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The three bullets that killed Israel's left-wing bloc

Without the Arab citizens there is no ‘left-wing bloc’ in Israeli politics. The only problem? The inclusion of Arabs was what led the Right to violently bring down the Left in the first place.

By Lev Grinberg

Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there have been no political blocs in Israel. No Left and no Right — only survival combinations. Therefore, all the talk of the “size of blocs” only distorts the depressing reality in Israeli politics, wherein the real issues are barely discussed.

PM Netanyahu, with President Peres and Supreme Court President Grunis (L) at the official Rabin memorial, Mount Herzl, October 16, 2013. (Photo: GPO/Mark Neyman)

PM Netanyahu, with President Peres and Supreme Court President Grunis (L) at the official Rabin memorial, Mount Herzl, October 16, 2013. (Photo: GPO/Mark Neyman)

The reason there have been no blocs since 1995 is simple: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was an attack on the very existence of a “left-wing bloc” consisting of Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties. The message was well understood, and no such cooperation exists any longer. Since the assassination, all the Jewish parties have had little problem sitting alongside one another in the coalition: Meretz sat with the National Religious Party in 1999; and the other coalitions included Yesh Atid, Kadima and Labor sitting with Likud, Liberman and the Jewish Home. Labor not only sat alongside Likud in Ariel Sharon’s government (in 2001 and in 2004), but also under Netanyahu’s in 2009. The truth is that Livni and Herzog sat in Netanyahu’s government until they were kicked out, Herzog by Ehud Barak, and Livni by Netanyahu himself. Instead of an ideological split between the Right and the Left, the main gaps today are between the parties that are willing to sit in any government.

The “right and left” blocs are the ones that, in the past, allowed for the biggest changes in Israeli politics, such as Likud’s ascension to power in 1977, or Labor’s victory in 1992. Likud and Labor continue to speak of blocs today in order to preserve their status as a “cartel” whose leaders are the only candidates to become prime minister. This, despite the fact that the two have been downgraded to “third party” status in recent years (in 2006, when Likud received 12 Knesset seats, and in 2009 and 2013 when Labor received 13 and 15, respectively).

In the absence of ideological blocs, no major changes should be expected. Rather, we should expect new “survival combinations.” Instead of changes in foreign or domestic policy, the new government will present a new facade for external consumption. Significant changes take place only in the wake of serious ideological shifts that define a shared political identity of a bloc. In 1977, the shift was facilitated by the ideological shift of the National Religious party, which was transformed from an historic ally of the pre-Labor Mapai party to a supporter of the Likud’s “entire Land of Israel” ideology. Likud actually became more moderate and was ready to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and grant autonomy to the Palestinians. In 1992 it was Rabin who underwent a radical ideological turnabout toward negotiations with the PLO, and showed readiness to form a political bloc with Meretz, Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party. In both cases, establishing political blocs led to major changes, which eventually enabled the signing of peace agreements and fundamental changes to Israel’s economic policies.

So why did Rabin’s assassination terminate the “left and right” political blocs? The three bullets that killed Rabin immediately closed the political space of Israel’s Arab citizens. Rabin brought them in, and his assassination shoved them out. Without the Arab citizens there is no “left-wing bloc,” and no need for its opposing “right wing bloc.” The public lynching of Rabin that preceded his actual killing targeted him for relying on Arab votes to advance his policies. His detractors claimed that without the support of a Jewish majority, he wouldn’t have a mandate to concede parts of Greater Israel. Rabin rejected those criticisms as racism. Indeed, in order to legitimize his murder, Rabin’s detractors dressed him in a keffiyeh. In other words, Rabin’s murder was a racist attack.

Since then, the racist discourse has permeated the entire Israeli political arena, not only among the “right,” but also in the so-called “left” and “center.” All of them have adopted the worldview that impossible to make concessions over the Land of Israel by relying on the political support of the “Arabs.” However, if we automatically subtract 10 percent of Knesset members from potential coalitions, we shouldn’t be surprised when, time after time, the Likud is the only party that can select which partners will join it in the government.

Yes to the ultra-Orthodox, no to the Arabs

When Israelis head to the polls on March 17, no one will be talking about a political upheaval, but rather a complication of the existing reality. The analysts will spend their time speculating over the different combinations that would make political survival possible. The question is not whether Likud will have enough power to build a “right-wing” coalition with Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-Orthodox parties and “Kulanu” (the new party Headed by former Likud Minister Kahlon), simply because no such bloc exists. The question will be whether the ultra-Orthodox parties, Liberman and Kulanu will prefer Netanyahu over Herzog. Only then will it become clear that the problem lies not in the Right or the Left, but in the “center,” between Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the ultra-Orthodox.

The tension between the Ashkenazi seculars and the ultra-Orthodox parties has divided Israeli politics since the end of the “left-right’ bloc. It brought down Barak’s government in 2000 within a year, and led Likud to kick out the ultra-Orthodox parties whenever they cooperated with the Lapid family (both the father in 2003, and the son, in 2013). Will Herzog be able to get over the secular desire to establish a “center-left” coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties and the ultra-seculars Meretz and Yesh Atid?

Moshe Kahlon (Photo by Activestills.org)

Moshe Kahlon (Photo by Activestills.org)

If and when the coalition options of “right” and “center-left” fall, the option of a “national unity government” between Likud and Labor, headed by either Netanyahu or Herzog (or a rotation of both) will be established either in its Ashkenazi-secular version (with Yesh Atid, Liberman and Kulanu) or in its “social” version — with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Kulanu. Kahlon, it seems, will be a deciding factor after the next elections, and will likely be included in any coalition.

What is certain is that “Rabin’s coalition” — with Labor, Meretz, the ultra-Orthodox and the Joint Arab List — will not come into existence. It could have been a real upheaval: social, economic and political. But in order for this to happen, a Knesset majority is not enough. We need leadership and a vision, both of which are severely lacking in these elections.

Professor Lev Grinberg teaches at Ben Gurion University, is a specialist in Israeli politics, economy and society. He also publishes his analysis of public issues on several languages and varied venues. His last books are Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine – Between Democracy and Military Rule in Israel/Palestine (Routledge, 2010) and Mo(ve)ments of Resistance – Politics, Economy and Society in Israel/Palestine, 1931-2013 (Academic Studies Press, 2013). 

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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    1. Brian

      “Only then will it become clear that the problem lies not in the Right or the Left, but in the “center,” between Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the ultra-Orthodox.”

      That’s why Lapid is the perfect blow-dried, empty, shallow, racist politician to be the linchpin in this shallow post-Rabin-assassination political system. Sefi Rachlevsky writes on this in today’s Haaretz:

      “On the previous election night Yair Lapid could have worked with a bloc of parties. Instead, he chose to play solo, to lash out at the “Zoabis” and transfer hundreds of thousands of center-left voters to a “Jewish brothers” alliance. That is how he forced Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and brought in Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) as the housing minister for the settlements. There is a danger that despite the growing public disgust with Netanyahu’s rule, Lapid will once again bring about the coronation of Netanyahu-Bennett.

      Lapid says that he will do everything possible to prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister. Lapid doesn’t have to do much. All he has to do is allow Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) to form a coalition, including the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), rather than standing in his way. Sometimes you have to overcome. Sometimes you have to decide what’s more important.

      It’s likely and even crucial that Herzog will win more seats than Netanyahu. It’s likely that disgust with Netanyahu and the cannibalistic capitalism that he imposed on society as a whole, and even on his own home, will ultimately lead to a transfer of more votes to the only person who can beat him – Herzog. How long can those who are unable to purchase a home insist on voting for their exploiter?

      It’s also likely that there will be over 61 votes from Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) leftward, that Netanyahu won’t have an extreme right-wing-Haredi government. That’s already the case according to the polls at present, and over time the majority in favor of change will increase even further – and the voters from Kahlon leftward want a change. It’s likely that the voting rates among those who want change, including Arab citizens, will increase. Of course, Meretz also has to pass the electoral threshold. We can’t give up Meretz votes. If Meretz doesn’t pass, there won’t be an upheaval.

      If that happens, there will be a majority for replacing Netanyahu. Apparently even Kahlon would prefer joining a centrist civil government that will repair Netanyahu’s cannibalistic capitalism, rather than serving a prime minister who in his personality and his policy is the exact opposite of Kahlon.

      In order for that to happen there is a need for one “small” thing: for Lapid to enable a government with the Haredim. Clearly, that is not his heart’s desire. Clearly, it could be hard for him emotionally to allow someone from the non-right to form a government. Clearly, the option of opposition to a right-wing-Haredi government could appeal to him. But there is supposed to be a limit to cynicism….”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jello

      Labor + Meretz + Haredim + Arabs = 56 or so at best. Not enough for a government. And the Arabs are on record rejecting the idea of joining any coalition so it is all just a pipe dream. And there is no way Lapid can sit in a government with the Haredim. It would cost him his political future. His voters would never forgive him. What cost the left-wing the ability to rule wasn’t the murder of Rabin. It was the suicide bombings that have moved the electorate right. If the left does not move right to match it can not hope to form a government.

      The funny thing is that both Rabin and Peres were far further to the right in the 1990s than Herzog or Livni. I recently watched a recording of the 1996 debate between Bibi and Peres. Peres declared explicitly that he would never split Jerusalem. When asked to choose between peace and Jerusalem he chose the later. Rabin was explicit on the point as well and rejected the idea of a Palestinian state. Rabin promised in 1992 not to negotiate with Arafat. And then the left wonders why the people do not trust them on security or negotiations.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Arafat’s dead. Rabin would have made peace with Abu Mazen. Rabin is dead. Three bullets from the Right killed him. Read the article.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          Arafat was in power until 2004. It is highly unlikely that Rabin could have stayed in power that long and the same changes would have likely taken place in the Israeli electorate in response to the second intifada regardless of who was in power in Israel. In any case, Rabin would have never made the offer Olmert made and which Abbas rejected. Actually he wouldn’t have even made the offer that Barak made that Arafat rejected.

          The Israeli left has no chair to stand on when it comes to security and negitiations and that is why it continues to lose. It simply can not be trusted in these areas because all their ideas are built on illusions, half-truths and wishful thinking.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Brian

      (Rachlevsky, continued)

      …The damage that Netanyahu is causing Israel – the Israel that doesn’t want to be messianic, racist, anti-democratic, McCarthyist and extreme-capitalist – is so profound that a step that will cause him to remain in power is a crime against democratic Israel.

      It’s doubtful whether Lapid will receive the number of seats that he imagines. In the end many voters will realize that in this election it’s important which party is the largest, because these are not the days of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had 61 seats to his left. No side will have 61 seats of genuine supporters, therefore the size of the party is important. This consideration should influence those who are trying to decide between Lapid and Herzog: It’s essential for Herzog’s party to be bigger than Netanyahu’s, preferably by a considerable margin that will grant legitimacy to Kahlon and others to join.

      But we can’t replace Netanyahu without Lapid’s decision. If the political system understands that Lapid is locking himself in with declarations that will prevent a government of Herzog-Kahlon and the Haredim, the system will once again align itself – unwillingly – in favor of Netanyahu.

      Lapid talks about a war for the good of the country. That won’t happen if he doesn’t allow the upheaval to take place. From the establishment of the state, through the Sinai Campaign, the peace with Egypt, the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza – all the major dilemmas were decided by the prime minister, for the most part without the ministers’ knowledge. “We have come to bring about a change,” he says this time. This has to mean replacing the prime minister. It’s a matter of survival.

      Lapid will therefore have to adopt bloc-oriented behavior and accept concessions to the Haredim; he will have to accept the flow of votes to Herzog, without inciting against him. If he does otherwise and crowns Netanyahu despite the fact that the public did not vote for him, he will be guilty of cooperating with the destruction of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Jello

        And Bibi is the fear monger? If Sefi doesn’t get the government he wants Israel will be destroyed. People have lost all sense of proportion. So we have Bibi for another three or four years. Big freaking deal. Or we’ll have Herzog/Livni for three or four years. Again, big freaking deal. The sea will still be the same sea…

        Reply to Comment