If there is any silver lining to be found in the results of last week’s Israeli elections, it is that the project of rebuilding the Israeli Jewish left can no longer wait. This project must be linked to a political structure designed to bring together Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel who seek progressive change.
The Labor Party, which founded Israel and ruled it until 1977 and intermittently afterward, has been reduced from nineteen to six seats. Meretz, the left-wing party, found itself struggling to meet the electoral threshold at four seats, but was saved by votes from the Arab villages. For the first time in the history of Israel, there also could emerge a newly strong centrism as exemplified by the Blue and White Party that ran dead even with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, at thirty-five seats each. But the Blue and White Party cannibalized the parties to its left and so had no one with whom to create a coalition, especially because it had ruled out joining with the Arab parties to form a government (as had previous Israeli governments).
Still, based on the strong showing by Blue and White, a party that didn’t even exist two months before the election, there could indeed be a center with a left and right on either side, rather than the left-right split that has existed since the nation’s founding. This is critically important because the left, which created the state, is now a minority voice inside of Israel.
It’s important to understand this defeat as the latest in a series of setbacks for the Israeli left. The Israeli left has been reported dead at least three times—but without losing life completely, simply existing on life support.
The first death came in the decade following the 1967 war. As the religious-nationalist movement, Gush Emunim, grew and established settlements outside of Israel’s internationally recognized armistice line, the Labor Party encouraged early West Bank settlement, ignoring the long-term ramifications of this phenomenon. By 1977, it lost the national election for the first time and Israel hasn’t been the same since.
The second death came in the following decades when the kibbutzim began to lose political and cultural influence. The communal farms that were established to settle the state began to weaken as priorities shifted. Following the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, both parties embraced privatization. Israel moved rapidly from a state-led economy in which resources were scarce but more equally distributed to one of great wealth but growing inequality.
Finally, even with some early success, today we are living with the collapse of the Oslo peace process. Those of us in the peace camp in Israel and around the world had hoped for a calm transition to Palestinian statehood beside Israel. Instead we witnessed Palestinian suicide bombings and rockets aimed at Israeli civilians, while settlement growth displaced more Palestinians and the process of statehood stalled.
War and peace have historically muddled distinctions between “right” and “left” in Israel. While left has generally meant pro-peace and right more inclined to a hawkish worldview, the left has always had a smattering of nationalist hawks among its ranks. And where there once seemed to be a clear line between the right and the left on issues of economy and democracy, the left has included free marketeers, while some right-wingers have advocated for a national welfare state.
Israel’s early existence as a socialist state, with a strong nationally oriented economy, ended in 1977 with the collapse of the kibbutz experiment and Menachem Begin’s election in 1977. The Likud leader was dedicated to free-market politics and though hailing from Poland like the founding generation of Labor Party leaders, rode to victory on a wave of resentment against the founding elite. There were gnawing issues between the Ashkenazi elite (those Jews who hailed from Eastern and Central Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (those from Northern Africa and the Arab countries) who, to this day, face higher rates of poverty and other forms of discrimination and feel second-class in spite of their leadership in the Labor Party and the Israel Defense Forces.
Meanwhile, under Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition—which includes two strengthened ultra-Orthodox parties and a newly configured national religious party that has elements of rascist and neo-fascist Kahanism within its ranks—religious pluralism, democracy, secular education, academic and cultural freedom, gender and sexual equality, and struggles for a just economy are all under threat. Many of these issues are intertwined with questions of identity and nationalism.
The task of the Israeli left is twofold. It must defend existing freedoms and formulate a program for what comes after Netanyahu. Central to this project must be the creation of a shared platform between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.
A Jewish-Arab party has existed before, in the guise of Israel’s Communist Party, but it never achieved mass appeal. Today the Hadash party serves as a pale reminder of this past. Hadash is a left-wing party based on strong integration between Jewish and Arab political leaders. But while its politicians—some of whom were iconic figures like Meir Vilner, the Jewish communist leader, and Emile Habibi, one of the great writers of fiction about the Palestinian experience—served in the Knesset, the party that was once known for its Jewish-Arab cooperation has increasingly become aligned almost solely with the Arab vote.
There are ongoing discussions taking place at the grassroots and higher levels about how to combine forces, while accommodating complex and differing narratives—and even differing end games—some taking part in these conversations are Zionist, some not, some seek a two-state solution seekers, some a one-state.
Ron Gerlitz, co-director of the advocacy and policy NGO Sikkuy, which has helped lead the change in this sector, told me this:
There is no chance to bridge the ideological gaps between the Palestinian identity of the Arab citizens with the Zionism of most Jews. So, it’s time to say goodbye to the fantasies in this matter, roll up our sleeves, and work to build a political camp that has conflicting identities and wide non-agreements, but can act as a political camp. Contrary to what so many people think, the Arab leadership is there. If the center-left camp is hungry, that’s what it needs to do to try to win the next election.
This will not be easy, but it is both necessary and, frankly, logical. There is a growing Arab middle and professional class who are interested in having a seat at the table in politics to decide their own future. Arab higher education and integration into the professional echelons in Israel is growing apace to the percentage within the broader society. For instance, 20 percent of the student population at the Technion, Israel’s MIT, is comprised of Arab citizens of Israel. And while their numbers lag greatly still as professors or as leaders in their own high-tech start-ups, the numbers are expanding. Ironically, the Netanyahu government led a several billion shekel economic plan to better integrate Arab citizens into other aspects of the workforce.
Yet the Blue and White centrist party has shown no interest in embracing the 21 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab, whether Palestinian, Druze, Circasian, or Bedouin. They played right into Netanyahu’s race baiting. (Netanyahu’s early campaign slogan was “Bibi or Tibi,” with Tibi referring to Dr. Ahmad Tibi—one of ten Israeli Arabs serving in the new Knesset—who is the co-leader of the Hadash-Ta’al allied parties that ran together in the election.)
There has to be a commitment, as there is on the U.S. left today, to both movement building and electoral strategy. The Israeli left can’t move from election to election; it has to build and grow in between elections.
As Odeh Bisharat, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is a Nazareth-based journalist and writer affiliated with Hadash, wrote in his post-election Haaretz column:
[W]ith all the feelings of disappointment as a result of the election, it is important to note that nonetheless there is something new under the sun: A real alternative to replace Netanyahu’s rule has arisen. It may be that this camp is not to the taste of the forces of peace, but in the battle against the spread of fascism it is an achievement of the highest order.
The main question now is how to influence this camp and at the same time how to build an alternative to it – which we’ll call by the name the “third camp” – that will challenge it and also join forces with it at important junctions. Jewish-Arab forces can fill an important role in this mission; the Arabs, despite everything, have not been erased from the political map and they could very well be a central and steadfast asset.
Today, more and more people are convinced of the need to establish a third camp.
At the heart of all of the Israeli political landscape is the decades-long occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and continued control of movement in and out of Gaza (despite the withdrawal of Israeli citizens and troops). Israeli democracy has withered under the occupation. Divisions between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel can never be softened as long as Israel is lording over 3 million Palestinians in these territories.
While it is likely that the BDS efforts around the world will increase, it would be terrific were those behind these efforts to actually acknowledge their failures so far and seek a different path. The reality is that global BDS has not hurt Israel or helped the Palestinian people gain a state. It has greatly strengthened the Israeli right at the expense of the Israeli left, however. The Israeli economy is stronger than ever. And when Roger Waters and his ilk refuse to perform in Israel, it plays into the hands of Netanyahu and his allies who say the world is against us and we must, therefore, strengthen ourselves at the expense even of our democracy.
The Israeli left has a growing and impressive young leadership. They run organizations that work on strengthening human rights. They work against the occupation and for religious pluralism, women’s and LGBTQ people’s rights. They lead the shared society groups seeking cooperation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. The 2011 social justice protests that saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for several months helped propel activists into the current leadership of the Israeli Labor Party. The irony of Labor’s near collapse in the election is that it was running with an extraordinary list of talented leaders and parliamentarians, a fact acknowledged even by the opposing parties.
Netanyahu’s latest victory is another victory for right-wing populism that must now be seen on a global continuum. Israel should not be considered an exception. It is part of the global scenario from Orban to Putin, from Brazil to Washington, D.C. Netanyahu’s attacks on “fake news” and “the deep state” were right out of Trump’s playbook. The Trump White House has offered nourishment to the darker side of Israeli society. It is likely that Netanyahu could not have won re-election were it not for support from the Trump administration.
This makes the need for a strong political alternative more critical than ever. If the White House continues its nearly unequivocal support by allowing Israel to annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as Netanyahu promised to do in the frenzy of the election, we will know that U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East has gone completely off the rails. The damage already done to options for peace and democracy is palpable and perhaps irreversible; annexation will be a step too far. This makes the left’s political project in Israel urgent and necessary for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Jo-Ann Mort is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel and a former journalist reporting from Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas and Gaza.