The Crisis of the Zionist Left
Head of the German-Israeli Dialog Program at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung
Over a period of one and a half years, extending over all of 2019 and half of 2020, the Israeli political system underwent unprecedented turmoil. It took a grand total of three consecutive election campaigns and one global health crisis to bring about the formation of a national government. Electoral trench warfare was waged between the Likud party, led by longstanding Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the “Blue and White” list, headed by former general and political novice Benny Ganz, both of whom had failed to rally the parliamentary majority needed to form a government on their own. Eventually, the Covid-19 epidemic and the ensuing economic crisis offered the necessary boost and cover for the formation of a broad government joining Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc (comprising Likud and the Ultra-Orthodox parties) with the Blue-andWhite and Labor parties.
Acceding to collaboration with Netanyahu despite having vowed against it for three consecutive election campaigns, Blue-and-White and Labor justified the concession by depicting the new government as an “emergency unity government,” the merging of two rival political camps in the country, willing to put aside their ideological differences to tackle the spiraling health, economic and political crises ailing the country.
In his statement of intent as he led the Labor Party into the newly formed unity government despite having publicly shaved his iconic moustache (so that the viewers can “read his lips”) in a dramatic oath never to again join a Netanyahu-led government, Amir Peretz proclaimed:
“We are joining a unity government as equal members; the Labor Party is returning to the national leadership. In a national, health and economic emergency, we have decided again to be on the side that acts to fulfil our social-democratic worldview, to stand again at the center of the political stage, and to restore the Labor Party to an important, significant and influential position of influence on Israeli government policy.”
The Labor Party chair’s reference to the “equal membership” in the new government, might create the impression that it was formed by the two rival ideological camps in Israel, i.e. between the right-wing and left-wing camps, and that the Labor Party, which for decades following the establishment of the state led the Israeli left-wing camp, played a significant role in the process, as was the case in all previous unity governments in Israel. However, this depiction could not be further from the truth. The 18-month long election campaign, as well as the various coalition talks and the establishment of the alleged “unity and emergency” government were not part of a process that took place between the Israeli right-wing and leftwing camps, but between Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc on the one hand, and a mix of parties that consider themselves center-right, and whose leaders made sure to declare at every opportunity that they did not belong to the left-wing and/or represent leftist ideas.
For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, the declared parties of the Zionist left, namely Labor and Meretz have been swinging at the electoral threshold, viewing the political goings-on from the sidelines, devoid of political support and influence. These two parties, which in the 1992 elections won 44 seats (Labor) and 12 seats (Meretz), together representing 47% of Israeli voters, during the last round of elections scraped by with a mere six seats, representing roughly 5% of the vote. By leading his small party, represented by just three seats, into the right-center “unity” government (in turn also precipitating a split from the Meretz Party), Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz might have very well signed the death warrant for the main political platform of the Zionist left.
For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, the declared parties of the Zionist left have been swinging at the electoral threshold, viewing the political goings-on from the sidelines
The virtual absence of the Zionist leftist parties from one of the most dramatic and polarized political campaigns in the history of the country was not a function of some refreshing ideological breeze offered by Blue-and-White, or a more accurate representation of a conceptual alternative to the decade-long right-wing rule under Netanyahu. Rather, Blue-and-White, which rose to prominence thanks to left-wing voters and alleged to offer the only alternative to Netanyahu and Likud, announced day and night that it was not leftwing and refrained from conveying any messages that could be construed as “leftist” or even as an ideological break from the right-wing agenda of the past years effectively leading to the erasure of the Zionist left’s traditional positions from the public discourse.
Instead of offering a clear alternative to the right-wing, Blue-and-White seemed rather to communicate to their potential voters that they had no significant ideological disagreements with the governing Likud, only that contrary to the latter, their representatives were not tainted with corruption. Thus, on a range of key political issues that have tended to delineate the divide between the right-wing and left-wing camps in the country in recent decades, especially on issues of foreign and security policy and the future of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, it was difficult to identify any significant differences between the agendas of Likud and Blue-and-White. Furthermore, the political platform that purported to represent an alternative to the Israeli right also featured prominent right-wingers who had defected to Blue-and-White from Likud (for various reasons, ideological differences or disillusionment of the right-wing agenda not among them) who supported the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Blue-and-White seemed to communicate that they had no significant ideological disagreements with the governing Likud, only that contrary to the latter, their representatives were not tainted with corruption
Finally, the fact that Blue-and-White and Labor, that for three consecutive election campaigns claimed to present a political alternative to the right, agreed to include a clause in the coalition agreement that sanctioned the annexation of parts of the West Bank to Israel as of July 2020, exemplifies the fundamental change in the composition of the Israeli parliament. For the first time in decades, the Knesset is no longer divided between a left-wing camp that supports the advancement of the peace process and the right, which objects to it. The decision of the Labor Party, once at the helm of the Zionist left and the peace camp, to join this government, even signing a waiver relinquishing the right to object to any legislation relating to the annexation of parts of the West Bank, is tantamount to an admission of guilt and a concession of defeat.
How did the Israeli Zionist left parties, and most notably the Labor Party, which established the state and ruled it unchallenged until 1977, reach the brink of extinction? And how can one account for the fact that the nearly complete departure of the Zionist-left parties from the political stage took place, of all times, at one of the most critical junctures in Israeli history, when the status quo regarding some of the most fundamental tenets defining Israeli public life, including the rule of law, Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state, and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was being called into question?