Opinion

The Israeli Left’s Shallow Heir Apparent

Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party is devoid of principles, aside from the principle of ousting the right from power

The Meretz party's Tamar Zandberg speaking in February 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Zehava Galon’s announcement that she’s quitting the Meretz party’s leadership race naturally roused the most interest on the left, but her decision also affects the other side of the political spectrum. The Israeli right needs a worthy ideological opponent who can confront it with arguments that force it to return to its fundamental beliefs and ideological vision.

Yet in practice – mainly due to the reality that sent the Oslo Accords and the vision behind them to the grave, but also due to problems of leadership and basic values – the Israeli right currently has no strong ideological opponent.

This will make some people on the right happy, but it’s important to remember that a lack of intelligent debate from the opposition might lead to degeneration and a situation where the right neglects or forgets vital ideological aspirations. It’s no accident that currently many of the engines driving rightward shifts stem from internecine fights on the right, not responses to criticism or ideological processes on the left.

Was Galon a worthy ideological opponent? From time to time she did voice criticisms that Israel’s secular right identified with, but there weren’t many such moments. At other times, when she was trying to undermine the right, she sometimes slid into the lunatic left’s territory.

Still, Galon has a political integrity and backbone of principles that Tamar Zandberg (her heir apparent) lacks. Zandberg has one principle only, a consistent and populist one – it’s either us or them.

For instance, when the Knesset considered a bill to restrict the free daily Israel Hayom, which would have undermined freedom of expression and pluralism, Galon’s name bizarrely but admirably starred on the list of opponents, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi MK Moti Yogev. That certainly didn’t win her any votes among Meretz supporters. Zandberg, in contrast, absented herself from the vote.

In the debate over a law banning bookstores from offering steep discounts on new books, Zandberg adopted a vocal but shallow position that included the out-of-touch statement that “books aren’t tomatoes.” She sought to leave the law in place and the books on bookstore shelves. Culture Minister Miri Regev aptly retorted that books are food for the soul.

On both pieces of legislation, Zandberg expressed political shallowness, revealing how devoid she was of principles, aside from the principle of ousting the right from power. Populism is commonly thought of as a right-wing ill, but here we have an excellent left-wing example, and she isn’t the only one.

Zandberg has no deep, honest sentiment for values like freedom of expression or individual liberty. It’s enough to recall her opposition a few months ago to opening up Meretz’s ranks to understand that democracy and diversity aren’t her personal values.

Her influence on the political debate will surely be to make it even shallower and more extreme (“friends of Nazis”), something that won’t benefit either side. The left won’t be lifted, and the right will continue facing a political opponent that poses no ideological challenge but is merely full of slogans.

To use her own vocabulary, Zandberg isn’t the owner of a prestigious intellectual bookstore but the owner of a tomato stand whose prices are flexible, just like her principles. The right’s stability and future aren’t dependent on either her or Galon.

But the shift the Israeli left is going through and its Zandberg-style populism underscore how important it is for the right itself not to degenerate this way; it should strengthen a clear, intelligent ideology despite the lack of any suitable opposition. We can only hope that someone sets up a better-quality tomato stand alongside Zandberg’s.