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Israelis are not all rightwing. But our leftist parties have lost faith in themselves

Thursday 9 May 2019, by siawi3


Israelis are not all rightwing. But our leftist parties have lost faith in themselves

Yonatan Levi

Centrism will not win elections. The Israeli left must find the courage to fight for its vision – voters will respond

Wed 24 Apr 2019 16.01 BST
Last modified on Thu 25 Apr 2019 14.28 BST

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 17 April 2019.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘A little more than a decade ago, he was widely regarded as a failed politician whose future was behind him.’ Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Last week the Israeli Labour party suffered a nearly complete electoral annihilation. It lost three-quarters of its seats in the Israeli parliament, leaving it with just six out of the 120 in the chamber. Even Ed Miliband’s 2015 result in the UK elections, labelled Labour’s “most stunning defeat since 1983”, only saw him lose 10% of the seats held by Gordon Brown. Some in the international press have drawn comfort from the meteoric rise of Benny Gantz, a former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chief whose newly founded centrist party won 35 seats – exactly the same as sitting prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party. But what many commentators have hailed as a serious challenge to Netanyahu was in fact a sign that a left-leaning administration in Jerusalem – and, consequently, the two-state solution – has never been further out of reach.

This electoral tie became Netanyahu’s fourth victory in a decade because of the way the Israeli political system works. In Israel, every prime minister is required to form a multi-party coalition to rule. And while Netanyahu could count on his “natural allies” – the ultra-orthodox and the settler parties – Gantz found himself a general without an army. With the Jewish left wiped out, and any cooperation with Arab parties ruled out in advance, his chance of forming a government – let alone a government not dominated by the far right – was doomed from the start. Consequently, Netanyahu’s new administration, to be appointed within a few weeks, will be the most rightwing in Israel’s history. It will include politicians who hold proudly racist views, of the kind who have yet to occupy key positions in government.

Read more: Is Benjamin Netanyahu about to go rogue in Jerusalem? All the signs are there . Mick Dumper

Gantz is only the latest in a series of centrist rising stars who brighten the dark skies of Israeli politics for a split second before crashing to the ground. Their strategy is always the same: call yourself a centrist, distance yourself from the left, pretend to be vaguely rightwing and hope for the best. But the past four elections prove just how misguided this game plan is. Israeli centrists hardly attract any votes from the right; all they do is cannibalise the left. And by avoiding saying anything substantial about the country’s future, they also create a vacuum that allows Netanyahu and his allies to keep shifting the entire political system rightwards.

The roots of this phenomenon can be found in the aftermath of the second intifada, which ended in early 2005. With the peace process in tatters, a demoralised left allowed a reinvigorated right to invert the basic norms governing public life in Israel. Within less than a decade, an astonishingly effective public campaign carried out by Netanyahu and other rightwing politicians, journalists and NGOs created a new equation according to which leftwingers opposing the settlements in the West Bank are dangerous at best and treasonous at worst. The right also popularised the view that settlements are essential to Israel’s security, when in reality they are a heavy burden.

The real tragedy is that the left has cooperated with its own public execution. Instead of standing its ground and fighting for its vision – the two-state solution, separation of state and religion, minority rights and so on – mainstream leftwing politicians internalised the smears thrown at them by political rivals. As one of the leaders of the Israeli Labour party told me a few years ago, following another defeat at the polls: “What can I do about it? Israelis are rightwing.” The facts, however, tell a different story. Surveys conducted over the past decade show persistently that there is a stable majority among Israelis for the causes traditionally championed by the left, from greater investment in social services to LGBT rights. Most significantly, there is still a majority – albeit a small one – in support of the battered two-state solution. The centre-left, in other words, is not some marginalised group in Israeli society, but rather a majority that has been convinced it is a minority.

In 2011, I was part of a small group of students who started a protest against the government’s housing policies. What began as a local initiative grew within days into a full-blown national protest against Netanyahu’s economic policies, which turned out to be the biggest civic mobilisation in Israel’s history, culminating in an almost half-million-strong march in the streets of Tel Aviv (the equivalent of 4.5 million people in a country the size of Britain). Although we made our share of mistakes, our movement made one thing clear: progressive Israelis are yearning for a head-on political battle. But this is the complete opposite of what their political representatives have been offering them for years. They no longer attack their rivals for anything more substantial than a lack of decorum, and they dare not defend any clear ideological position, especially regarding national security issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To win elections again, the Israeli left must return to thinking politically. That means coming up with clear answers to the three foundational questions of politics: who are we? Where do we want to go? And how will we get there? Thinking about itself again as a team – composed of many different players, but united by a set of common goals and rivals – would clarify two things. First, that politics is fuelled by difference, not convergence: imitating the right is not only morally wrong, but also electorally disastrous. No one likes to vote for cowards. Courage, on the other hand, is magnetic.

Second, that mathematically speaking, the centre-left will never be able to form a coalition without relying on the support of the Arab left. Therefore, politicians, activists and thinkers must undertake the complex task of rebuilding the frail bridges between Jewish moderates and their counterparts in the Arab community – no matter what rightwing incendiaries say. Fortunately, there is a precedent to learn from: Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, which initiated the peace process with the Palestinians in the 90s, relied on precisely this sort of strategic alliance with the Arab left.

Israeli politics is full of twists of turns. A little more than a decade ago, Netanyahu was widely regarded as a failed politician whose future was behind him. Veteran journalists still remember him sitting alone in the Knesset’s cafeteria, looked at by fellow members with a mixture of pity and scorn. No one would have predicted back then that within a few years the same person would be crowned by supporters and enemies alike as “King Bibi”, an unbeatable leader of mythical proportions. The truth is that Bibi is no king – just a highly gifted politician, whose rivals may participate in elections but no longer believe in winning.

Yonatan Levi is a political researcher and campaigner. In 2011 he was one of the leaders of the Israeli social protest movement