Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters Tents on a main boulevard in Tel Aviv during a protest for social justice.

Israel's Left in the Dark

Why the Opposition to Netanyahu Is So Fragmented

On a cold Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, several dozen veterans of the Israeli left gathered at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for the premier of On the Left Side, a documentary about the history of progressive Zionism. With the exception of a shouting match between a few guests and a retired politician, the atmosphere was pleasant, if somber. The attendees lamented their imminent loss in the January 22 Knesset elections but generally enjoyed one another's company. "A bit like a funeral," one of them observed.

The Israeli left indeed appears to be on the verge of yet another overwhelming defeat in Tuesday's vote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bloc -- which includes his own Likud Party; the right-wing Israel Yisrael Beiteinu party, with which Likud recently united; the ultra-Orthodox parties; and the so-called national religious parties -- is projected to win between 64 and 70 of the Knesset's 120 seats, a range that all but guarantees Netanyahu a third term in office.

The right's strength is matched only by the utter fragmentation of the center and the mainstream Zionist left. A recent poll by the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth showed that the Israelis who in the last election voted for Kadima, the largest party in the outgoing Knesset and the main opposition to Netanyahu's government, will split among no less than eight different factions. None of these parties will have enough power to seriously challenge the next coalition. And at least some of them will be tempted to join Netanyahu rather than fight him, as did former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party following the 2009 elections.

In part, the left-wing and centrist parties have been unable to come together because each has its own pet agenda. The Labor Party, which split from the government coalition in 2011 and is now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is trying to capitalize on the social justice protests that rocked Israel in 2011. Yachimovich is focusing on criticizing Netanyahu's neoliberal economic policies, which she says have worsened inequality, and is all but ignoring the Palestinian issue. The former newsman Yair Lapid helms a new party, Yesh Atid, which promises to reform Israel's military draft and give tax benefits to the middle class (his campaign slogan: "Where is the money?"). Tzipi Livni, who was the leader of the centrist Kadima Party until she lost in last March's primaries, has also formed a new party, Hatnuah, and is emphasizing the need to renew negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the slightly more hawkish Shaul Mofaz has taken over the disintegrating Kadima and is counting on the support of the former prime minister and Kadima stalwart Ehud Olmert to swing some votes his way. The list goes on and on; some polls even have the pro-marijuana legalization party doing well enough to win seats in the Knesset.

Beyond their different agendas, these parties have been unable to unite because of a general sense that, no matter what, Netanyahu is going to win. The various party heads assume that they will have better bargaining power in the Knesset (and an improved position in the run-up to the next election) as leaders of their own parties, even tiny ones. But deeper than these calculations runs the feeling that leftism is more politically toxic in Israel than ever before. Whereas Israel's founding fathers once proudly associated with the left, and their Labor Party dominated the country's politics for half of Israeli history, most of the above-mentioned parties insist on defining themselves as centrist.

The Zionist left, it seems, never recovered from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, and the unravelling of the peace process over the following decade. The failure of diplomacy has stripped the left of any coherent narrative, and no left-wing politician has generated any sort of national appeal since Barak's premiership, from 1999 to 2001. Various rounds of unsuccessful negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have only reinforced the public's sense that the gap between the two sides remains too wide and that the largest concessions Israel could offer would still fail to meet the minimum that the Palestinians could live with.

As a result, many Israelis have decided that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be managed, not solved -- exactly what the right has been saying for years. And given the lack of meaningful international pressure on Israel and the country's success in dealing with the occasional military challenge, containing the conflict has not seemed like such a bad idea, either. Over the last seven or eight years, Israel has become more secure and prosperous than ever, thanks to the construction of a separation barrier between Israel and most of the West Bank, the end of the second intifada, and the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority in suppressing armed resistance. Fewer Israelis feel the need to negotiate with the Palestinians, since they have already obtained a measure of stability at a relatively low cost. The Arab Spring further convinced Israel's elites that there would be little point to diplomatic engagement with a region whose political future is in flux.

The decline of the Zionist left owes itself to demographic trends as well. As the religious community grows and the secular middle class shrinks, a center-left majority, such as the one Rabin enjoyed, seems increasingly unlikely to emerge. The one development that could reverse this tide would be for an entire demographic group to change its voting pattern, the way Russian immigrants drifted rightward in the late 1990s.

For the moment, the right -- and especially the religious right -- is not just winning the political battle; it is also taking hold of Israeli institutions, gaining influence in the bureaucracy and the security establishment. More conservative judges, including the first settler, are being appointed to the Supreme Court; religious officers now hold more sway in the military; and the media is becoming dominated by right-wing businessmen -- the most well known example being Sheldon Adelson, whose pro-Netanyahu daily is now the most widely read newspaper in Israel. The left has found itself on the outskirts of the decision-making process, trusted only with the one duty that the right, indifferent to global public opinion, could never perform adequately: explaining Israeli policies to the rest of the world.

If the Israeli left has a future, it will come not from the fractured center-left but from a newly reinvigorated far left. Going into these elections, Meretz, the largest of the parties running to the left of Labor, commissioned several opinion polls in order to help it plan its campaign strategy. According to Zahava Gal-On, the chair of the party, the results were surprising: Almost 20 percent of Israeli Jews identified as leftists -- well above the left's current representation in the Knesset. Meretz, which won only three seats in the previous elections, decided to reclaim the "left" label and run on a platform that reflects it. The party advocates an immediate recognition of a Palestinian state and a negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank. In the height of the election season, the party broke the most basic rule of Israeli politics -- unconditional support for Israel's military operations -- and opposed Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. Meretz is hardly poised to play a big role in the next Knesset, but its bold strategy has placed it on track to nearly double its current representation.

At the same time, a new generation of left-wing candidates is gaining strength within the Labor Party, among them several notable journalists and two leaders of the 2011 protests, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli. Like Meretz, Labor has capitalized on this nascent group's unabashed progressivism and is also polling slightly better in recent months.

In other words, although the left will take a beating in the coming elections, the next Knesset might finally have a vocal and energized opposition -- something that Kadima could never offer. What is more, the 2011 social protests gave birth to a new cadre of activists who are more at ease with their role as a minority and determined to serve as an out-of-parliament check on the government when it comes to issues ranging from social inequality to the occupation. The 2013 elections will go down in history as a moment of confusion and defeat for the Israeli left but also perhaps as the beginning of its renewal. 

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