After Near Wipeout in Election, Israeli Left Wonders: What Now?

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KIBBUTZ HULDA, Israel — On the night religious ultranationalists triumphed in last week’s Israeli national elections, a funereal hush descended over Kibbutz Hulda, a village in central Israel that had long been a bastion of left-leaning secular parties.

Dafna Israel, a Hulda resident attending an election night barbecue, said she cried as he results came in. She even thought about leaving the country.

“I felt like someone punched me in the stomach,” said Ms. Israel, 38, a research manager. “In the bottom of my heart, I feel that we are doomed,” she added.

Israel’s Jewish-led left-leaning parties, long the standard-bearers for negotiations with the Palestinians, suffered a near wipeout in the elections, accelerating a long-term decline that has kept them from the prime minister’s office for more than two decades.

The Labor Party, which once dominated Israeli politics with its brand of social democracy and secularism, barely scraped into Parliament, winning just four seats. Meretz, a champion of the peace movement, dropped out of Parliament entirely. Yesh Atid, the centrist party led by the departing prime minister, Yair Lapid, who forged a coalition with leftists to form the last government, scooped up several new seats. But Mr. Lapid’s wider alliance was defeated because of the broader collapse of parties on the left.

While the decline of Israels’ secular left has not been sudden, the scale of its disintegration last week shocked left-leaning voters and prompted soul-searching among its leaders about what, if anything, can be done to regain relevance.

The waning of the left began in the 2000s, when a wave of Palestinian violence was interpreted by many Israelis as a rejection of efforts to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That discredited the left’s prior push for greater Palestinian sovereignty and boosted the right-wing narrative that Israel could not count on Palestinians to negotiate a lasting peace.

Sluggish birthrates among secular Israelis, coupled with high rates among the religious, who tend to lean right, have also gradually tipped the balance of voter demographics.

For years, leftist leaders staved off electoral oblivion with desperate election-eve appeals — known as “gevalt” campaigns, after a Yiddish exclamation of alarm — to ensure a high enough turnout from their historic base.

Last week, those appeals finally fell flat. Across Israel’s kibbutzim, the former collective farms that were once the bedrock of left-leaning parties, voters abandoned Labor and Meretz for Mr. Lapid, despite his more centrist politics. That happened in the broader electorate, too, as many voters saw Mr. Lapid as the candidate best positioned to keep Mr. Netanyahu from power.

Kibbutz Hulda, a village of roughly 1,200 residents surrounded by farmland, was emblematic of that wider shift. For decades, it was the home of Amos Oz, a novelist considered an icon of the Israeli left, and a collective farm whose members shared agricultural duties. Now, the kibbutz has been privatized, and most residents work elsewhere.

This month, Labor’s vote share here was halved, Meretz’s fell by a third, while support for Mr. Lapid almost doubled.

Ms. Israel and her parents, who had voted for Labor or Meretz all their lives, were among those who abandoned the left for Mr. Lapid. After Mr. Lapid dexterously built a coalition that blocked Mr. Netanyahu from office last year, Ms. Israel wanted to give him another chance.

By contrast, Labor had no chance of leading the government, and Meretz seemed increasingly out of touch, she said.

“If we want change, we can’t vote so left,” Ms. Israel said. “We have to vote for the center.”

Among the leaderships of both parties, this kind of attitude has prompted calls for a drastic reorganization of the Israeli left and its priorities.

Veterans of both Meretz and Labor have called for the two groups to merge into a single party with a clear goal and message, welcoming not only Jews but also large numbers of Arabs. Israel’s Arab minority forms about a fifth of the country’s nine million citizens, but they typically vote for Arab-led parties.

But while left-leaning leaders see the need for change, they already disagree about what policies to focus on and how to engage Arab voters.

“The main problem is that the Israeli left is yet to find a compelling story,” said Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper. “I haven’t heard any vision beyond a very sketchy idea of Jewish-Arab cooperation.”

To Nachman Shai, a departing minister and Labor veteran, a left-leaning superparty should focus on economic policies protecting the less privileged. Mr. Lapid will not fight for low-income families, leaving space on the electoral spectrum for a party that will, Mr. Shai said.

“I believe that can play a major role in Israel’s political life,” Mr. Shai said. “If you look at the political map now, you’ll see a big hole between Yair Lapid and the left.”

Mossi Raz, a veteran Meretz lawmaker who lost his seat last week, also thinks that Labor and Meretz should merge. But Mr. Raz believes that any new alliance will need to center its messaging and policies around Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.

For too long, the left has been too timid about promoting its vision for peace, Mr. Raz said. Now it needs to be bolder and clearer about the need for a resolution to the conflict, he added, and to repurpose the security-focused rhetoric voiced by the right to bolster left-wing arguments for peace.

“The focus must be security,” Mr. Raz said. “Ending the occupation will bring security.”

One risk, though, is that this approach might simply reconfirm the Israeli right’s views that the left is incapable of ensuring Israel’s safety, accelerating its decline.

Mike Uhlmann, a former Meretz voter in Kibbutz Hulda, has supported Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, since he lost faith in the left during a wave of Palestinian violence two decades ago. After Mr. Netanyahu retires, Mr. Uhlmann, 57, said he might consider a less right-wing party — but not if it supports creating a Palestinian state.

“We will see who the leaders are — what do they say, what do they have to offer?” said Mr. Uhlmann, 57, the owner of a freight company. “If it’s again withdrawing from the West Bank, land for peace — then for me it won’t work.”

With much of the Israeli right beyond persuasion, most left-leaning voters agree that their political future depends on greater cooperation with the country’s Arab minority. But they disagree on how to make that happen.

Most political cooperation between Arab and Jewish Israelis has historically been limited by their hugely different attitudes about the state itself: Arab politicians typically want to downplay Israel’s Jewish character, while the Zionist left, by definition, seeks to maintain it. Even in the aftermath of last week’s game-changing election, few are ready to compromise.

Nuki Umansky, a senior member of Hulda’s management team and a Labor voter, said she still held out hope for the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with a Jewish one — obviating the need to dilute Israel’s Jewish character.

“If that’s no longer possible, 10 years from now, it’ll be better to have a democratic state than a Jewish state,” said Ms. Umansky, 56. “But it’s very hard for me to say it right now.”

But Esawi Frej, an outgoing minister from Meretz and a rare Arab member of the Jewish-led left, said a new left-leaning alliance would fail unless it treated Arabs on an equal footing.

“I don’t want to be used by the left,” Mr. Frej said. “I want to be a partner.”

Mr. Frej thinks this tension can be resolved if the left promotes a vision of Israel that accepts the country as both the state of the Jewish people and also of all its minorities.

“We need to convince each other — Arabs and Jews — that we’re all part of the same shared fate,” Mr. Frej said by phone from Egypt, where he was representing the Israeli government at the COP27 environmental conference.

“You can’t say it’s only the state of the Jewish people,” Mr. Frej added. “No, it’s the state of the Jewish people — and a state of all its citizens.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Kibbutz Hulda, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.


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