Israel Pulse

Has Israel’s political left given up?

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Article Summary
Contrary to their enthusiasm ahead of the Sept. 17 election, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his colleagues in the leadership of the left-wing camp seem to have disappeared lately from the political arena.

The last time Chairman of Labor-Gesher Amir Peretz was active on social media was Oct. 9. It was right after Yom Kippur, and he went online to express his horror at the despicable hate crime that took place at the synagogue in Halle, Germany. His partner in the party’s leadership, Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, last popped up online on the eve of Rosh Hashana when she posted a generic greeting in honor of the Jewish New Year.

The two of them have had almost no real presence in traditional media either since the Sept. 17 election. There is practically no mention of their Labor-Gesher party in the political discourse, except when it comes to Peretz’s stubborn refusal to join a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the fact that he is keeping a campaign promise is worthy of respect, is that the sum of the main left-wing party’s role? After the devastating blow that Labor-Gesher suffered in the September election when it won six seats and barely spared total obliteration, Peretz and Levy-Abekasis should have responded immediately by launching a campaign to rehabilitate their party. They should have turned the current situation into the engine that restores relevance and momentum to the Israeli left. Instead, Peretz continues to be little more than a hanger-on and addendum to the Blue and White party, and a marginal figure in the moribund social democratic and peace camps, now facing extinction.

The situation in the country’s other left-wing party, the Democratic Camp, isn’t much better. True, the party’s chairman, Nitzan Horowitz, is much more active on social media, traditional media and on the ground. On Oct. 15, at the height of uncertainty over the fate of the agricultural enclaves on the Jordanian border (the Jordanian lease expires next week), he even paid a visit to Naharayim. Horowitz even went on to mention the peace agreement with Jordan, claiming that the Jordanians “are not extending the leasing period in response to the actions of the Israeli right and Netanyahu.” While this may have been nothing more than a statement, it is still important because it gives voice to an entire worldview and shows that the leader of a left-wing party still has a public presence. Horowitz also backed Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s revolutionary plan to operate public transportation on the Sabbath.

In contrast, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was largely responsible for the creation of the Democratic Camp last summer, has been silent since the last election. No one has heard anything from him other than a few random tweets. The fact that he is nowhere to be seen is particularly conspicuous because he wasn’t silent for a moment in the days leading up to the election. He was a true fighter, running a one-man opposition campaign against Netanyahu. He pushed for the creation of a center-left bloc and did everything he could to see it through. His voice on behalf of the political left was crystal clear. He provided headlines on a daily basis, but then, right after the election, he disappeared.

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Other senior members of the Democratic Camp, such as former Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, hardly have a presence either. Acting individually, hardworking parliamentarians like Stav Shaffir and Tamar Zandberg have each carved out a presence for themselves in the political discourse, but even that is not enough to get a buzz going let alone stir up a fighting spirit.

Given this situation, it is no exaggeration to say the Israeli left has been communicating a sense of feebleness and confusion ever since the September election. “We haven’t disappeared,” Labor party Secretary-General Eran Hermoni tells Al-Monitor. “We are planning a public campaign on a major social issue right after the [Sukkoth] holiday. We are active on the ground as well. Everyone will see that soon,” he added.

True, this is a holiday month, but having a media presence is important nonetheless. Given their parties’ enormous failure in the last election, the leaders of the left should have taken immediate measures to rehabilitate those parties. Imagine for a moment if all the Knesset members of Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp would have paid a visit to the Isle of Peace near the Naharayim farmlands — maybe even with Ehud Barak. As the deadline for the Jordanian lease expires on Oct. 26, surely the media would have tagged along on such a tour, giving them an opportunity to make important headlines and perhaps even present a diplomatic plan of their own, which could serve as an alternative to what the right has to offer. It doesn’t take much to create dialogue in the media or to prove to people on the left that they still have a home and that there are people representing their worldview, even if campaign season is over.

The Israeli left has been losing strength ever since 1992 when late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin formed the last left-wing government. This is not some statistical blip either. It is a trend. Failed diplomatic processes, a fierce intifada and a leadership crisis eroded the left-wing parties and made it difficult for them to present a viable alternative. And so they adopted a social agenda and became a niche political force. In the 1992 election, the Labor party won 44 seats and Meretz won 12 for a total of 56 seats altogether. In September 2019, they were barely able to come up with 11 seats between them. Even with the seats won by Blue and White, which can be considered a center-left party, the current strength of the left is just 44 seats in all.

Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp have all but ceased to exist. They are nothing like the Arab Joint List, which has learned its lesson over the last few years. The Joint List has succeeded in creating an agenda since the last election, as evidenced by the party’s successful campaign against violence in the Arab society. By using that issue, it is challenging the government.

The leaders of the Joint List have been showing diligence and political acumen by leading the many demonstrations over the last few weeks against violence in the Arab society. If there is a third round of elections — and there is a chance that there will be one — the Joint List will show up at the polling stations with an even bigger electorate behind it. That’s how to build a political force.

There are so many issues for the left to choose from in order to present an alternative to the right-wing government. Under normal circumstances, they would fight for these causes with what little strength they have, but these days it looks like the fighting spirit is gone. Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp have left the field to the Blue and White party. While that party is an important force in the struggle to replace the current government, its major agenda doesn’t necessarily reflect left-wing values and or a left-wing worldview.

In the last election, both Peretz and Horowitz appealed to their voters not to desert them for Blue and White, since that would mean a loss of votes for the Israeli left. Based on their behavior since the last election, however, they seem to be signaling to their electorate that they might be better off pouring their efforts into the Blue and White party. This is the growing tragedy of the Israeli left. There is no excuse for such feeble behavior.

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Found in: Israeli elections

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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