What Comes After Labor Zionism?

What Comes After Labor Zionism?

Israel’s founding ideology has run its course.

Members of the Israeli Labour Party embrace at their headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night on April 9, 2019. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

The next steps for the Israeli left, following its colossal defeat in last week’s elections, remain uncertain. What is clear is that the left Zionist parties—Labor, which won only six seats, and Meretz, which won only four—no longer represent a majority or even a plurality of Israeli voters. Once the country’s hegemonic ideological tendency, Labor Zionism has withered to near-total irrelevance. It will have fewer representatives in the next Israeli parliament than the orthodox and the ultra-orthodox, by quite a large margin—a historical irony that would no doubt greatly surprise Israel’s Labor Zionist founders.

Faced with their undeniable marginality, more Jewish Israeli leftists now appear to recognize that there can be no viable challenge to the right-wing/settler/orthodox alliance without an alliance of their own with the Arab-led parties. “Arab-Jewish partnership” is the phrase of the day among disappointed left-wing activists. But this is far easier said than done. Labor and Meretz are old parties, with organizational cores that date back to the founding of the state. Merging them, as some have begun to suggest, together potentially with Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist party, will run up against serious difficulties.

Even in defeat, the ideological differences between these parties are significant. A Labor MK reportedly told Haaretz that though a merger “could very well be the right thing,” there is a substantial hawkish contingent within Labor “that lacks a shared language with Meretz” and would prefer to abandon the party altogether than join forces with parties to its left. Moreover, a broad, robust joint Arab-Jewish party would require members of the Zionist left to relinquish some of their residual Zionist attachments, which many are unlikely to do. The Zionist left, and in particular the Labor party, has long refused to see the Arab-led parties, and the country’s Arab population more generally, as fully equal, let alone as indispensable political partners. There will likely be some remaining Labor Zionists who, faced with a choice between political oblivion and a post-Zionist, democratic party that includes both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel on equal terms, choose oblivion.


With the left Zionist parties and the Arab-led parties combined occupying only twenty seats (out of 120), the task of leading the opposition will fall to the Blue and White party, a hastily cobbled-together merger of three parties, comprised of former generals, TV personalities, and ex-Likudniks. Headed jointly by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and TV celebrity and former journalist Yair Lapid, the Blue and White managed to match Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, with thirty-five seats each—Netanyahu’s most serious electoral challenge in a decade and a sure sign of relatively widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership. This would be a reason for hope had that challenge not come in the form of the Blue and White party; if it can even be said to fall on the political spectrum, it is somewhere between the vacuous centrism of Lapid, a man who believes in nothing but himself, and the statist conservatism of Ya’alon, a former defense minister under Netanyahu and public opponent of the two-state solution.

What distinguishes the Blue and White from Likud, then, is less substance than style. Its leaders campaigned primarily against Netanyahu’s corruption, arguing that the incumbent prime minister lacks the moral rectitude the office requires. Netanyahu faces multiple charges of bribery and fraud (as well as a potential new investigation on the horizon), and many fear his governing coalition will find a way to grant him immunity as long as he remains prime minister. But aside from the issue of corruption, and more broadly the rule of law, there is little meaningful difference between the two parties. The Blue and White represents the same hostility to the country’s Palestinian citizens, the same guarantee of endless occupation in the West Bank and ceaseless siege in Gaza, the same bellicosity, just pronounced by the taciturn Gantz instead of the brash Netanyahu. When asked early in the campaign which party the Blue and White would seek out first form a coalition were it to win enough seats, Yair Lapid responded: Likud. So much for the opposition.

Indeed, there will be no serious parliamentary roadblocks to the right-wing, settler-orthodox governing coalition’s agenda. The de jure annexation of parts or all of the West Bank (as opposed to the ongoing process of de facto annexation through settlement growth) is now on the table. It will become even more likely if the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” makes no provision for a Palestinian state, as is widely rumored. The controversial “court override” bill will likely also be on the docket. One of the settler right’s legislative priorities, this bill would strip Israel’s High Court of the power to strike down laws it deems violate the country’s Basic Laws (equivalent to its constitution). The “court override” bill would be a death blow to the country’s system of checks and balances, a dismantling of its remaining democratic safeguards. It would “basically end the constitutional protection of basic rights in Israel,” as Hebrew University law professor Alon Harel told me last year. Then there are the potentially dramatic changes to Israel’s education system and the relationship between synagogue and state likely to be pushed by the nationalist-orthodox and ultra-orthodox parties, which will comprise roughly a third of Netanyahu’s coalition.


What does this all mean for the democratic left outside of Israel-Palestine? First, with the formal annexation of parts or all of the West Bank officially on the horizon, it means recognizing that the two-state solution will not happen, certainly not in any foreseeable future. This should not come as a surprise. Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged never to relinquish Israeli military control over the West Bank, but it is only now, after a decade of consecutive right-wing Netanyahu governments, that liberal Zionists are beginning to listen. The right, in contrast, has long understood that the two-state paradigm expired and has operated within a different one for years, working to permanently enshrine Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subjugation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Those who consider themselves on the left, and who have not already done so, must catch up.

Second, left and liberal Zionists must realign themselves with those who actually share the values they profess. For far too long, in Israel and the United States, they have found common cause with right-wing and illiberal Zionists who paid minimal lip service to the two-state solution while actively working to make it impossible. The current situation is in no small part a product of this catastrophically poor choice of comrades. And not only that: after dutifully serving as fig leaves for the pro-Israel right, they have been repaid by the ascendant settler-orthodox alliance with delegitimization and exclusion. In Israel, “leftist” has become an epithet, the belief that the occupation must end equated with treason. During the recent elections, this reached its absurd peak with Likud MKs’ incessant, racist accusations that Gantz, hardly a liberal, was an Arab sympathizer who planned to form a coalition with the Arab-led parties—as if that were illegitimate.

In the United States, even the liberal pro-Israel lobby JStreet has been excluded from big-tent Jewish communal organizations like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. David Friedman, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel and prominent settler fundraiser, who embodies the far-right’s total capture of U.S. policymaking in the Middle East, has called supporters of JStreet “far worse than kapos.” And earlier this week, President Trump convened a group of Jewish organizations that excluded three of the four major Jewish denominations—the liberal-leaning Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements—as well as the Anti-Defamation League, but included the Orthodox Union, the ultra-orthodox missionary group Chabad, AIPAC, and the once-fringe Zionist Organization of America.

The Zionist right has proven tremendously skilled at cultivating transnational relationships between forces on the ground in Israel-Palestine and their supporters abroad. The democratic left must do the same, while at the same time recognizing the limits of this kind of engagement. We should embrace a two-pronged strategy of support for our natural allies, combined with external pressure on an Israeli government that marks them as traitors, attacks them, and even endangers their lives.

In practice, this means deepening our support for the civil society organizations and human rights groups that fight racism and discrimination in Israeli society and that work to expose the injustices of the occupation in the West Bank and of the siege of Gaza—organizations such as Adalah, B’Tslem, and Breaking the Silence, to name only three of many, all of which are almost certain to come under attack again during Netanyahu’s next administration. We must also help the left in Israel build and sustain new institutions, and strengthen existing ones, that can furnish the germinal joint Arab-Jewish democratic camp with the intellectual and strategic depth required to seriously challenge the right and end the occupation.

However, given the scale of the disparity in power between the right and the left, this will not be enough. A range of forms of external pressure on the Israeli government will be required to dismantle the current one-state reality in Israel-Palestine. There are already voices within the Democratic Party, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have proposed cutting or ending unconditional U.S. aid to the Israeli government. We should join those voices and amplify them. And whether one supports the BDS movement or not, we on the democratic left must defend the legitimacy—and in the United States, the constitutionality—of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, all of which are non-violent tactics of resistance to oppression that have historically been part of countless struggles for freedom and dignity. Anyone concerned about preserving the space for democratic debate should be deeply concerned by the rash of anti-BDS laws in states across the country and by, most recently, the United States’s apparent denial of entry to the country to Omar Barghouti, one of the leaders of the BDS movement.

To have any chance of defeating the right, we must find ways to work together despite our substantial disagreements. For left and liberal Zionists, this means learning to see non-Zionists and anti-Zionists on the left not as automatic adversaries but as potential partners. For non-Zionists and anti-Zionists on the left, this will mean accepting those who still identify as left or liberal Zionists but are willing to work toward shared goals. None of this will be easy, but in a post-two-state paradigm world, it is necessary. We cannot allow divisions over details to overshadow, or worse, erode, our shared principles. A just and equal future for Palestinians and Israelis alike depends on it.

Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent.

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