Netanyahu, Bennett, Sa’ar-Where is the Left?

The late Shimon Peres once said, after another of his elections losses, that polls are good to smell, but not to be intoxicated by, a statement which made sense, because it was a loss preceded by good polls. So here is free advice to Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar-remember what Peres said, as he was right on this one, even though he may have been so wrong on almost everything else. This is relevant, because Netanyahu and Bennett poll consistently 50+ seats, compared with the 42 they share in the current Knesset, and now with Gideon Sa’ar, the new player in the arena, someone who I take the liberty of calling the leader of Likud B, the three of them together poll 58-60 seats. Add up the 15-16 Shas and Torah Judaism seats, 7-8 of Lieberman, and you have all the shades of the Right Wing in Israel polling over 80 seats. So, this may be the picture as I write this piece, something which can change and probably will, but still a picture is emerging here-The Right Wing is soaring, the Center represented by Lapid and Gantz parties is somewhat over 20 seats, the national-religious Arab Joint List is 12, and now we come to the residue, the Israeli Left Wing represented by Meretz with 7-8 seats. Now, let us look at another consistent result of the polls, and this is the distinct majority of those who express displeasure with the state of the STATE, displeasure that includes also the PM. As the PM is the leader of the Right Wing, conventional wisdom it is, that the polls should be much more favorable towards the opposite political pole, but this is not the case. We can dismiss all that by saying, that Israeli politics are so strange, different than in other Western democracies and get away with it, but then we still need to explain what is going on here? Put simply, the questions are where is the Left Wing, and why does the Center not climbing up in the polls?

In the first Knesset elections in 1949, the two parties representing the Zionist Left, Mapai and Mapam polled together 65 seats. Today, there is no Mapai, and its successor, the Labor party polls 0 seats, whereby there is no Mapam as well, but Meretz which includes the remnants of the old Mapam is hardly managing to poll above the threshold of 4 seats. The numbers do not lie in this case, and something else does not lie. But for Meretz, which still declares itself to be a Left Wing party, others in the Israeli political scene who are sworn foes of Netanyahu are running away from the brand Left Wing as if from a plague. In the IDF as well as in other armies, there is what they call Esprit de corps, but in Israel, politicians are competing with each other as to how to define themselves in terms which will show their distance from the Left Wing. Naftali Bennett and now Gideon Sa’ar are competing with each other and with Netanyahu as to who is more Right Wing than the other. Is it only a question of semantics?. Only a problem of terminology, which can be fixed by finding or rather inventing another term ? .Well, it is all the above, but much more than that.

The very words Left Wing became almost a curse because those who came to be associated with them have expressed themselves and their policies in ways which detached them from the mainstream of the Israeli public. Let us put it bluntly-they seem to identify themselves with the other side of our conflict with the Palestinians, they seem to accept the other side’s narrative, they seem to close ranks with others in the world, not just Palestinians and Arabs , who have totally embraced the most anti Israel agenda. Forget about the Palestinian propagandists, take for example Jeremy Corbyn, the disgraced former leader of the British Labor party who was condemned by his own party as being anti-semitic. Why on earth there were Israeli Left Wingers who sent him petitions of support?.I will be the last person to generalize about that, the last to say ,that this IS today the entire Left Wing of Israel, but I can see what is the role of perceptions in all that. Perceptions and reality are not always synonyms , in fact, on many occasions they are diametrically opposed to each other, but then go and prove it. Yair Lapid understands it, so he is a consistent fighter against BDS, and unhesitatingly welcomes the new wave of normalization and peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries. Surely Benny Gantz welcomes and supports these agreements, but not our good Left Wingers, because for them the problem is NOT peace or lack thereof, for them it is the Palestinian problem which really matters, and when referring to this problem a pandora box is opening,and the discussion quickly moves to the realm of post-Zionism, while the simple fact is, that the vast majority of the Israeli Jewish public embraces Zionism as its national ideology.

Here is the political problem of the Left Wing-they talk, they pontificate about peace, but it is the government run by Likud, a self-styled Right Wing party, which does it. The Left Wing turned the Palestinian issue into its no. one political and ideological priority, and by so doing became less and less central, less and less relevant. The debate over the issues of peace in the Middle East, over the issues of Israel’s relations with its neighbors is not any more the no. one priority for the large majority of Israelis. So, we come here to deal with another significant problem , now one which besets the rivals of Netanyahu from the Center and even from the Right. They have not found yet the aladdin lamp, the key to two important demographic groups in the Israeli society which form the backbone of the Likud support-the Mizrachim and the religious and traditionalist Israelis. The opposition to Netanyahu is mostly composed by those who do not belong to these large demographic groups. This is the challenge facing Yair Lapid , Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and whoever else will emerge in the near future. That still does not explain the surge of Bennett and now Sa’ar in the polls. As we witness this phenomenon , it is too premature to pass definite judgement on it, but it is clearly the case, that both Bennett and Sa’ar are arguing against Netanyahu personally, his style of leadership and his long tenure in government,but they do NOT go after his policies. The anti Netanyahu campaign is costing Likud some seats as the polls show, but it costs the Center more seats which go to Bennett and possibly Sa’ar , and this is where the greatest problem of the Center is-they try to show that they can be better than Netanyahu personally, whereas Bennett and Sa’ar ,alongside the personal attacks on Netanyahu, offer to continue and improve Netanyahu’s policies ,but without the man himself. This is a combination which is attractive enough to 15-20 sears between the two of them, but not for 35 or so as the current polls show. Let us get back, in this case, to simple mathematics-in order to bring Netanyahu down, the Center and the anti Netanyahu Right Wingers need many more seats than that.

It is not impossible to come to the cherished number of 61 without the Joint Arab List, Meretz and the haredi parties, but for that to happen, the anti Netanyahu factions need more than polls, they need a political agenda which could break the wall of the Netanyahu-Likud electoral coalition, one which will push Likud under 20 seats in the only day which matters, the elections day. As yet, such an agenda does not exist.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina