Yes, Netanyahu Won, but Left-wingers Have Reasons for Optimism

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Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.Credit: AP

Now that the initial shock of the Knesset election results is behind us and, with the perspective of a week, it’s possible to find reasons for optimism — even for those to the left of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Although Netanyahu has been prime minister for the past six years, his governments have represented a mix of political views. In 2009, the Labor Party was in the governing coalition. After the 2013 election Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid were central parts of the government. The result was policy that was inconsistent. For Netanyahu, who is a master of political maneuver, it was an ideal situation. Israel under his leadership wanted negotiations with the Palestinians but of the kind that would be conducted without results to show.

In the government that he is about to form, Netanyahu will discover the weakness of power. In other words, because he is actually more powerful than ever, he will finally be judged on the basis of policies that are not vague or ambivalent. In this context, and against the backdrop of a search for an explanation for the failure of the left to capture the reins of government, a simple fact should be noted. Left-wing political upsets (Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999) took place only by defeating narrow right-wing governments. In other words, policies that are clearly right-wing must be put to the test before the public can be asked to vote for an alternative.

Another favorable point is the fact that the right-wing government due to take office is committed to socioeconomic change oriented toward social justice. This is an unusual turn of events. The Israeli right wing, certainly under Netanyahu, has a capitalist outlook. The changes in the Israeli economy began before Likud unseated the Labor Party for the first time in 1977, but since then there has been a tendency toward privatization and a retreat from state responsibility for society, a tendency that has strengthened in recent decades.

Because of Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, the apparent future finance minister who competed with Yair Lapid for support from centrist voters, the economic direction of the government will be different. Kahlon’s dominance in the government along with the commitment of the two ultra-Orthodox parties not only to the Torah world but also to the weaker segments of the population create a rare opportunity to address social problems. Likudniks themselves recognize the need to focus on social reform in this term — a theme that was also reflected in Netanyahu’s victory speech. What is noteworthy this time around is that the policy shift for the benefit of the weaker populations is intended to be implemented by those same weaker elements.

The fact that the election result opened a floodgate of emotions and topics that had been repressed — communal relations, attitudes toward the media and of course the racist dimension — is also important. A line has been drawn between controversial comments by Netanyahu regarding Arabs and racist comments made by Professor Amir Hetzroni toward Mizrahim [Jews of Middle East origin]. But the left wing is at a central juncture regarding its approach to racism. If people on the left are interested in self-examination, they have to start with the fact that condemnation of Netanyahu’s remarks about Arabs is not sufficient.

The entry into the political arena of Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties and the Jewish-Arab Hadash party, is a highly important and refreshing phenomenon, which should enrich public discourse. On the eve of the election, it was understandable that the Zionist Union would be hesitant to declare readiness to enter a coalition with the Arabs since that would be interpreted as too sharp a departure from the mainstream. Now, however, the left has four years to bequeath to the public the concept, which needs to be natural, that next time around there will be a coalition of the Arabs and the left.

In the past, the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox in the coalition with the right wing was seen as unnatural. Just as that is now perfectly natural, so too the Arabs are an integral part of the left-wing camp and should come to be seen that way. Such a linkup will not only promote coexistence, but will also help remove a stumbling block for the left by shattering that camp’s Ashkenazi, non-Sephardi image.

And of course half the population is happy about Netanyahu’s victory. Maybe the other half also has a few reasons for optimism.

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