Is There A Future For The Israeli Centre-Left?

February 15, 2020

At what point does procedure descend into farce? For many Israelis, one would imagine that this threshold was met in abundance when the country went to the polls for the second time in a year last September (2019), following an initial round in April. Back then, the prospect of a third election – while distinctly feasible – was an absurd one. Nevertheless, reality is often stranger than fiction; the country will be going back to the polls for yet another re-run in March (2020). The prevailing response among observers has been a mixture of morbid hilarity and exasperation – however, not everyone has been able to see the funny side. For the Israeli centre-left in particular, the stakes are existential.

 

This isn’t to say that the writing hasn’t been on the wall for a while. Under the current political climate, Israel’s traditional, Zionist left is embodied by two parties: Labor and Meretz. Neither have existed in their present form throughout their entire histories. The country’s proportional electoral system – whereby parties put forward lists of candidates, and have seats allocated strictly in accordance to their national share of the vote – lends itself to deals, technical alliances and mergers. For instance, Labor was formed out of a merger between three centre-left parties: Ahdut HaAvoda, Rafi, and most crucially, Maipai (an acronym for “The Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel” in Hebrew). The latter was by far the largest and most historically significant of the three, having existed prior to the state’s establishment in 1948 and played a pivotal role in building its early institutions. The left’s dominance was so extensive that it would take almost 30 years – in 1977 – and nine elections for a government without Labor (either as an aggregate or its constituent elements) to be formed. This is exemplified by the fact that, in 1969, the Alignment – an electoral alliance between Labor and Mapam, the latter being a left-wing party that would later merge into Meretz – won 63 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. To win an absolute majority under a proportional system is no mean feat.

 

Fast forward to the most recent elections, held last September, and the contrast could not possibly be starker. The Labor Party, having only won six seats in the previous vote five months prior, merged with Gesher, a centrist party focused on social-welfare issues - which in turn broke away from the nationalist grouping Yisrael Beitenu – in the hopes of leeching support from moderate centre-right voters. Meretz, reeling from only narrowly passing the 3.25% threshold necessary to enter the Knesset, took more radical action. They would merge with the Israel Democratic Party – nascently established by ex-Labor leader and Prime Minister Ehud Barak – and the Green Party, under the leadership of popular Labor defector Stav Shaffir, to form the Democratic Union. Both gambits were carried out with the intent of revitalising their respective forebears and substantially widening their bases of support; both resoundingly failed. In September, the Labor-Gesher alliance and Democratic Union won six and five seats respectively. 

 

What could possibly explain such a dramatic and brutal fall from grace? Upon initial examination, one could validly attribute it to sheer desperation among centre-left voters. Benjamin Netanyahu – the current Israeli Prime Minister – is a highly divisive figure, who has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and incites against the country’s Arab minority and institutions alike with reckless abandon. The sheer revulsion harboured by the liberal and left-wing elements of Israeli society would  - by this hypothesis - in turn incline them to consolidate around the party perceived to have the best shot of dethroning Netanyahu, which in this instance is Kahol Lavan (Blue & White in English), a secular, liberal alliance headed by ex-IDF chief Benny Gantz whose cardinal purpose is to institute regicide. 

 

To be sure, there are a few key areas, such as support for measures to secularise Israeli public life or reverence for democratic institutions, where Kahol Lavan’s platform is qualitatively different to that offered by the Likud (in English, the National Liberal Alliance) under Netanyahu. However, there is otherwise very little to distinguish between the two parties’ platforms, in particular on matters of security and economics. Any doubt of this fact was dispelled when Gantz announced recently a (caveated) commitment to annex the Jordan Valley – a slither of territory separating the (occupied) West Bank and Jordan – if elected, echoing a promise previously made by Netanyahu. For those paying attention, this didn’t come as too much of a surprise; in the run-up to the April elections, Kahol Lavan ran ads glorifying their leader’s orchestration of the brutal 2014 Gaza War effort (which incurred more than a thousand civilian casualties). Nevertheless, it serves to cement the fact that dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s record in government doesn’t run so deep that the bulk of his liberal critics are willing to vote for parties offering a credibly alternative policy agenda, like Labor-Gesher or Meretz. Taking into account both this, and Israel’s proportional electoral system – whereby which votes for smaller parties aren’t necessarily wasted – it is rendered clear that the malaise suffered by Israel’s traditional centre-left parties is structural, as opposed to circumstantial.

 

A glance at the September 2019 election results arranged by socio-economic deciles is highly instructive in this regard. At the first decile, only 3% voted for parties in the “centre-left” bloc – constituted by Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union, with just under half of that amount going to the latter two. In contrast, as you ascend the deciles, support for these three parties steadily and consistently increases, to the extent that there is an unambiguously positive correlation between wealth and one’s inclination to vote centre-left. At the 9th and 10th deciles – the uppermost echelons of Israeli society – Kahol Lavan enjoys more than an absolute majority of support. Additionally, support for Gantz within communities positively correlates with support for the Democratic Union. What does this mean? The propensity of “centre-left” voters to shift to a party which, if anything, sits on the centre-right is by no means accidental; the status quo serves them well. By extension, those from elite constituencies – who constitute the bulk of Meretz’s (and to a lesser extent, Labor-Gesher’s) base – aren’t voting for them out of a material imperative, but rather as an expression of their liberal worldview. 

 

It is this fact that should most concern the two traditional centre-left parties; their supporters are less inclined to remain as such in virtue of a strict ideological, cultural or economic imperative. Needless to say, this statement isn’t without caveats; for a significant proportion of Labor-Gesher and Meretz supporters, there does exist a sufficiently strong imperative to resist moving over to Kahol Lavan or other alternatives and stick with their respective party. However, would this proportion be large enough to get both over the 3.25% threshold again in March? Evidently, their leaders aren’t so confident – hence their decision to run as one large joint list in the upcoming vote: Labor-Gesher-Meretz.

 

This raises the question: who is playing the conventional role of the left in the current political climate, and catering to the middle and lower classes? The socio-economic deciles corresponding to the latter overwhelmingly voted for either the ultraorthodox parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism – or the Joint List of Arab parties. This makes sense when one considers the poorest elements of Israeli society are largely constituted by Haredim (ultraorthodox Jews) and the country’s significant Arab minority. Is there scope for the centre-left to find a new home among these voters? Unlikely. 

 

Vis-à-vis the Haredi parties, not only is there a religious imperative for their voters to stick by them, but they have also represented their community’s interests effectively in certain crucial respects. Not only have they secured significant fiscal concessions (primarily in the form of subsidies) under successive coalition agreements with the Likud, but when the latter was faced with an ultimatum – in the form of a demand by Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman to end the exemption of Haredim from military conscription – Netanyahu rejected it, instead choosing to stick by his ultraorthodox partners. Additionally, Shas, the party representing Mizrahi Haredim (ultraorthodox Jews of north African and middle eastern extraction), votes with the left on many key issues regardless; most of the bills put forward by their MKs (Knesset members) have either benefitted from the backing or explicit cooperation of Labor, Meretz and the Joint List. 

 

Elucidating the precise political positioning of the Joint List is somewhat more difficult, as it is not one, but four distinct parties running in a technical alliance out of both convenience and solidarity. Their members run the gamut from Hadash – a joint Arab-Jewish communist party – and the avowedly Islamist Ra’am. Nevertheless, on matters of economics and security, they undoubtedly sit on the far-left of Israeli politics. This is exemplified by the party’s unambiguous and vocal advocacy for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of pre-1967 borders (i.e. prior to the Six-Day War, when Israel first occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and annexed the entirety of Jerusalem). Considering that there is already a party further to the left forcefully articulating the interests of the Arab community – which also has momentum following a strong result in the September vote – it isn’t easy to imagine the traditional centre-left making inroads here either. Also worth noting is the residual antipathy toward Labor in particular harboured by much of the Israeli Arab community; having governed the country over its formative years – encompassing multiple wars with neighbouring Arab nations and the initiation of the occupation in the first place – there is a very legitimate basis for this distrust, even if the party might ultimately prove more appealing than their counterparts on the right. 

 

The centre-left attracts some support amongst the middle and lower-middle class, but again there are certain factors that impose a ceiling of sorts upon their potential support within these demographics. Many in this group, for example, are settlers who have benefitted from extensive subsidies issued by successive right-wing administrations; hence voting for a centre-left party that would be willing scale down these privileges and potentially even disestablish settlements as part of a revitalised peace process would be disingenuous. Also in this group is the aspirational Mizrahi middle class, many of whom harbour resentment toward what they perceive as an Ashkenazi (European extraction) elite – embodied by Labor, Meretz and to a certain extent Kahol Lavan – who discriminated against them upon immigrating to the country. As a result, they find common ground with the rightists and revisionist Zionists of the Likud who themselves felt that they had been condemned to the periphery of Israeli society in its nascent period. 

 

In fact, Amir Peretz, the current Labor leader, who is himself Mizrahi (specifically, of Moroccan extraction) thought the Mizrahi lower middle-class could be swayed toward the centre-left if presented with a charismatic leader who spoke directly to their concerns. This was the rationale for his merger with Gesher – to target the Likud’s perceived “soft underbelly” of support. Nevertheless, as was brutally illustrated in September, this strategy was a dud: even after the merger, Labor remained constant at six Knesset seats. He ultimately proved unable to either overcome the (somewhat legitimate) perception of his own party as an outfit of Ashkenazi elitists or dent Mizrahi loyalty to the Likud. This isn’t to say that attempts by the centre-left to pivot in the future would necessarily fail, but in the last election we saw both try in earnest to do exactly that, and subsequently combust. 

 

Despite these myriad setbacks, the centre-left will most likely avoid oblivion in the upcoming election by virtue of their decision to run as a combined list. However, even if they do, could this even be considered a success? Only fifty years ago, Labor and Mapam joined together to form the Alignment, and won an absolute majority of 63 seats; now the current incarnations of both parties have been forced back into one another’s arms out of necessity. Is this even worth lamenting? Might the death of the traditional centre-left be the product of a broader structural shift that has occurred in Israeli society?

 

The Ashkenazi middle and lower classes that fought to establish the state and constituted the centre-left’s original base have somewhat inevitably risen to become the elites of modern Israel. In contrast, the lower class is now overwhelmingly constituted by Haredim and Arabs; the middle is dominated by Mizrahim with their own aspirations that the centre-left hasn’t quite grasped; and a new settler class – with its own various subsets – has emerged as a by-product of state policy toward the occupied West Bank. All of these groups are served by political groupings and movements who accurately speak to their respective interests and ideologies, and as such, the scope for other parties to contend with them is limited at best. Taking all this into account, is there a future for Israel’s traditional centre-left? Probably not - and if there is, odds are it’ll follow an extended spell within the political periphery. Nevertheless, this fact shouldn’t be mourned as a tragedy; rather, it should be understood as the natural resolution of a dialectical process that has played out over several decades.

 

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