Usually, when Israelis speak of Left and Right, they are differentiating mainly between security hawks and peace-camp doves—not between liberals and conservatives in general, or in the American or European sense. By this definition, Israel's left wing is in a sorry state.
From Israel's founding in 1948 until Likud's upset victory in 1977, every government was headed by Labor, which once had its own hawkish wing. Not until Likud's defeat in 1992 did a Left coalition return to power, with the Labor and Meretz parties garnering 56 out of 120 parliamentary mandates; this comeback paved the way for the ill-fated Oslo accords. Since then, the Left has succeeded in electing only one government, which, under the brief, calamitous, stewardship of Ehud Barak, culminated in the second intifada.
Were elections to be held now, every survey shows that Israel's left wing would gain no further ground, and that Labor and Meretz would struggle even to hold onto their current sixteen seats in the Knesset. Nor would the center-left Kadima party, which is running neck and neck with center-right Likud, be able to form a coalition government.
The political historian Colin Shindler has traced the beginnings of the Zionist Left's gradual fragmentation and decrepitude all the way back to Hamas's suicide-bombing campaign in the spring of 1994, within scant months of the Rabin-Arafat peace ceremony on the White House lawn. Today, as the ideological assault against Israel mounts internationally, the Zionist Left finds itself bereft of arguments.
Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University, a columnist for Haaretz, has complained that the Left gets no credit for having been the first to support the establishment of a Palestinian state, an idea now accepted by all; but he also worries that his fellow leftists, by refusing to admit that they were "partially wrong" about the Palestinians, have created an impression of having broken faith with the Israeli mainstream. It is more than an impression: most Israelis do accept the idea of a Palestinian state, but with trepidation; the Left does so with enthusiasm—and, unlike the mainstream, tends to believe that a peace deal will satisfy Palestinian aspirations once and for all. More honestly than Strenger, the journalist Gershom Gorenberg has acknowledged that Israel's mainstream simply does not trust the peace camp to do a proper job of protecting the country's interests at the negotiating table.
Beyond policy issues, the Zionist Left has also been poorly led. Ehud Barak, the current head of Labor, is widely detested, and his party is gearing up for a bruising leadership contest. Meretz leader Haim Oron has been unable to fill the shoes of his predecessor Yossi Sarid. Nor are the Left's prospects brightened by the initiatives being pursued by extra-parliamentary left-wing groups patently out of step with the national consensus.
The Gush Shalom movement, for instance, has made a hero of the nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu, is in the forefront of the campaign to boycott products produced over the Green Line, and supports the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel proper (by, to be sure, "mutual agreement"). Yesh Gvul and Courage to Refuse have urged army conscripts and reservists to dodge military service over the Green Line. The European-funded Geneva Initiative, spearheaded by Oslo architect Yossi Beilin, offers a fanciful platform intended somehow to reconcile Israel's security needs with the uncompromising Arab Peace Initiative. Peace Now champions a Palestinian state in the territories "occupied as a result of the 1967 war," with no reference to settlement blocs that by common consensus will remain Israeli under any conceivable agreement.
Consensus is the relevant word: the plain fact is that the country has shifted to a consensus position on security issues. The new viable "Left" is Kadima and the new viable "Right" is Likud, and the two are not at all far apart . In tone, Kadima is positioned softer, Likud is positioned tougher; but no profound issues of principle divide Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu.
So is the Labor-Meretz Left not only dead but buried? Certainly, any uptick in Arab terror will send Israelis further into the arms of the Right. But specific events at home—recent examples include the move to legislate loyalty oaths for Palestinian Arabs seeking to marry Arab citizens of Israel, or the eviction of Palestinian families from their dwellings in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood—have the potential, at least temporarily, to galvanize left-wing forces. The Labor party could also be resuscitated by a new leader like Shelly Yachimovich, who has carved out a populist niche for herself in the Knesset by downplaying the peace camp's discredited security positions while focusing instead on social and economic inequities.
And then there is this: the parliamentary Left may be down and out, but the Left that dominates the Israeli judiciary, the media and the arts, the educational system and other large parts of the bureaucracy—that Left is another matter, and another story.
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