The day after the 23rd Israeli elections, we do not yet know if we will have a government, but we know that the right wing won big. Moreover, much of that win is to the credit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The centrist party focused this round of campaigning around the concept of ending Bibi’s tenure in office, Likud responded by circling the wagons around Bibi, and the results speak for themselves. For those of us who support the center or left, we lost this round, and we need to take a hard look at what we are selling and why not enough people were buying.
First a general comment: Our parties do not make sense. Let’s start with the left-wing parties.
The Tepid Left
Here we have one Jewish and one Arab party, both of which are really conglomerates of smaller parties. The Jewish left party is made up of Labor, Gesher, and Meretz. Gesher, the only party headed by a woman that made it into Knesset this round, is not a left-wing party, but a centrist party, interested in furthering important social issues, especially better health care. Meretz, in contrast, is a left-wing party interested in rights for Arabs, LGBTQI, and making sure that secular Israelis can live their lives unimpeded by the religious establishment. Labor is somewhere in the middle.
The Joint List, made up of four Arab parties, is even more confusing. Certainly, they all support the need for Arab citizens to be treated equally, and the importance of Israel coming to a fair deal with the Palestinians, but beyond that, ideology is all over the place.
Hadash, headed by Ayman Odeh (who is also the current leader of the Joint List), is certainly has a classic left-wing ideology, but Raam is an Islamist party, interested in furthering Sharia law. If we take just LGBTQI rights, for example, whereas Hadash’s platform would be about the same as that of Meretz, Raam is no more in favor of LGBTQI rights than Betzalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist extreme is. Similarly, while Hadash and Ta’al—a kind of “big tent” Arab party headed by Ahmed Tibi—are open to working with the Jewish state, Balad, a pan-Arabist party, is as supportive of the Jewish state as Itamar Ben-Gvir of Jewish Power is of a Palestinian one.
Looking closely at this quagmire, I think we can understand why it is that so many left-wing Israelis simply didn’t vote: Who were they supposed to vote for? That is not meant as a defense—I believe they should have voted for whoever was closest to them—but as an explanation. Neither option really reflects where they are.
The bottom line, I think, is that the Jewish and Arab left were not brave enough to form what appears to be the most obvious and meaningful alliance: Hadash-Meretz (maybe with Ta’al and Labor too). If the leadership of the left wish to make a strong statement, it would be that they are so intent on creating an equal society, that the flagship left wing party will be Arab and Jewish, and led by the most successful and articulate politician on the left now, Ayman Odeh. Adding a healthy dose of Meretz or Labor Jews into Hadash-Ta’al—yes I know about Ofer Cassif—would also calm some people’s fears about it being a fifth column and not being trustworthy when it comes to Israel’s security.
The Unfocused Center
The large, centrist party Kachol Lavan (KL=Blue and White), is a mix of three parties. Yair Lapid’s center left party, Yesh Atid, has been an important player in the Knesset since 2013, and has a massively detailed social platform. Nevertheless, Yesh Atid was never competitive with Likud in size until it joined with a brand new party, that had never yet been in Knesset, the Israel Resilience party of Benny Gantz.
As politicians, Gantz and Lapid complement each other, since one of the things that held back Yesh Atid was the feeling shared by many Israelis—not me—that Lapid is not qualified to deal with security matters. Gantz, on the other hand, did not enter politics with detailed policy views on tons of issues, as Lapid had. Thus, KL’s platform coalesced around the former’s security views and credentials, and the latter’s social platform.
A third party called Telem, headed by Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon also joined this coalition. Telem is a moderate right-wing party, the same as Likud, but Bogie, a former defense minister, became disgruntled with Netanyahu personally (for good reason).
For centrists like me, this party is very attractive. The idea of instituting fiscally responsible governance by doing away with coalition funds and endless Kollel checks—to name just two issues—seems critical to me. Other social issues such as adjusting the nation-state law to include Arab citizens, instituting civil marriage, and going forward with creating an egalitarian space at the Western Wall—again to name just a few—feel just as vital.
And yet, this is not what the party concentrated on this round. Instead, we focused on Bibi and his corruption, which was not only a strategic error—Bibi is very popular—but made many people lose interest, since it implied that the main difference between KL and Likud was simply Bibi. This decision, to focus on removing Prime Minister Netanyahu from office as opposed to changing government policy, explains how KL presented itself throughout: the men of the cockpit (3 generals plus Lapid) vs. Bibi the tyrant. This leads to my final point.
What About Women?
When KL formed for the first time, Gantz and Lapid were challenged about the dearth of women in high slots. The answer Lapid gave at the time was that when Yesh Atid and Israel Resilience merged, they did it in a mechanical way (1 of these, 1 of those), and Gantz’s party simply didn’t have a lot of women. This was true, as far as it went (though Yesh Atid also didn’t have enough women in high slots), but that was two elections ago. When the 21st Knesset was dissolved, KL had an opportunity to redo its list, but instead, they went with a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it model” and kept everything as it was.
This also explains why they did not join with Orly Levy’s Gesher party, even though Gesher’s platform and that of Yesh Atid are more or less the same. I had hoped that Gesher would merge with KL and that Orly Levy would then join the leadership of the party, adding a sorely needed female voice and image, but that did not happen. Neither did KL reorganize and bring any of the talented women they already have higher up and into the top five slots. In my view, this also cost KL votes and credibility. Many voters, looking for female representation, and finding it only in the lower numbers, would rightly ask in what way is this party more progressive than Likud?
In sum: I do not know if elections for the 24th Knesset will be held in four years or four months, but whichever it is, both the center and the left need to reorganize and emphasize what makes our platforms and our leaders worthy to guide Israel in the coming years. Only then, to quote KL’s slogan, will we prove to voters that it is “time to move forward.”