Lessons for the Left from the 2019 Elections

So the Center-Left did not manage to defeat Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues, and Bibi will once again be able to form what may become an even more right-wing government.  The fact that the right-wing bloc declined from 67 to 65 seats out of 120, and that Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked and their New Right party, Moshe Feiglin with his dangerous dreams of annexing the West Bank and rebuilding the 3rd Temple, and Kahanists Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir didn’t make it into the Knesset, is no consolation, though it does mean that the sense of gloom and doom felt by many on the left may have been exaggerated.  Despite the fact that I’ve been in places where people have quipped that “all the left in Israel is in this hall, or even in this elevator”, the fact is that 156,362  voted for Meretz, 191,461 voted for Labor, 193,293 voted for Hadash-Ta’al and 143,863 for Ra’am-Balad. That makes 684,979 altogether.  Add to that the number of leftists out of the 1,124,805 Israelis who voted for Benny Gantz’ Blue and White party in the hope that he could become an alternative to Netanyahu – who otherwise would have voted for Meretz or Labor, and you have well over 1,000,000 leftists in Israel.  That’s a lot of people to work with to create the change we want to see in Israel in the spirit of the values of democracy, equality and peace enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Jewish-Arab Cooperation is Essential

One thing that should be clear is that the Muslim and Christian Arabs, who together with the Druze make up 20% of the population, a potential of 18-20 seats in the Knesset, are an absolutely essential component for building an alternative coalition in Israel.   While the Joint List got 13 seats in 20th Knesset, the two component parties that ran this time will only have a total of 10 seats, a drop of three, due to a decline from 64% vote by the Israeli Arabs to only 49%.  There are apparently three reasons for this decline: 1) The disappointment felt about the breakup of the Joint List because of ego issues among the leaders; 2) The passing of the Nation-State Law which by declaring that the right to “national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”, and that only Jewish settlement is “a national value” while demoting Arabic from an official language to a language with a “special status”, made the Arabs feel like second class citizens, and 3) The fact that Gantz, the alternative leader said that he was ready to have as coalition partners any parties that are “Jewish and Zionist”, his partner Yair Lapid denigrated the Arabs calling them “Zuabi’s” after outgoing Balad MK Hanin Zuabi, while the other presumptive alternative leader Labor Party chair Avi Gabbay forced Arab MK Zohair Bahlul out of the party because he didn’t participate in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, made the Arabs feel they are unwanted as coalition partners, so why bother voting?

Only Meretz on the left understood the importance of Jewish-Arab cooperation.  The fact the # 4 candidate for the Knesset was Arab MK Issawi Freij from Kfar Kassim, and the #5 candidate was Ali Salalha, a Druze high school principle from Beit Jann, reflected a genuine belief in Jewish-Arab cooperation, and this led the vote in the Arab sector for Meretz to rise from 15,000 in 2015 to 40,000 in 2019.

But Jewish-Arab cooperation is not enough to create an alternative.

Security must be part of the agenda

The first concern of most Israeli voters remains security.  Observers may wonder why this is, given that Israel has one of the most powerful armies in the world, any potential enemies in the Arab world are in chaos or have disintegrated, and Iran is more concerned with defending its regime than committing suicide by attacking Israel, but that’s the case – partially due to the fact that Netanyahu has cultivated power by fanning the flames of fear, and partially due to the Israeli and Jewish experience of having  suffered from and faced genuine enemies culminating in the Holocaust.  Periodic missiles from Gaza and threats from Hezbollah in the north, despite the overwhelming balance of power in favor of Israel don’t help matters.

So any alternative coalition must provide an answer to the average Israeli’s concern about security.  This means maintaining a strong IDF, that is an Israeli Defense Force, not an Israeli Occupation Force.   This also means saying that while the IDF should remain strong, ultimate security will be provided by a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and yes eventually also with Syria, to accompany the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, that are so crucial for ensuring Israel’s security and integration into the Middle East. An alternative leadership also must explain how these agreements can be achieved, and they are in the long run achievable, using the Geneva Initiative formula and the Abbas-Beilin guidelines, supported by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

It’s not easy to balance the need for Jewish-Arab cooperation with the need to provide for Israel’s security needs, but it’s doable.  Yossi Sarid knew how to do that, so to a fair degree did Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo period.

An alternative leadership has to provide an overall, coherent  alternative plan for Israel,  which will provide security and prosperity, a defense of democracy, social justice and equality for all.  It’s doable.

That leads us to the question of leadership.  There is no question that Netanyahu has created a situation where his accumulated experience, his knowledge of both security and economic affairs, his rhetorical abilities, particularly in English, and the alliances he has created with hyper national illiberal leaders like Trump, Putin, Orban, Modi and Bolsonaro, make a strong impression on his supporters, and also on other Israelis, creating a sense that he is “indispensable”.  However, Netanyahu will eventually leave the scene, either for legal reasons, or age.  That will help level the playing field, since none of his potential successors, Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Arden, Yisrael Katz or Ayelet Shaked, have anywhere near that unique combination of capabilities.

And hopefully, Trump, a major piece in Netanyahu’s puzzle, will be replaced by a Democratic president in 2020, changing the entire equation.

Demography is not necessarily against us

Some observers also claim that demography is working against the left, since the voters for the right tend to have more children than the voters on the left.  I don’t buy that.  I began by referring to the importance of increasing the Arab vote in future elections, 20 % of the population.  And I don’t think we should write off the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, also 20% of the population, who have a lot in common with the left when it comes to the right to freedom from religious coercion, matters of marriage, divorce and burial, the right to lead a secular life-style.  The older generation may be allergic to anything connected to the left – socialism, etc., but hopefully the younger generation, like the situation in the U.S. with Bernie Sanders, will be open to accepting a modern formulation of the need for social justice, democracy and genuine peace and security.

The same is true for the Mizrahim who live in what’s called the periphery, who are not automatically supporters of the settlers and the vision of a Greater Israel. A variation on the old slogan “Money to the Neighborhoods, and not to the Settlements” is still very relevant. They may have historical anger at what they perceive as discrimination at the hands of the socialist Mapai establishment in the first decade of the State, but a fresh approach to a younger generation, based on a plan for genuine social justice, equality, security and peace, can appeal to them as well

As for the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, they too are not automatically supporters of annexation, of Greater Israel.  As the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said,  the principle of pikuach nefesh,  the saving of human life, is a greater value rather than controlling the entire Land of Israel. Ultra-Orthodox settlers now make up about 30% of the settlers in the West Bank, but most of them live in Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit  on the West Bank side of the Green Line because it provides them with subsidized affordable housing. Those areas would be included in a one-to-one land swap of 4-6 % . What they are interested in primarily is the ability to maintain their lifestyle. And what the rest of us are interested in is the same thing, and ensuring that they don’t impose their lifestyle on us.  Here too, a formula can be worked out to live and let live.

Needed – The Passion to Win

One thing that the left appears to lack is the passion to win that is demonstrated by Netanyahu.  Among the few people on the left who seem to be capable of demonstrating an equal passion to win with a great degree of self-confidence while forcefully posing the dangers facing Israeli society and the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution, are Ehud Barak and Chaim Ramon, both of whom have flawed pasts which many on the left unfortunately hold against them.  We need leaders with their type of passion and resolve. The right is clearly more forgiving of the flaws of its leaders – see Netanyahu for starts.

It’s definitely possible to build an alternative majority coalition for a future Israel which will be based on democracy, equality, social justice and the ability to live in peace with security with all of our neighbors.

As to how to go about doing it, three former MKs, Avrum Burg (Labor), Dede Zucker and Chaim Oron (Meretz) recently published an article in Haaretz (Hebrew) calling for a merger of Labor, Meretz and Hadash/Ta’al.  The trouble with that proposal is that there are no current takers in either Labor or Hadash-Ta’al for that idea.  Labor has a lot of soul searching and reorganizing to do, and Hadash/Ta’al should concentrate on rebuilding a platform and coalitions that will energize and attract the Israeli Arab community.  Meretz should continue building the Jewish-Arab cooperation it developed in the 2019 elections, while reaching out to other sectors of Israeli society with a  comprehensive agenda which meets all of the challenges facing Israeli society today.  Perhaps further down the road an alliance of the three parties can be considered.

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv
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