Israeli Left Has No Reason to Despair

Instead of heading for group therapy, those who are disappointed in the election results should note the steady erosion of support for religious and right-wing parties.

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram
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Zionist Union supporters wait for the appearance of Isaac Herzog at party headquarters in Tel Aviv after exit poll results, March 17, 2015.
Zionist Union supporters wait for the appearance of Isaac Herzog at party headquarters in Tel Aviv after exit poll results, March 17, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

There have been many articles lately that have very skillfully described the demise of secularism, liberalism, tolerance, and just about anything else you can think of, in Israel. It seems that the writers are mourning over the state that they had imagined and now, after it turns out that it won’t be like that, they are giving up and going into group therapy for the despairing.

If the existence of a strong and influential Meretz is the litmus test for the existence of liberal secularism of a Zionist hue, then perhaps those who raise the banner of despair are right. But if we look at the situation from a bird’s-eye view we understand that Israel has indeed changed, but the change is not one-dimensional.

Recent election campaigns have not been about a battle between right and left in the socioeconomic sense, and in almost all of them a new party came into the mix.

In 2006 Kadima appeared and won 29 Knesset seats after bringing over to it Likud voters and hurting Labor as well. The Pensioners’ Party, which popped up only to disappear, won seven seats and Likud crashed to only 12. But even then, the right-wing and religious bloc still had about 50 seats. In 2009 Kadima maintained its strength, Likud rallied, Labor declined to a low of 13 and the right-wing-religious bloc numbered 64 seats. In 2013, Yesh Atid entered the ring and won 19 seats and Habayit Hayehudi won 12, but the right wing and the religious bloc went down to 61. Then came the 2015 election; Kulanu entered the arena and won 10 seats, and the right-wing-religious bloc declined to 57 seats only; in other words, less than 50 percent of the Knesset’s members.

These figures do not justify despair and self-pity.

A demographic process is at work that is almost one-sided: The ultra-Orthodox and the religious are expanding their families at a faster rate than other populations. This process is not new, but few people ask themselves why the number of seats on the right, particularly of the religious factions, is not climbing correspondingly. It seems that Israeli society is experiencing a slow move from the religious-right to the parties that define themselves as centrist. The process of return to religion gains the most public attention, but we don’t know how many people leave the Orthodox fold. Perhaps this figure is what does not allow the religious parties to flourish as they had hoped?

True, the alternative to a right-wing-religious bloc is not the familiar, classic left, but it is the correct alternative for the State of Israel in the 21st century: Turning its back on the faith-based right wing; supporting a Jewish state that gives equality to all its citizens and seeks resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians and with some Arab states; protecting civil society and the independence of the justice system; and endorsing socioeconomic policies that express the state’s responsibility to its citizens and not just acceptance of market forces.

I have not included the Arab parties in the curve representing power and influence because meanwhile, by their own choice as well, they are not part of the future governing coalition, although their participation is important and a matter of principle.

Clearly the decline of the Israeli left stems from processes brought about by the occupation, diplomatic isolation and existential fear. But it does not call for despair. Rather it calls for an acceptable alternative that will change the norms that a government of the religious and the right wing will seek to inculcate. We should not deny the right-wing mood that is palpable in the street and the hostility toward Arabs and the left. These feelings exist, and they have roots in the Israeli experience. But the electoral picture shows an ongoing decline in right-wing and religious power.

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