Israeli leftists woke up on Thursday morning to a Bizarro World in which “Us Do Opposite of All Earthly Things”, as its inhabitants say in Superman. On this peculiar planet, the left unites instead of splintering, stuck-up politicians like Ehud Barak stifle their ego for a cause and Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents don’t insist on paving his way to power. In such surreal surroundings, the left grows accustomed to good tidings whereas back on Earth their staple choice is between bad and awful.
The newly announced alliance between left wing Meretz and Barak’s recently established Democratic Israel, brokered by Labor’s feisty Stav Shaffir, is unnatural in and of itself. Meretz is an ideological entity committed to civil rights, complete equality for Israel’s Arab minority and a two-state solution while Barak has been all over the place, from left to right, hawk or dove depending on circumstance and one of the politicians most despised by Israeli Arabs. By all accounts, the two are an odd couple indeed.
Besides the astute and resolute intervention by Shaffir, two main factors brought Barak and Meretz to conclude their marriage of convenience: The first is the realization that in the September 17 elections, the only relevant ideology is the left’s fervent wish to rid Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu. The second was formulated in the 18th Century by Samuel Johnson, who famously said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
In fact, the novel leftist alliance may owe its creation, first and foremost, to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was concurrently found injured in his jail cell in Manhattan. Barak’s refusal to elaborate on the nature of his ties to Epstein in the wake of the disgraced financier’s recent arrest in New York effectively derailed the former prime minister’s bid to cast himself as a contender for the throne and moved his party Democratic Israel perilously close to the 3.25% threshold gallows. His options were encapsulated in another 18th century luminary’s admonition "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately", as Benjamin Franklin once said.
Nonetheless, Barak managed to surprise even his harshest critics by accepting the perilous 10th spot on the new list, dubbed “Democratic Union”, and by relinquishing his demand to get first pick in any theoretical cabinet that the party may join. Whether his out-of-character move was motivated by altruism, fear of failure or the need to escape relentless questioning about Epstein, Barak set a new and hitherto unknown benchmark for his colleagues: Sacrifice in the name of a higher cause, namely Netanyahu’s defeat.
Barak’s move might also be seen as sweet revenge on Labor leader Amir Peretz, who had previously ruled out any merger with both the former prime minister and Meretz. The defection of the popular Shaffir, with more Laborites waiting in the wings to follow her, is Peretz’s reward for recruiting former Lieberman ally Orly Levy-Abuksis and for refusing to absolutely rule out any future collaboration with Netanyahu. Instead of Barak and his allies, it is now Peretz and his Labor remnants who may soon find themselves hovering near the dreaded 3.25% threshold and it is they who must decide whether to risk it alone or to join the newly-established leftist coalition.
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While the Meretz-Barak-Shaffir consortium may push former Meretz-voters in the Arab community to jump ship because of their aversion to Barak and their unwillingness to forgive or forget the 12 Arab demonstrators killed by Israeli police in 2000 when he was prime minister, the new union provides a convenient catchall address for undecided Jewish center-left voters. It might also galvanize hitherto apathetic leftist voters to trouble themselves to the polls, for a change.
More importantly, perhaps, the formation of a new alliance gives a long-awaited shot in the arm to the entire center-left camp, which had hitherto viewed the September 17 ballot as a lost cause. The unfamiliar good news could ignite the center-left with renewed momentum, or as George H W Bush said after winning Iowa in the 1980 Republican primaries “We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics." It’s a flawed precedent, of course, given that Bush went on to lose the Republican race to Ronald Reagan.
Nonetheless, the new leftist alliance will put Netanyahu and the right on the defensive. Coupled with Lieberman’s move from the right to a non-aligned center, it will increase Netanyahu’s apprehensions about a possible defeat in the elections, and thus drive him to escalate his tactics and rhetoric against his opponents. It will instill among center-leftists a new belief in the possibility of victory, a truly bizarro sentiment given Netanyahu’s four out of four record in recent elections. If worst comes to worst and the actual results on September 17 are the same, leftists will thank Barak and his new allies for allowing them to smell the sweet fragrance of victory in the 54 days that remain.