If we can’t get a new government, let’s get a new Left

The Israeli Left failed yesterday in its attempt to change the leadership and the direction of the country. Maybe it’s time to change the Left instead. And let’s learn a lesson from Israel’s history to show us how to do that.

Nearly half a century ago, an Israel very different from the one today was supremely confident that no Egyptian army was ever going to cross the Suez canal. And then the Egyptians crossed. The war that followed, which we call the “Yom Kippur War”, was widely seen as a colossal failure by the Israel Defense Forces, and in particular military intelligence, despite the eventual success of Israeli arms on the battlefield. Not long after the war had ended, public protests forced the government to convene the Agranat Commission to investigate what had happened – and to learn lessons.

A number of iconic Israeli leaders including Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were eventually forced to exit political life (though Dayan eventually made a comeback of sorts). But such was the scale of the disaster that business as usual could not continue.

One result of that enormous shock was the signing only a few short years later of the Camp David accord and the cold peace with Egypt that followed. In fact, since the war and the Agranat Commission that followed it, Israel has not faced an all-out attack by any of its Arab neighbours and is arguably stronger militarily now than at any time in its history.

Lessons were learned.

The disastrous results of yesterday’s election for the Israeli Left should serve as its wake-up call, or to continue with the metaphor, as its Yom Kippur War.

We did not have to wait until Tuesday night to know that the Labour Party was facing collapse, and that Meretz was dangerously close to dropping below the electoral threshold. There were signs everywhere pointing to this.

I attended a public meeting on Sunday night on a kibbutz which at one time voted almost unanimously for Mapam and later for Meretz. When I first came to that kibbutz in 1981, I remember often being the youngest person in the room when there’d be a political meeting. And on Sunday night, that happened again. Of the 600 voters on the kibbutz, only about 20 came to the meeting. All of them were older than me, and I’m no longer young. That sent alarm bells ringing.

The election results on the kibbutz confirmed our greatest fears: only 112 votes for Meretz – and over 80% of the votes going to other parties.

I’m sure the same trend could be spotted across the country in the days running up to the election.

Everyone on the Left, myself included, imagined possible scenarios where a coalition around Gantz could have happened, giving us a voice in the government. But we all knew deep down that our parties, particularly the two great historic parties of the Left which back in Ben Gurion’s day commanded a clear majority of the votes, had been reduced to tiny parties of the fringe.

When faced with a shock defeat on this scale, we can learn something from the experience of Israel following the Yom Kippur War. The establishment of the Agranat Commission and the implementation of at least some of its recommendations was a good thing. The careers of a number of military and political leaders were ended. But lessons were learned, the country was made safer, and the end result was a peace agreement with Egypt.

The broad Left in Israel today needs to learn from that experience.

It is not enough for each individual party to sack its leaders and criticise its campaign. All of us were part of a catastrophe and all of us should be talking together about what happened and why.

Labour, Meretz and Hadash need to have a conversation and that conversation needs to include others – trade unionists, social change activists, feminists, gay rights activists, environmentalists. And this cannot be a conversation only among Jews. The Right may want to exclude Arabs from the political life of the country, but we do not. We need to understand why so many Israelis, Jewish and Arab, who suffer terribly from the policies of a Netanyahu government voted Likud and its satellite parties – or did not vote at all. We need to be open to new ideas, rather than endlessly repeating the same slogans. During this campaign, the Left seemed tired, lacking in energy and enthusiasm and young people. And as election night proved, that was exactly the case.

For those reasons we need an Agranat Commission now for the parties of the Left – and we need new ideas that will energise our movement and allow us to rebuild.

Some day, the parties of the Left will rise again, as they always do, but that process can be speeded up if we honestly look at where things went wrong.

It is time for a change in Israel, and if we can’t get a new government, let’s get a new Left.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.