Will Israeli left unite after election defeat?

The resounding defeat of the Israeli left at the April 9 elections must serve as a wakeup call for lifting the banner of real equality among all Israelis along with a respectful and serious dialogue to end the Palestinian conflict.

al-monitor Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor party, speaks as his party candidates stand behind him during an election campaign event in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, March 7, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

avr. 16, 2019

Shortly after voting ended and exit polls aired on April 9, Labor party politicos were already looking for scapegoats on whom to blame their plunge from 24 Knesset seats, garnered in the 2015 elections by the Zionist Camp that it led, to six. Less than 48 hours later, the party’s Secretary-General Eran Hermoni called on Labor Chair Avi Gabbay to step down, openly expressing the prevailing mood among many of his leadership colleagues, chief among them those who lost their Knesset seats due to the party’s poor election showing. The chair of the opposition in the outgoing Knesset, Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich, was more guarded. In a lengthy post, Labor’s former party chair from 2011 to 2013 asked her followers “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we continue to express our political ideology?”

The battered left is once again seeking a magic cure by switching doctors. On Feb. 21, on the eve of the deadline for submitting the candidate lists for the upcoming elections, Yachimovich agreed in principle with Meretz Party Chair Tamar Zandberg that the two left-leaning parties should consider a merger in response to the merger announced between the centrist Yesh Atid, Israel Resilience and Telem parties — forming the new Blue and White party. But the initiative by Zandberg did not materialize. The day after the elections, Zandberg and Yachimovich were once again contemplating the idea. Former Meretz Chair Zehava Gal-On has already expressed support for expanding the left-wing front. In the past, she even held talks on the issue with the Arab-Jewish Hadash Party. This week, Gal-On told Al-Monitor that given the strongly right-wing Knesset just elected, Meretz and Labor should form a united front in the legislature with the two elected Arab factions.

Experienced left-wing veterans are toying with the idea of disbanding the existing political frameworks to the left of the new centrist Blue and White party and replacing them with a new Jewish-Arab amalgam. Such a coalition would be based on the principle of Israel as the state of all of its citizens — Jews and Arabs — and on gradual revocation of the Law of Return that discriminates between Jews and Arabs by granting automatic citizenship to Jews only (any Jewish person immigrating to Israel is entitled to Israeli citizenship).

Such a move, however, is unlikely. The heads of the Arab parties weren't even able to put aside their egos in order to keep together the Knesset alliance they formed in 2015 in the Arab Joint List uniting four Arab parties, and they are unlikely to join forces with Zionist parties. Knesset member Ayman Odeh, head of Hadash — Israel’s former Communist party — spoke in 2015 of establishing a “democratic camp” in response to the merger between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party into the Zionist Camp, which was dismantled ahead of the April 9 elections. Odeh’s rival/partner, Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the Ta’al party (both parties ran on one ticket this time around), declined to discuss such an option with Al-Monitor. Former Labor Knesset member Shakib Shanan, a member of the Druze minority, told Al-Monitor that a joint Jewish-Arab faction “is needed, and how,” and that he supports any idea enabling dignified coexistence and uprooting the senseless hatred between the two people.

A serious roadmap for recovery of the political left cannot consist only of treating the symptoms that emerge once every few years at the ballot box. It must be based on learning the ideological lessons of the left’s ongoing decline. As Yachimovich wrote: “I learned that trying to appease the consensus or fearing incitement from the right is an insatiable monster demanding more concessions, more placation, more brown-nosing.” Yachimovich learned the hard way that abandoning the road to peace has led Labor to a dead end. Seeking to placate public opinion and fearing anger from the right, she adamantly refused to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after she was picked as Labor chair in 2011.

Labor’s Knesset member Hilik Bar, who served as the party's secretary-general and headed the pro-peace lobby in the outgoing Knesset, told Al-Monitor that most of his fellow party members were not active in the lobby. “The mother of all sins was neglecting the issue” of peacemaking with the Palestinians, he said. Chief among the “sinners” is Gabbay, who has made a point of steering well clear of Abbas. After the Palestinian leader called to congratulate him on his election as Labor chair in July 2017, Gabbay issued a statement saying he had urged Abbas to remove books from Palestinian schools that contain anti-Israel incitement. Shortly after, Gabbay said a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was feasible without uprooting any Israeli settlements.

A Palestinian official who maintains close ties with Israeli peace activists told Al-Monitor this week that leaders of the Israeli left, as well as those of the country’s Arab minority, have proven they are a hindrance to change, not a catalyst for one. “The Israeli left needs a real leader,” the official said on condition of anonymity. He added, “Sadly, the peace groups in Israel can barely even organize a significant event.” He nonetheless praised Labor Knesset member and former Labor Chief Amir Peretz. Speaking with Al-Monitor this week, Peretz said Labor must turn its crisis into an opportunity. “We will have to conduct a renewed campaign throughout Israeli society, irrespective of religion, race or sex, and decide on ways to connect with new populations, including the Arab sector,” Peretz said. He recalled that when he served as Labor chair in 2007, he was the first to name a Muslim Arab (former Science Minister Raleb Majadeleh) to the government.

At a conference in November 2015 on peace sponsored by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Peretz — then a member of the Hatnua Party — presented a roadmap for peace with the Palestinians. The plan included negotiations based on Israel’s 1967 borderlines and handing over to Palestinian sovereignty the Palestinian villages that Israel annexed to Jerusalem in 1967. The blueprint is filed away in an archive along with a mass of other yellowing peace plans.

Avner Gvaryahu, director of the prominent pro-peace group Breaking the Silence, believes the time has come for the left to place the occupation at the top of its agenda, from where it has been sidelined by the discussion of “ending the conflict.” The peace activist told Al-Monitor that the left must highlight the cost of the occupation — the control by force of millions of people and the existence of one law for Jews and another for Arabs. “A left that avoids dealing with the cost of the occupation will keep losing voters’ trust,” Gvaryahu warned.

More than ever, the left-wing camp should heed the eulogy delivered in December 2015 by writer Amos Oz at the grave of former Knesset member and peace advocate Yossi Sarid. “Our public must not under any circumstances view itself as the last bastion or as a world nearing extinction,” he said. Oz, the Israel Prize in Literature laureate who recently passed away, added, “The historic struggle for peace, for justice, for sense, for moderation began long before we came into this world and will continue after we leave.”

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