Next Steps

01.24.13

Whither The Israeli Left?

Michael Cohen recently wrote a tough critique of the Israeli left, centered on what he contended was the misdirected campaign of the Labor Party under Shelly Yachimovich. The results of the Israeli election bring Cohen’s argument into sharper relief. Some point to the fact Meretz and Labor won more seats than they had in the previous Knesset. In contrast, Michael Koplow argues the results show the hard and soft right both did better than the left, and Ben Birnbaum represents many when he puts Yachimovich and Labor in the “loser” column. At best, the left is considered to be treading water.

It’s true that the Zionist left more broadly has been consistently stumbling under the weight of the conflict with the Palestinians, changes in Israeli demographics, the decline of the collectivist ethos, poor decisions, factionalization, and a growing right-religious trend in Israeli society. But I share Fania Oz-Salzberger’s sense that there’s been an intangible increase in leftist optimism. Still, much work remains to be done, and if the Zionist left doesn’t roll up its sleeves, the longstanding predictions of its demise will become fact.

It’s critical to remember that the Zionist left is really a collection of ideas and groups that share some common objectives, but differ amongst themselves over best tactics, strategies, and sometimes even goals. It works in three broad areas, all interconnected: socio-economic justice, political and human rights, and the peace process. And it includes political parties, non-governmental organizations, protest movements, Jewish groups, Arab groups, and transnational institutions.

The left needs to do two things if it wants to have an impact: give itself time, and change the discourse. On both of these I think Labor is the linchpin. It represents the most established, recognized, and strongest institution for effecting change at the political level—without which any other demands will fail.

Time is needed for Labor and its allies to better organize themselves: they need to construct a stronger national organization directly connected to grassroots movements and groups that work in local areas around the country. But this must be supplemented with new messages. The dreamy slogans from the Oslo period just don’t work anymore. I’ve noted before that some, including Peace Now, have adopted this “grittier realism” and started to work within these contours. They need time to work their message.

When the J14 tent protests erupted in 2011, some argued that it was a bit of a false start—because, as Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana put it, there could be no true justice or equality in Israel so long as the occupation of another people (the very definition of lack of justice and equality) continued. But the costs of the occupation to Israel’s identity and soul isn’t going to cut it anymore, and neither, frankly, will appeals only to the human rights of the Palestinians. Jewish-Israelis are increasingly materialist-oriented, in the sense that—like any other people—they care more about what directly affects their lives.

The appeal to vague concepts of morality needs to be complemented with the message that Israelis can never be secure and healthy and prosperous so long as they remain tied to the occupation.

I worry about the ability of the Zionist left to recognize these necessities and adapt to them. At the grassroots level, some have simply detached and become non-Zionist, shifting their effort away from maintaining a Jewish state. Ami Kaufman and others have made serious arguments for this choice. They argue that the reality of today is one in which there is a single state between the sea and the river and it’s controlled by a Jewish-dominated Israel. In this reality, the Zionist dream is dead and the only proper thing to do is fight for human rights for everyone—to make things as just and equal as possible under current conditions. It’s not, then, about changing the contours of the conflict but simply accepting them as they are.

I respect that decision and I can even understand where it came from. But if those involved at the grassroots level are slipping away, then those involved at the political level will lose their foundation, their canvassers and campaigners, and their ability to connect across the country.

At the political level, the unforgiving nature of Labor politics might soon lead to the removal of Yachimovich as leader. I still believe that Yachimovich’s campaign strategy—rebuilding the party with new blood, focusing on social and economic issues, and leaving aside talk about the occupation—was necessary in this round of elections. Focusing on a message that most Israelis aren't interested in might be good for principles, but it's bad politics. Time is needed to build on the momentum generated from the campaign, to let Yachimovich’s message play out, and to regain the support of Israelis.

Moving forward under a Likud-Beiteinu-Yesh Atid government (the most likely minimum coalition), the Zionist left has two options: it can either join the government and try to effect change from within, or stay out and work for long-term change.

The former option is not a good choice. In the 1980s, a Labor party led by Shimon Peres joined a Likud government led by Yitzhak Shamir and was able to tackle serious domestic economic problems, and to overcome the “who is a Jew” debate pushed by the religious parties. But since then, every time Labor has joined a government led by another party (Likud or Kadima), it’s been neutered, demoralized, and literally broken down.

Staying outside the government requires enormous patience—a characteristic Israeli politicians and parties are not known for. But it will give Labor the chance to use the time to rebuild itself and to craft a stronger message. It will also make it easier for the non-political leftist groups to work with it, since it won’t be tied to what is likely to be a rightist government. It won’t, then, be tarred by economic or foreign policy decisions that are a direct contrast to their own goals.

The critics call Yachimovich cowardly and cynical. But there is a reality in which she, and the left more broadly, must operate. They need to present a credible front against a very powerful set of right-wing and center-right parties and movements. If they don’t, they’ll continue to be marginalized and ignored.