Israel Pulse

Israeli left looks to restore its image

Article Summary
Leftist activists are working to restore the image of the "left," but the key to power and to becoming a political alternative lies in the center and left parties’ ability to merge into a critical mass.

Attorney Eran Hermoni, a founder of the new left-wing movement Smola (Leftward), thought it was important that there be an Israeli flag at the Casa Veranda pub on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. On the night of Sept. 9, the pub hosted the beginning of a new movement. Hermoni borrowed the flag from Beit Berl, where he works, and hung it temporarily on one of the walls in the dimly lit bar. It may have seemed out of place, but Hermoni insisted that it be there. He thinks the flag and other national symbols have been appropriated by the right and are considered exclusively theirs. Now is the time to bring them “back home.”

The Smola movement on the Zionist Israeli left was founded during the days of Operation Protective Edge; it emerged out of a real sense of distress experienced by Hermoni and his friends. They could no longer take the demonstrations of the radical left against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.

They felt that the extremists on the left were painting them in post-Zionist hues, causing electoral harm to the mainstream leftist parties.

An emotional Facebook post titled “Don’t call them leftist,” posted by Hermoni on July 26 quickly gained a following. He wrote, “I’m … a hard-core leftist with every fiber of my being. I’m a leftist by definition, in my heart and in my soul, and I say it with my head held high. One of the things that really infuriates me is those reports in the media (or in social media) that appear from time to time and as a matter of course. They feature ‘left-wing’ activists getting into confrontations with IDF soldiers, ‘left-wing’ demonstrations against the IDF in which Hamas flags are raised and academics from the ‘left’ who call for an international boycott of Israel. And there are many other reports like this. The people whom the media consistently refers to as ‘left-wing activists’ have absolutely nothing in common with me.”

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Hermoni’s Facebook post was shared 1,150 times, which encouraged him to take action to restore left-wing pride and turn the "left" into a winning brand.

To do this, Hermoni gathered a group of friends, all of them politically active. They started their own Facebook page on July 28 and discovered that they had an audience. It was hardly a mass movement, but its following was large enough to start something. They subsequently decided to turn the group into an extra-parliamentary movement, which they called Smola. Each of them donated 100 Israeli shekels ($27) to establish a formal association. They were following the model of successful extra-parliamentary groups on the right such as Im Tirtzu and Yisrael Sheli (My Israel), from which Knesset member Ayelet Shaked emerged.

Just one day before Smola’s official inauguration, the chairman of the HaBayit HaYehudi Party, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, came out with a virulent attack against the left. At a conference held by the Interdisciplinary Center of IDC Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, he argued that the left’s paradigm of a two-state solution is dangerous, and compared it to the concept that ultimately led to the fiasco of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He went on to mock the left, saying, “I’ve been sitting here listening to speeches by people on the left, and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I feel like I’m still in the 1990s. But it’s not me. It’s the left that’s still living in the ’90s.”

The left may find Bennett repugnant, but they can hardly ignore that he is riding on a wave of success. He is growing stronger by the day. Unlike them, he has shown enormous talent in rehabilitating a dying right-wing party and rebranding it as a contemporary product that is very much alive and kicking. Compared with this rising political force, Hermoni and his friends on the left seemed lost, and as if they were looking for direction, for advice and for someone just to listen.

A few dozen Labor Party activists sat around the tables at the bar. It was a combination of veteran politicos and young activists who still believe in the brand.

“‘Leftist’ has become a derogatory term, but we have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Hermoni at the start of the event. The dim lighting gave the gathering an almost subversive character, as if it were a meeting of some new underground. “We won’t let the right wing teach us what Zionism is, what patriotism is. We can teach them what it means to love this land and what social justice is all about. We love this country, and we love the IDF. The thing is that we have a problem with our brand. I love being a leftist, and I don’t want to be ashamed of my left-wing ideas. I know that there are lots of leftists in the closet. They just have to step out.”

Hermoni’s comments are a vivid expression of the crisis felt by the left, particularly during the days of a military operation, when the power of the right increases automatically. All in all, these are not good days for the Israeli left, to put it mildly. Operation Protective Edge caught it confused, zigzagging between support for the government during the fighting and unfocused criticism of the lack of any diplomatic process and the need to replace the government. Polls conducted after Operation Protective Edge showed a decline in the strength of both the Labor Party and Meretz Party, when compared with earlier polls.

The absence of any diplomatic initiative by the government at this time, with the emerging big opportunities for new alliances and for a new regional order, is especially conspicuous. It could actually become the mainstream left's bright moment. Instead, the left-wing parties are divided and split between the opposition and coalition. They have so far been unable to create a critical mass that could pose a threat to the Netanyahu government. The electoral support of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog could form the basis for a platform to replace the current government.

The Smola movement has the best of intentions, but it looks as if it is focusing its attention on the Labor Party's hard-core supporters. In other words, it is preaching to the choir. At the same time, it is ignoring the Labor Party’s inability to get back to being a real alternative to the Likud. Part of it is because all the centrist parties founded in the past decade have taken a toll on the Labor Party.

Instead of dealing with branding, Smola members should really internalize that Lapid, Livni and possibly even former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon are playing in their court. They should therefore focus on creating a center of mass politics that will apply pressure from the bottom up on the heads of all the parties in the center and on the left, so that they join forces before the next elections.

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Found in: protests, naftali bennett, likud party, left wing, israeli politics, israel

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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