Opinion

Israel's Democratic Union Fails to Take Off

Democratic Union members Stav Shaffir, Nitzan Horowitz and Yair Golan at Kibbutz Nir Oz, August 29, 2019.
\ Ilan Assayag

On the face of it, Meretz and Ehud Barak’s party, a.k.a. the Democratic Union – was expected to get more than 10 Knesset seats. Polls before the union predicted Meretz would get 4-5 seats, and most of them predicted Barak would cross the electoral threshold. The rest was supposed to come from the merger momentum and the renewed energy it generated.(For the latest election polls – click here)

Many Kahol Lavan voters were expected to throng to the Democratic Union, after seeing their leftist vote go to waste on eccentrics, spineless incompetents and just plain right wingers. Many Labor voters, who were disappointed with Amir Peretz’s association with Orli Levi-Abekasis, were expected to follow suit. But they didn’t.

The first reason for this is indeed the split between the Democratic Union and Labor. This split doesn’t stem from ideological differences, but from the most fundamental issue in Israel, the one that shapes opinions, life style and cultural viewpoints, as well as voting patterns: the ethnic rift.

>> Read more: For Israel's left it's 'anyone but the Mizrahim' | Opinion ■ Labor's Peretz sacrifices mustache to atone for sabotaging his own revolution | Opinion

It is almost inconceivable that in Israel of 2019, on the left there’s a party for Mizrahim, which, ironically, is Mapai’s evolutionary branch, and a separate party for Ashkenazim - the Democratic Union.

Granted, Peretz, with his recalcitrance, doomed the left to its present state in the spirit of the goofy Mizrahi caricature Salah Shabati, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame him entirely. Peretz, a politician who understands his people and tribe, acted on a mood he picked up on: Mizrahim, including complete left wingers, are repulsed by Meretz. They are incapable of voting for the party, regardless of its Ran Cohen past and the public housing law or its lively discourse on identity politics. This revulsion cannot be dismissed out of hand. It’s the voice of the people. Mizrahim have a problem with the liberal left in Israel. It is doubtful if the left will be able to solve it, because it is doubtful whether it recognizes and understands it.

Another reason is personal. I dare to guess that Nitzan Horowitz alone could lead Meretz to 5-6 Knesset seats. The sigh of relief a large part of potential voters heaved after the leadership change in this party cannot be underestimated. The addition of Barak and Stav Shaffir has yielded very little so far. Barak has followers, and rightly so: he’s the only man on the left with libido. On the other hand, the Israeli public is suspicious of him, also justifiably. Quite a few people, including some among the political or security elite, including lefties, mark him as a dangerous man. The way they talk about him is reminiscent of figures like General Kurtz of Apocalypse Now.

The third side of the triangle, Stav Shaffir, may attract votes, but also repels many of them. As her great achievement in Labor’s primary attests, she has a loyal camp who sees her as a courageous fighter. On the other hand, many see her as a loud, superficial person who also stirs a good deal of antagonism.

Another reason for the left’s shuffling feet is that the liberal left, not only in Israel, it so happens, is sometimes tempted to wage struggles that seem more like a parody of struggles. This week the Democratic Union posted a clip about operating a hotline for encroaching religious coercion (“if your child is ashamed to go to kindergarten because his parents don’t observe the Sabbath…it’s a red line!”). Without playing down the regret involved in the strengthening of messianic groups here, the campaign against religious coercion is overblown and hysterical, much the same as the personal hatred for Benjamin Netanyahu.

From the dawn of the state, Israeli citizens’ lives and deaths have been regulated by religion. This may be an outrageous fact, but over the years one process that has come about, is the secularization of the public sphere, as the bustling shopping centers on Shabbat show. Hunting gender-segregated events robs time and energy from the left’s two fundamental raisons d’etre. The first is the struggle against the occupation and racism and the second – safeguarding citizens’ welfare and survival with dignity. As long as the Democratic Union is preoccupied with smoking out religious coercion and fires in the Amazon, it will remain solely within the esoteric borders of its current sector.