejoice if, say, Michael Bloomberg were to be the Democratic candidate who defeated Trump. After the festivities die down, however, and memory of Trump’s traumatic years recedes, the so-called “radical” lefties in the Democratic Party would realize they had simply replaced their new nemesis with an old rival.
The same sentiment will prevail in Israel’s beleaguered left if Gantz is elected prime minister. Israeli leftists would welcome the return of so-called “normalcy” – Israeli politics were never completely sane – but gradually come to realize that Netanyahu’s defeat does not spell a “leftist” victory in any way, shape or form.
In a best-case scenario – which is nothing to sneeze at – Gantz will buttress the legal system, reintroduce decency and integrity to governance, try to mend the ruptures inflicted by Netanyahu on Israel’s internal cohesion, mend relations with Europe, give Palestinians a fairer shake and reverse the slide in Israel’s image from liberal democracy to stifling autocracy.
But the battle for the ideology espoused by what remains of the Israeli left – including a two-state solution, equality and integration of the Arab minority, religious pluralism, social justice, government interventions and greater economic equality – for all of these issues, the left will have to live to fight another day.
Our Israeli Sanders might briefly reconsider a comeback to politics, but would quickly realize that his time, along with that of other anti-establishment revolutionaries of the same ilk, had come and gone, never to return. For old-style socialist Jews, the adage “only in America” once again holds true.