TEL AVIV — Days before Israel’s last national election, 40,000 Israelis packed Rabin Square with a message for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Enough. This time, after 10 consecutive years of Netanyahu at the helm, change was again on the ballot, but the square — the bastion of the Israeli peace camp — was conspicuously empty.
That silence proved decisive on Election Day.
Despite mounting bribery and fraud charges that could make him Israel's first prime minister to be indicted in office, despite his alliance with outwardly racist and homophobic politicians, and despite an incendiary election campaign in which he went after everyone who challenged him — including the attorney general, police, journalists, and Israel's Palestinian minority — Netanyahu has won a record fifth term.
“We need to say the truth. It’s a hard and burning defeat.”
The traditional left’s Labor Party meanwhile suffered its worst-ever showing at the polls, garnering just 5 percent of the vote compared to 19 percent four years ago, and a far cry from 56 percent of the vote it got 20 years ago, when it won in a landslide against Netanyahu’s Likud.
“We need to say the truth. It’s a hard and burning defeat,” said Shelly Yachimovich, the former Labor Party leader from 2011-2013, Wednesday night. ”As someone in politics to fulfill a worldview, we will need to do a deep self-examination and some rethinking,”
Now, as Netanyahu prepares to preside over the most far-right Knesset in the country’s history, the left, which once dominated Israeli politics, has rarely appeared more inconsequential. Since the collapse of the peace process in 2000 under Labor’s Ehud Barak, it has withered under Netanyahu’s shadow.
Today, the left is riven by infighting, constantly on the defensive, and unable to offer an alternative solution that convinces Israelis of the long-term security benefits of a negotiated peace. It's not only failed to produce a leader of national appeal, it isn’t even calling itself left anymore.
An identity crisis
Today, only 12 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as left, according to a recent election survey, while 56 percent identify as right. The left’s numbers are especially grim among Israel’s younger demographics — roughly 64 percent of Israeli Jews in the 18-34 range identify as right-wing, compared to 47 percent of those 35 and older, according to data compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. And while roughly half of the Jewish Israeli population still says it supports a two-state solution, that number has been in steady decline over the years, and in some polls it's dropped well below 50 percent.
“Leftists worked against their own values and interests and worldview to vote for a party without an ideology."
These shifting attitudes played out in distinct ways on the campaign trail. While Netanyahu pushed for annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a position widely seen as an obstacle to peace, left-wing voters gravitated to the Blue and White party, an ad-hoc coalition of former military generals formed just 100 days before the election. The group saw success not by campaigning on the core ideas that once defined Israel’s left — evacuation of settlements, a negotiated peace through a two-state solution and social justice — but by repackaging most of Netanyahu’s right-wing politics without his corruption baggage.
Led by Netanyahu’s former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, who oversaw the 2014 Gaza operation that killed 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians and 500 of them children, Blue and White’s platform notably does not mention Palestinian statehood or even a two-state solution. Instead it endorses an undivided Jerusalem and keeping all the major settlement blocs.
"The hate for Netanyahu was so strong that they united with the largest non-Bibi camp and all votes went to Blue and White,” Zehava Gal-On, who led the progressive Meretz for six years until she left politics at the end of 2017, told VICE News. “Leftists worked against their own values and interests and worldview to vote for a party without an ideology."
Israelis were forced to choose between two sides of the same coin, said Ran Cohen, director of the Democratic Bloc, an initiative that provides opposition research and media support to civil society organizations who are targeted by the right. “These elections were about whether to continue the occupation by force, as it is now, or to manage a more gentleman-like, enlightened occupation,” he said.
But even that vision failed to capture enough voters. And instead of providing an antidote to Netanyahu, Blue and White, which was one seat away from matching him, with 35 seats, ended up just cannibalizing the left further, leaving it with few viable coalition partners to work in forming a government.
“These elections were about whether to continue the occupation by force, as it is now, or to manage a more gentleman-like, enlightened occupation.”
Gal-On attributed Netanyahu’s continued success in the Knesset to his systematic incitement against the left and win-at-all-costs mentality, regardless of the cost to democratic norms.
“Netanyahu, he broke the rules of the democratic game, while the left has continued playing by the book,” she said. “Because he has been in power for so long, he has done it through anti-democratic legislation, through systematically and unabashedly attacking the gatekeepers and by going after minority groups.”
But she also holds Labor largely responsible for the demise of the left and the peace movement more generally.
“[Ehud] Barak caused the most damage to the left when he announced there is no partner [on the Palestinian side]. He broke apart the left-wing camp and gave legitimacy to those who wavered, and over time the party internalized the right-wing incitement against it,” Gal-On told me over orange juice in a Tel Aviv café days before the election.
Gal-On’s party, Meretz is the only Jewish party that still calls itself left and that includes the word occupation in its platform. But it has always been a small party in Israel and it got only four seats this time, just barely making it past the electoral threshold to enter parliament, with just under 150,000 votes.
Always on the defensive
Even after another stinging defeat at the polls, Gal-On believes there is a majority of Jewish Israelis that supports the preservation of democracy and a two-state solution. The problem, as she and many others on the Zionist left see it, is that the left has been so consumed with defending itself against Netanyahu’s diatribes, that it has failed to articulate its own political vision.
“Many people have internalized the lie that many Israelis are not leftists and activists stopped believing that the public is with them,” said Liat Schlesinger, the director of Molad, one of the only recognizable left-wing think-tanks in Israel.
Few institutions epitomize this reality better than The New Israel Fund, an NGO founded in 1979 to strengthen civil society organizations and help bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish populations inside Israel. For the last decade it’s been under relentless siege from Bibi and the Israeli right. Much like George Soros’ role in the Republican Party, the Israeli right uses NIF as a sort of punching bag, regularly blaming it for of Israel’s problems.
“We spent most of our time, resources and energy the last few years defending our own existence,” said director Mickey Gitzin.
These attacks have in turn shifted much of the left’s project from ideas like equal justice for all Israelis, negotiating a lasting peace deal and ending illegal settlements, to simply defending the basic tenets of democracy from Netanyahu’s broadsides.
In a statement posted on Facebook Wednesday, Stav Shaffir, one of the youngest members of Knesset with the Labor Party, said: “The main challenge facing our camp is not lack of support, but the fact that it is divided and fragmented, not because of disputes over vision, but solely due to fear.”
“Many people have internalized the lie that many Israelis are not leftists.”
But this calculus ignores the decisive success of Netanyahu’s Likud and the doubling down of anti-Arab rhetoric, not just by the right, but also the political center and center-left, said Ayman Odeh, who headed the Joint List, the united bloc of Arab parties that became the third-largest slate in parliament last election.
He holds both Labor and Blue and White responsible for lending legitimacy to incitement against Israel’s Palestinian minority by not treating them as equal players in the democratic system.
“Gantz sees us as non-Jews, not even as Arabs. He defines us in the negative,” Odeh told me to me in the dusty, understated Tel Aviv offices of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish communist party he leads.
For Odeh and the other parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, the main challenge in this election was getting people out to vote, especially in the face of calls to boycott the election. But even that mission failed; the turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel dropped to 50.4 percent, an unprecedented low. It was later revealed that Netanyahu’s Likud orchestrated a widespread voter-intimidation effort on election day in a bid to suppress the Palestinian vote.
Still, left-wing Israelis will boast that Arab-Jewish relations and equality within Israel have assumed a more prominent role at the grass-roots level, where civil society organizations and activists are doing important work on a variety of causes. But it has not translated into coherent party platforms or policies on the national level.
“Something very bad is happening to Israeli politics in general and in the left in particular. A process I’m not entirely sure I fully understand and cannot justify. A certain turning inward into increasingly narrow silos,” said Dov Khenin, who, until recently was one of the most effective and progressive legislators in the Knesset over the last 13 years combating anti-democratic legislation and the sole Jewish member of the Joint List in the last election.
“The public that wants peace, equality and justice is bigger than it seems. I can’t say if it’s a majority. But 99 percent of the people in our camp are not in NGOs and not in politics, so they are in a vacuum. They don’t have a platform through which to act and influence. We have to invent that platform.”
“The public that wants peace, equality and justice is bigger than it seems.”
For Alon-Lee Green, a co-founder of Standing Together, an Arab-Jewish movement that seeks to connect various struggles across the country by speaking in the language of local interests, not human rights, part of the problem is that people have given up on their ability to have an impact. “My generation has run away from power, which is considered a vulgar word, and from politics.”
Green says resolving the Israel-Palestine struggle will only be achieved when Israelis are convinced it is in their interest.
But that moment seems farther away than it has ever been, and can’t simply be blamed on Netanyahu or Israel’s surging right, said Hagai El-Ad director of Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.
“The notion that ‘good Israel’ was somehow hijacked by Netanyahu in concert with ‘bad settlers’ is a-historic at best,” said El-Ad. “The occupation, oppression, dispossession and fragmentation of the Palestinian people is a national Israeli project, led by prime ministers from left, right and center. The situation has become convenient for Israelis and for too long, and people have become accustomed.”
This piece has been updated with final results from Tuesday's election.
Cover: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)