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No easy fix for Israel’s left

It is high time that we strategize how to achieve an inclusive, democratic, and just Israel -- no matter how daunting the task
The Peace Kids, a mural affiliated with Meretz in Tel Aviv, on  Ha-Rav Yitskhak Yedidya Frenkel Street, depicting Palestinian Handala and Israeli Srulik embracing one another, on October 12, 2014. The  drawing illustrates friendship between Jews and Arabs: on the left, 'Srulik,' a cartoon character symbolizing Israel, and on the right, Handala, a cartoon character by Naji Al-Ali, a 10-year-old barefoot boy, which has become a powerful symbol for Palestinians. (Wikipedia)
The Peace Kids, a mural affiliated with Meretz in Tel Aviv, on Ha-Rav Yitskhak Yedidya Frenkel Street, depicting Palestinian Handala and Israeli Srulik embracing one another, on October 12, 2014. The drawing illustrates friendship between Jews and Arabs: on the left, 'Srulik,' a cartoon character symbolizing Israel, and on the right, Handala, a cartoon character by Naji Al-Ali, a 10-year-old barefoot boy, which has become a powerful symbol for Palestinians. (Wikipedia)

These elections shattered Israel’s left, leaving it decimated and in a state of disarray. All the parties left of the new Blue-White bloc — Labor, Meretz, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad — together make up 20 seats in the incoming Knesset. These opposition parties constitute 16 percent of Israel’s 120-member parliament — down from 42 seats (33.6%) in the outgoing Knesset.

The electoral debacle, however traumatic, has nevertheless not led to complete despair. To the contrary, it is jolting progressive forces, energizing them into a reassessment of past mistakes and engendering a host of ideas about how to shape an inclusive democratic camp in the country and reorganize its component parts. To be effective, this task should involve not only steps to restructure the party map; it must also include a far more comprehensive and long overdue revision of the vision, goals and strategy of Israel’s left, along with a sharpening of its tactical toolbox.

These elections proved, once again, that the right-wing and the religious parties dominate electorally (continuing a systematic pattern stretching back some two decades), while at the societal level Israel is increasingly and profoundly split over the definition of its own identity. It is all too easy to attribute the near collapse of the Labor party (the latter-day successor of David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai) and Meretz (Israel’s progressive peace and civil rights alliance) at the polls — along with the palpable shrinkage of Arab representation in the Knesset — to the successful cannibalization of Jewish votes by the new Blue-White party and to the low voter turnout rates amongst progressive and minority voters. Yet the electoral decline of the left goes much deeper than that. Given the discrepancy between formal participation rates (significantly lower on the left and center of the political spectrum) and societal sentiments (much more evenly distributed between ethnocentric Jewish, civic-democratic and mixed definitions of what it means to be Israeli), it is also indicative of a deeply divided society — one in which very different worldviews continue to vie with each other for ascendancy in the public domain.

Most of the flurry of activity on the left of the political spectrum in the aftermath of the elections is of an organizational and short-term nature. It focuses on intense discussions between Labor and Meretz to establish a parliamentary bloc before the swearing-in of the new Knesset with a view to using such an alliance as the foundation for a broader structural merger of left-wing forces down the line. The two predominantly Arab parties — until recently united under the umbrella of the Joint Arab List — may also be exploring a similar move. The practical benefits of such a fusion are readily apparent: it gives the partners a better chance of garnering parliamentary posts (committee chairs and deputy-speaker positions) and gaining seats on key Knesset committees.

But a hasty step in this direction might stall other options that are currently under consideration. It is only one of three possible longer-term structural alternatives. The first centers precisely on a Labor-Meretz merger (which was proposed and rejected on the eve of the 2019 elections) and the possible reunification of all four Arab parties — in a sense reinforcing existing patterns and further underlining the division between Arabs and Jewish political formations in the country. A premature parliamentary alliance would strengthen such an option. The second consists of an agglomeration of Meretz, representatives of some Arab parties, along with a few public figures associated with the Labor party. This combination is designed to bridge the Arab-Jewish divide, but still relies heavily on existing party structures.

A third possibility is to create an innovative, broad, forward-looking, inclusive, Jewish-Arab democratic alliance which would encompass all the progressive forces in the country and promote a cohesive agenda for Israel in the future. Some of the makings of such a movement already exist not only at the party level, but also — and perhaps more coherently — in civil society. Several recent (and organizationally quite different) initiatives are indicative of such a trend. One such effort is the newly formed grassroots group, Standing Together, which mobilizes activists around a variety of civil rights, social justice and human rights causes. A second is Zazim, an Israeli variant of MoveOn.Org, which has successfully spearheaded a series of online campaigns for the past few years and, in recent months, has extended its activities on the ground as well. A third is the Joint Democratic Initiative, a group of leading Jewish and Arab academics, artists, performers and opinion-shapers who have launched a new movement to promote civic, social and political justice. All these groups have in common a commitment to shaking up the progressive organizational landscape in Israel rather than merely reshuffling its constantly dwindling constitutive segments.

The debates over the restructuring of Israel’s left, now intensifying in the wake of the election results, suffer from one — potentially lethal — malady: they deal almost exclusively with the organizational aspects of revamping the camp as opposed to its substantive contents, thus running the very grave risk of putting the cart before the horse. In the process, they may also endanger the project in its entirety: the revision, rejuvenation and reframing of an open and egalitarian agenda for Israel. That is why the most vital task at this juncture, even if it is of a longer-term order, is to reconfigure Israel’s course and to decide on the method for its actualization.

Such an undertaking must begin with updating the vision of Israel for the years ahead. This requires addressing two essential and interrelated issues: the precise depiction of what a better Israel could look like in the future and the specific values on which it should rest. It therefore involves reexamining the trends now evident in the country — including an ethnocentric view of Israel under constant fear of external attack, a distinctly illiberal penchant peppered by rising populism and intolerance, neo-authoritarian tendencies that threaten to further weaken already fragile institutional checks and balances, and a rampant militarism that bodes ill for efforts to achieve a lasting reconciliation with surrounding countries. It also entails spelling out the contours of an alternative mission. This new charter — an updated and inclusive version of the Declaration of Independence — could then specify concrete goals in the critical areas of social cohesion, economic equity, civic interaction, foreign affairs and, of course, peace and reconciliation.

The next stage in this process calls for the design of an overarching strategy to fulfill these goals, thus filling the most glaring lacuna of the Israeli left during the past few decades. Strategic construction rests on a closer look at the present operational context, including a critical examination of the roots of (among others) major social schisms, economic discrepancies, civic expectations, attitudes towards security (both physical and human) and approaches to peace overtures. It must also address the very real constraints on activities of progressive groups in present-day Israel and incorporate a realistic grasp of the considerable weaknesses impeding progressive action (with a strong emphasis on the unquestionably asymmetric position of the left in Israel today). These measures are critical for the identification of underlying currents and opportunities for significant change.

This is the basis for the creation of a workable and detailed strategy which can provide the framework for a concrete plan of action and a timetable for implementation (to date, all too often a tremendous amount of activism has remained unproductive, yielding a good deal of motion but next to no change and resulting in growing frustration and alienation). This program will also provide the foundation for the political and civic restructuring of the progressive camp in Israel and assist in the division of labor between its various parts.

A strategic plan for an inclusive, democratic and just Israel is a tall order indeed. It is high time, however, that those who want to see a better and more decent Israel realize that there is no miracle remedy to Israel’s complex maladies and that no transformation will be instantaneous. Now is the time to commence this monumental task — to understand that Israel cannot maintain its present course and hope to subsist, but that it is also not doomed to oblivion. Only the smart, patient, agency of its citizens can bring about a real turnabout. In the meantime, care should be taken that no immediate, organizational step — however practical — should harm this overall effort.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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