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Why the Zionist left died this week

Stuck in a Zionist paradigm, Israel’s mainstream left-wing parties are unable to put forth a vision of equality and inclusion for all in Israel-Palestine.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections are announced, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections are announced, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Tuesday’s election results were obvious to anyone paying attention. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White won the same number of Knesset seats, Gantz has already conceded to Netanyahu, acknowledging that he does not have enough partners to form a governing coalition. Netanyahu will form a government with his “natural allies,” among them the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

One of the most important stories that has been largely overlooked, however, is the spectacular implosion of the Zionist left. Tuesday’s election results, in which Labor plummeted to a record low of six seats, is as close as ever to a coup de grace. The Zionist Left, which includes the liberal Meretz party, is now reduced to just 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Labor and Meretz lost voters to Gantz’s “anyone but Bibi” campaign. But there is something far more fundamental at play here: neither party has been able to come up with a compelling vision because they are unable to grapple with two issues that haunt Israeli society: the dark legacy of 1948, and five decades of military rule in the occupied territories.

They are afraid because Netanyahu has shifted the discourse so far to the right that discussing the occupation has now become a taboo. Because those who want to talk about human rights violations in the West Bank or Gaza are now labeled traitors. Because talking about the Nakba or the fate of Palestinian refugees is beyond the pale.



There are, of course, other reasons for the downfall of the once-dominant liberal parties. For much of the past two decades, with the demise of the peace process that it once led, Labor has attempted to position itself as a centrist party with a dovish pedigree, abandoning left-wing politics altogether. While Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reached out to Arab citizens in the early 90s — the Arab parties helped ensure he could push through the Oslo Accords while keeping his government intact — any talk of a real alliance with Israel’s Palestinian community has never been on the table.

Beset by years of accusations that it was too Ashkenazi-dominated, that it was corrupt, and that it did too little to undo the damage caused by institutionalized discrimination against Israel’s Mizrahi population during the early years of the state, Labor brought in Avi Gabbay to head the party. Gabbay is not the first Mizrahi to lead Labor, but many on the inside believed that his rags-to-riches story — born to Moroccan parents in a working-class Jerusalem neighborhood, he rose to become the CEO of Israel’s largest telecommunications company — would speak to voters in the economically depressed towns who for decades turned their back on the party.

But neither an increase in diversity nor a relatively moderate social democratic economic agenda brought Labor the redemption it yearned for. On the contrary, Gabbay’s middle-of-the-road politics, which never truly meshed with the youthful, idealistic image of some of its younger hopefuls, was a turn-off for classic Labor voters. When it came to the issue of Israel’s 52-year-old military occupation, Labor offered little: more building in the settlement blocs, pledges to evacuate outposts, and a referendum for Israeli citizens over Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Gabbay also declared that he would not sit in a coalition with the Arab parties.

Given its lack of a clear vision, many veteran Labor and Meretz voters drifted toward Gantz — the retired IDF chief of staff who led a campaign bereft of any real promises apart from taking down Netanyahu.

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz seen before addressing supporters on election night, April 9, 2019. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz seen before addressing supporters on election night, April 9, 2019. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Labor supporters are now blaming Gantz for his failed campaign, which they say disregarded any possibility of building a sustainable center-left bloc and siphoned off votes that would have otherwise been theirs. Appearing on a Channel 12 panel on the eve of elections, former Labor head Shelly Yechimovich looked disconsolate as the exit polls were announced, calling Labor’s poor showing a “blow to the Zionist left.”

There is indeed plenty of blame to go around for the demise of the Zionist left. But the decline of the liberal and left parties goes far beyond personalities, petty politics, or plans to replace Netanyahu. The Labor Party is still one dedicated to promoting Zionism — an ideology that privileges Jewish Israelis at the expense of all other citizens. Shifting away from Zionism would mean undermining its raison d’être. Maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, would mean compromising its very ability to put forth a real vision for change.

These elections, and the diminishing power of both Labor and Meretz in Israeli politics, show that the Zionist left’s strategy of superficial adjustments over radically overhauling its platform and agenda is backfiring. The inability of the Zionist left parties to address not only their own political shortcomings, but the very ideology that uprooted millions of Palestinians, turned them into refugees, and expropriated their land, means they will never truly transcend their built-in contradictions. As long as the Zionist left remains undecided over whether it is more terrified of forming a real alliance with Palestinians or with those who seek to disenfranchise Palestinians, they will continue to shrink into irrelevance.

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    1. Mikesailor

      Absolutely right. The only question is whether or not enough Israelis decide to park their ideas of Jewish domination and supremacy at the door and, instead, begin the fight for equal rights. Frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath for it will be very difficult to show these believers the error of their ways absent a great calamity. It took a World War to disabuse the Germans of their insane ideology. What will it take Israeli Jews?

      Reply to Comment
      • maia

        1 or 2 civil wars maybe? 🙁

        Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        Israel’s Arab minority has the same rights as the Jewish majority, but not the same duties. Their situation is better than in any Arab state. They must not forget, however, that they live in a Jewish state and that they will never be able to claim any kind of sovereignty, just like the Jewish minorities in all the countries of the world.

        Reply to Comment
        • john

          they don’t have national rights e.g. to settle the land or express dissident ideas. citizenship rights are different from national rights, & the only way to gain national rights is religious conversion.

          Reply to Comment
        • Ray

          Your tortured reasoning MIGHT make sense, if most Western democracies openly identified as “Christian.” A good deal don’t, so it doesn’t. Chew on that. So much for Israel “sharing Western values.”

          Reply to Comment
        • Ken Burch

          The Arab minority in Israel is not responsible in any way at all for what was done to Jews in the Anglo/European world, and denying them sovereignty within Israel doesn’t do anything to address the historical persecution of the world’s Jewish communities at all. Indeed, Netanyahu has proved he doesn’t actually CARE about fighting anti-Semitism or address its historical consequences by forming alliances with the anti-Semitic leaders of Russia, Poland and Hungary-all of whom are ONLY “pro-Israel” because they want their countries to be fully Judenrein. And there is nothing the Arab world could ever have done which would have prevented what Christian Europe, Christian Britain, and even Christian North America did to Jews.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Jane

      What about the Jewish refugees? Arabs also did terrible things in 48 & 67

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        everybody deserves safety, it’s difficult to secure that with an undeclared nuclear arsenal and a national ideology that cannot permit equality.

        Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        @Jane, Yes sure the arabs jews are victims too of this conflict, but stop using them to figh against palestinian human rights !

        Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      Time to unearth an old essay in Vox from 2015:


      Israel’s dark future – Democracy in the Jewish state is doomed

      Israelis may have made their decision. They are pushing their country down a path whose destination is clearer every day: undemocratic, isolated, and a hostile occupier of a foreign population. This is not unique in history; many countries have traded away aspects of their democracy or abandoned it completely. There is every reason to believe Israelis will choose to join them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Israel is forging more international connections than ever before – Brazil, Philippines, China, India, Russia & Eastern Europe. So your Vox article is already proved wrong.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “China, India, Russia & Eastern Europe”

          Nice club it’s joining! Bruce is talking about its leaving, or being relatively blackballed from, a very different club!

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Well, Israel has excellent relationships with Western European Countries if that is what you are referring to. Actually, pro-Israel attitudes have emerged and strengthened in recent years. This trend has been triggered by the Arab wave of bombings, stabbings, shootings and truck-ramming attacks that have occured all over Europe.

            Again, the Vox article has been proved wrong.

            Reply to Comment
    4. itshak Gordine

      Right Zionism is more alive than ever. It is the pride of the Jewish people and Israel. What tell the Israeli leftists interests less and less the population. Their fall is the punishment of their policy

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The trouble with you, Halevy is that you are far too comfortable–too comfortable subjugating millions of Palestinians. When Palestinians finally stop serving as agents of their own oppression and hand back the keys and a second First Intifada ensues and Israel has to reoccupy directly the entire West Bank, and when the United States stops making occupation comfortable, when the cost of the occupation to Israelis changes, then Israelis like you will be forced to concede power. Quite clearly, outside pressure will be needed and this election only underscores that plain fact.

        Peter Beinart explains. Every line was written for you, Halevy:

        The trouble with you Halevy, is that you are like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

        Reply to Comment
    5. Samir

      I have great sympathy for individual Palestinians but not for their incompetent and corrupt leaders. The fault for the shrinkage of the Israeli “peace camp” lies largely with them. “Palestine” could have been founded at any time between 1948 and 1967 with a simple stroke of a pen but the reason there was no ink was because the Arabs never wanted to allow any Jewish state at all between “the river and the sea”. The Oslo Accords were a promising start but the 2nd Intifada and the rejected offers of 2000 and 2008 pretty much doomed those efforts. As Abba Eban famously it, “the Arabs never fail to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

      Right now, most of the Sunni Arab powers are more interested in countering the influence of Iran. They have reconciled themselves to the idea that Israel is here to stay and they regard it as a valuable ally in the struggle with Iran. In this context, they see Hamas and even the PLO as nuisances. Most would gladly vote to subsume a “Palestinian” state within Jordan, maybe with some Gaza link.

      All this is not the fault of the Israeli “peace camp”. If new leaders in Gaza and Ramallah would clearly announce that the whole “March of Return” and “From the River to the Sea” campaigns were over, they might find receptive ears in Israel once again. Despite its small size and population, Israel has become a scientific and artistic (not to mention military) powerhouse. The Palestinians could have shared in this success and they still might. But they have to show that they are serious partners.

      Reply to Comment
    6. The Donald

      You’re ignoring the 800-pound guerrilla in the room. The Israeli left died in large part because Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism killed its credibility and viability. That might not fit your narrative, but it doesn’t make it less true.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Thanks, ‘Samir’ and ‘The Donald’, for these twin dollops of pure right wing propaganda unleavened by any objective facts or any accounting for the unstinting rejectionism and pretend-to-negotiate tactics of the side with all the power.
        Read my response to Halevy.
        If the Palestinian leaders ‘announce that the whole “March of Return” and “From the River to the Sea” campaigns were over’ or make similar irenic overtures what in fact they will find is an overwhelming majority of Israelis who contentedly cluck, for the umpteenth time, “hmmm, ok, yawn, it’s quiet, we have time; occupation, what occupation? We can wait until it’s convenient—for us; What’s on TV tonight?” Because, contrary to your propaganda narrative, Israelis only listen to violence. Israelis have proved this many times:

        By Noam Sheizaf | March 11, 2016
        Why do we only listen to violence?

        Reply to Comment
    7. Lewis from Afula

      The Israeli Labor & Meretz parties actually died some 15 years ago when some 1600 Israelis were butchered by Jordanian Jihadi scum who disguised themselves as “fakestinyans”. Despite Oslo, Labor & Meretz managed to carry on as Zombie Parties where their Land-for-Peace delusions were buoyed up by “Experts” and “Analysts” in the Israeli leftist Media. However, there is a limit to how much BS one can fabricate.

      As of this week, the Israeli Left is down to single figures. Essentially, a few lunatics epousing “land-for-peace” combined with long-discredited socialist economics.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The Druze revenge

        This Arab-speaking minority, whose members in the Galilee traditionally serve in the Israeli military, felt especially hurt and offended by the nation-state law. As the election results show, they got their revenge at the ballot box. In Daliat al-Carmel, the largest Druze city in the country, Kahol Lavan won 55 percent of the vote, with Meretz getting another 9 percent. Likud took 8 percent of the vote in 2015, but less than 3 percent in this election.

        Meretz’s best results anywhere in the country were in a Druze village in the upper Galilee, Beit Jann, where it captured nearly two-thirds of the vote (65 percent). The big draw for Meretz here was Ali Salalha, a former local school principal, who placed No. 5 on the party slate (ironically, not high enough to get into the Knesset).

        Kahol Lavan won another 20 percent of the vote in Beit Jann. In 2015, by contrast, Meretz barely captured 6 percent of the vote in the village, where it trailed far behind the Zionist Union (an alliance between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah) with 46 percent.

        In other Druze towns and villages, Kahol Lavan and Meretz were again the most popular parties — beating out parties like Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu, which had been the big vote-getters in the last election.

        Arabs voting in their droves … for Meretz

        It now seems clear that Meretz, the left-wing party that was hovering around the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, was saved by Arab voters who heeded last-minute calls to head out to the polling stations. Meretz picked up 39 percent of the vote in Kafr Qasem (more than any other party); 29 percent in Fureidis (also more than any other party); 25 percent in Fassuta; 24 percent in Tira; 22 percent in Mi’ilya; 17 percent in Abu Ghosh; and 13 percent in Jaljulya.

        Among the large Arab cities and towns, Meretz picked up 7 percent of the vote in Nazareth; 8 percent in Shfaram; and 9 percent in Baka al-Garbiyeh. Altogether, these votes are believed to have given the party the equivalent of at least one seat in the Knesset, pushing it over the electoral threshold.


        (See the maps helpfully provided by Haaretz)

        I think these statistics support Edo Konrad’s conclusions nicely.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          With all these new extra votes you mention, the Meretz Party just managed to scrape in over the 4 seat threshold. A silly party for Confused Leftist Cuckoos.

          Its sister party, Labor, is now down to 6 seats. Most of its supporters are semi-senile, elderly folk. Labor stands for nothing and has achieved even less with its Oslo & Itnatkut disasters. Essentially, a shrinking, irrelevant bunch of Losers who are too slow-witted to grasp their own demise.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Edo Konrad explains this much more persuasively. Much. But let’s face it, there is never going to be a “Zionist Left” that is not a contradiction in terms and certainly not one that will accomplish anything without internal pressure from the Palestinians together with pressure from the outside. See my comments to Halevy, above. (“The trouble with you…”)

            Reply to Comment
    8. Tommy Goldberg

      I doesn’t seem to make sense to lump Meretz and Labor together. Yes, Labor, which had long abandoned seriously reaching out to Arab Israelis, did indeed implode. But Meretz (which did reach out to Arab Isralis, incl. Druze) basically held steady.

      (That’s not to mean that there isn’t plenty to criticize about Meretz, not the least of which is that it still calls itself democratic AND Zionist, a circle that just can’t be squared.)

      Reply to Comment
    9. It seems to me that the problem is that Zionism’s view is highly sectarian and exclusivist. They don’t have a global perspective. They seem to consider only what is “good for us”, never looking at what is good for everybody. Their outlook is of a zero sum game. Either we win or they win. If we want to win then they must lose. That is why they see everyone as either ‘with us or against us’. 

      While the world is crying for a global inclusive approach for the mess we are in, an outlook that takes the whole of humanity into account, the zionists are one of the strongest forces in the world for sectarianism, for ethnocentric exclusivism. the approach of ‘taking care of my group and the rest can go f*ck themselves’. 

      PS. (before anyone calls me an anti-semite, I was born to a jewish family)

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ira Wechsler

      There never was a Zionist Left! It is a mutually contradictory concept. The Zionist state is illegitimate and the Zionist movement that preceded it had been illegitimate and wholly based on the oppression of the working class. Just as Ben Gurion’s Jewish Agency collaborated with the Nazis in Germany and Hungary at the very least to the detriment of millions of Holocaust victims, they also setup a Jewish state to exploit both Jewish and Muslim labor and erect an apartheid state to systematically strip land and profit from both Muslim and Jewish labor. The problem is a fascist, militarist security state that can only be destroyed with Arab-Jewish working class solidarity and an egalitarian communist revolution. There is NO other alternative that can unite the working class in the region and bring justice and equality for all. See http://www.plp.org

      Reply to Comment
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