Opinion

Zionist Union Has a Story, and It’s a Bad One

The Israeli left has been going downhill ever since it abandoned the land- and nation-building that was championed by its giants of the past

Zionist Union leaders Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni at a meeting of the alliance's Knesset members, May 7, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

In an article in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition Tuesday, Chaim Levinson quoted Zionist Union Knesset members as saying they were “looking for an escape hatch” from that political alliance that’s about to crash. They (and he) are focusing on the shortcomings of Avi Gabbay, whose Labor Party is Zionist Union’s senior partner. They’re focusing on his lack of ability to unify the camp, his excessive use of gut instinct, and his organizational failures.

All these elements are there, but the critics focus only on them and ignore that the seeds of the crisis were sown about 50 years ago. It is since then, not since the all-out war going on today, that the party has been going downhill.

The Zionist-socialist camp led Israel during the War of Independence, and it pulled together all its abilities to establish the state based on its own path – Zionism’s activist path. In recent years, this camp has been stressing the other side of the coin, its mistakes and failures. But back then the light was immeasurably greater than the darkness. The people, including the parents of those who today excoriate the Zionist-socialist camp, had faith in it.

That camp also led Israel during the Six-Day War, which completed the War of Independence. But as opposed to 1949, in 1967 the camp stood perplexed and lacking energy. It adopted the regrets and whining of Israeli soldiers talking about the war in the book “The Seventh Day,” and not the call by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the leader of the United Kibbutz Movement, “to immediately establish 100 kibbutzim in the liberated territories” (his words).

“What will we do with this trouble?” – the areas of the homeland that had returned to our hands – Education Minister Zalman Aran asked at the time. And his spirit, and the spirit of most Labor Party ministers, overcame the vision of unifying the land and the Zionist obligation to settle it and bring masses of immigrants there.

“The spirit” was determined by people of small spirit, not those giants of spirit like writers S.Y. Agnon, Natan Alterman, Haim Hazaz, Moshe Shamir, Aharon Megged, Haim Gouri, Yaakov Orland, Eliezer Livneh and many others – most of them from the Labor camp – who signed the greater Land of Israel covenant.

The move away from this came at a price. The left-wing Mapam party, despite the sin of the “second homeland” – Mapam leader Yaakov Hazan’s words to the first Knesset to describe the Soviet Union – was at its roots and in its actions a pioneering party with deep Jewish foundations. Eventually these elements of its identity became blurred, and it linked up with entities that swallowed it and the land- and nation-building faith that was so basic to it.

Another forerunner of the Labor Party, Ahdut Ha’avoda, was the most activist element of the camp in areas of security and settlement. But it also diminished when it was swallowed without a trace by the Labor Party’s immediate forerunner, the Alignment, which was emptied of its original vision.

Still, a good many of the camp’s voters held fast, with some level of intensity, to the activist Zionist ideas. It took this group, which identified the extensive ideological changes the camp had undergone, 10 years (from 1967 to 1977) to overcome the psychological-political transformation and bring Likud to power. The main reason, unlike what’s usually thought, was not government corruption but the departure from the Zionist path that the camp had built and led.

Because it abandoned a precious water source to dig a series of broken cisterns that could not hold water, this camp is disappearing. All other interpretations, personal and organizational, are marginal and superficial. So is the (ultra-left) “story” that my Haaretz colleague Uri Misgav suggested over the weekend that the camp adopt in order to revive itself.

On the contrary, this story has been told extensively, with massive help from the media in its service, for 51 years now. This story – along with monumental diplomatic and security mistakes, which are its necessary outcome – is what has led the left from the frying pan into the fire.