Why Did the Right Win the Jackpot?

Stav Shaffir
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Ballots being counted in Israel's last election in April 2020
Stav Shaffir

The year 2020 opened with stormy demonstrations around the world to fight for the climate, and ends with a struggle against lockdowns, collapsing economies and question marks about the future. In Israel the year began with elections and it’s ending with elections, with no decisive end in sight. Only one thing is clear: 2020 demonstrated that liberal ideas were winners, but the right took the jackpot. How did that happen?

The public health system, which in recent years has been attacked from the right with cutbacks in services and defunding, is now vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people at the fastest rate in the world. The Nehemia Shtrasler types, who for years backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to increase public health spending despite the shortage of hospital beds and personnel, especially in outlying areas, must now admit that we need a functioning welfare system.

In the diplomatic realm, after the threat of annexation and the endless obsequiousness toward the settlers, the diplomatic achievement of the decade is the peace agreements with several Arab states. Spoiler alert: The defense and economic cooperation and the normalization of Jewish-Arab relations in the region will in the end lead to understandings with the Palestinians. It’s just a matter of time.

Even from the environmental perspective there was a change. Aside from the coronavirus, which was apparently also connected to the climate crisis, 2020 broke records for heat waves, storms, and wildfires in the Amazons and Australia. Netanyahu’s promise at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit two weeks ago that by 2050 Israel would stop using oil, coal and gas many not be sufficient, but it shows that even the right understands that the future lies with renewable energy.

Peace, welfare, sustainability – remind me, who has always been promoting these principles? That’s right, us, the proud social democrats. This year, a challenging one for humanity, has shown how relevant those principles are. The right hasn’t managed to come up with an alternative to these values, so they began implementing them and then tried to claim ownership and disparage those who brought them into the political arena.

There’s another thing we learned this year: The Americans showed us that it’s possible to triumph over an unbridled populist and replace him. Here, on the right, even those who have remained silent for years in the face of Netanyahu’s actions began to understand that an accused criminal cannot remain in office. (And they won’t do much about that after the election.)

The protest for democracy managed to pressure MKs enough to break up the government. In theory, there was great hope for those who believe in equality, peace and sustainability, Israel’s democratic camp. So how come the right, some of which is blatantly anti-democratic, gets 80 seats in opinion polls, while the democrats are wallowing in their own blood?

There’s a layer of mold stuck on the veteran left-wing parties. With their refusal to renew themselves and battle with the right, they have lost the confidence of the public. Only this week the Knesset Finance Committee transferred millions of shekels to religious and settler projects; this is election bribery. MK Betzalel Smotrich (Yamina) rushed to encourage Sheffi Paz, who threatened children in a preschool for asylum seekers. Does the left dare to enter these struggles and fight? No, they are more interested in fighting with each other and blocking potential rivals from gaining a place on the slate.

The right has actually rejuvenated itself, but from an evolutionary perspective it’s moving backward: From Menachem Begin and his concern for the weak and the disenfranchised, it is now running on the platform of power, money and status. The settlers, who were being perceived as delusional and detached, now have a new face from Ra’anana to conquer the mainstream. Netanyahu’s rhetoric has changed, adopting the fascist populism that’s spreading abroad.

The democratic camp is frozen; it is still desperately seeking Yitzhak Rabin, and doesn’t fight for anything. The left is coming to the 2021 elections tired, even though its prophecies have come true. It has two choices: Either die, or get up and renew itself. Forget petty politics and start fighting for the things we believe in, before the right appropriates those as well.

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