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Notes from Limmud 2006

Lost: What Happened to the Israeli Left?

Roy Yellin

(former media consultant and spokesman for Meretz)

The sense today is that there is no Israeli left any more. However, newspaper polls suggest that on a scale of 1–5, 1 being right and 5 left, most Israelis place themselves 2.8–2.9. This result was the same both in 1992 when Rabin came to power and the left got 61 seats in the Knesset and in 2002 when the left got 27 votes.

If people's views are unchanged, how come the left gets far fewer votes, and why the perception of the left is changed?

Why do people go to vote? [discussion] And does your single vote count? [discussion] It can. Usually when you ask people when they vote for a single party it's because of their policies. However, the above data suggests something very different is going on here. [Audience: "left" and "right" have connotations; nobody in Israel wants to be labelled as "left" nowadays even if their policies are left in actuality.] [Audience: the whole of the Israeli voting public has moved to the right, so what people call "left" is to the right of where it used to be. The speaker disagrees: look at the policies of pulling out of Gaza, etc.]

[In Israel, "left" is associated with the peace camp rather than social policies. There was the hope when Amir Peretz came to power than this may change.]

Trying to explain the failure of the Israeli left has to take all of the above into consideration. In political science research there are many theories, but the general sense is that voting is social action which has more to do with expressing your identity than trying to affect political process. Voting tells us something about ourselves. Elections are normally determined by large blocs of people. Rationally, your single vote is not going to make a difference. Statistically, even if most people don't vote, the result is going to be the same. But still people go and vote. It's better equated to being a fan of a sports team. We associate ourselves with groups of people we think are like us, regardless of whether they are like us or not.

When Israel was established, it was the result of the work of the socialists, of Mapai [the ancestor of the Labour party]; until '67 and '73 Mapai was the biggest party in Israel, and got 60–70 seats, which meant no other party could form a coalition. In 1967 we occupied the territories; and this started a process in Mapai in which they decided to keep the territories and not start negotiating with their neighbours. This was the first big mistake the left made; not realising this was going to undermine democracy and not achieve Israel's long-term aim, to make peace with her neighbours. This decision of Golda Meir to reject [Egyptian PM] Sadat's peace overtures was directly responsible for the 1973 [Yom Kippur] war.

After 1973 disillusionment with Mapai set in. [Likud PM Menachem] Begin used to say Israel was not a democracy until 1977 when he came to power, because only one party ever got in. In 1977 another factor began to creep in: demography. The first generation of immigrants felt obliged to vote for Mapai as the people that had brought them to Israel. In '77 a lot of people who had come from northern Africa started to vote for Likud, because they felt the left wing was Ashkenazi and the right Sephardi. In '77 a poll revealed the greatest factor in who one voted for was one's ethnic origin; even people with the same opinions would vote according to their ethnic origin!

During the 80s, after the Likud had been in power for ten years, this changed. In '87 this was no longer the case. Asking people for their opinion was a better determinant of who they voted for. (As for Israeli Arabs, these were in the early years voting for Zionist parties like Mapam; in the later years they began to vote more and more for Arab parties.) This closing of the racial issue was very good for the left. In '92 Rabin had 61 seats in the left coalition bloc, giving him a majority.

In the nineties a new factor emerged: religion. The seeming progress of the peace process, people voted more on issues which had to do with religion and state. People for whom religion was important voted for Shas, Mafdal and the Orthodox parties; those who were secular voted for Meretz—who had a big success in '92 and '96. We now saw the political map polarised on domestic issues.

This came to a culmination when Barak came to power. There was now a vote for the prime minister. So people used their first vote to vote for issues of security and so forth; and the second vote to express their identity. This led to a fracturing of the vote. Even though the left won a big proportion of the vote, Labour itself only won 29 seats—a huge decline. Meretz and the Arab parties remained the same, but Shas won 27(?) seats. Which meant it was impossible to form a coalition without them. Which crippled the coalition, because with both Meretz and Shas in the government you couldn't get anything done. The direct result of this was the great success of Shinui in the following election.

If even Ariel Sharon after winning the elections and trying to wage war against the Palestinians came to realise that Israel had no chance if it did not pull out of the territories, why still did people not vote for the left? [Discussion: It had no good leaders. The right was adopting policies of the left.]

The greatest thing responsible is the myth of Camp David, which we tried to deconstruct but failed to do so (see below). The situation in Israel dictates many political parties; this is not something which is going to change. This is something that the left have to realise.

In the last election campaign, Meretz came close to being completely demolished. Shinui seemed extreme secularists but actually had nothing in their platform about the separation of religion and state, which is the only thing that would make a difference; but it didn't matter, because what mattered was the image. A month and a half before the election, Galei Tsahal (the army radio station) 'phoned the speaker, telling him a poll said Meretz was going to get no seats whatsoever in the next election. This happened to Shinui too recently. Because of internal issues, people weren't going to vote for them because they wanted their vote to count; no point wasting it on a loser. So what were Meretz going to do in response to Galei Tsahal airing this poll?

Luckily for Meretz, the Palestinian elections took place the same day. Hamas won, and that took all the headlines—and this saved Meretz.

People believed there was no difference between Meretz and Peretz; a former leader of the Labour Party even suggested a merger. Even worse, Meretz's own voters believed there was no difference between Olmert and Meretz, and that they should vote for the PM because he has power; he doesn't have to pander to other parties. Meretz had to persuade its own voters that the differences between these parties did exist.

Even though the left campaigns on withdrawal from the territories, its niche is for social issues and human rights. This was the most hard-fought campaign; Meretz did not try and campaign to neutral voters, but pushed hard on such issues as gay marriage and environmental issues—issues which are hardly Israel's foremost concerns; also the separation of religion and state—maybe now Shinui had gone they could take their vote. But still, that's not addressing the greater issues. Eventually, after consistent polls of getting 3–5 seats—not good, but enough to maintain continuity until the next time [speaker did not finish this sentence].

The Israeli left needs to do soul-searching and find a new agenda for the future. The issue of the territories is no longer an issue for the left; it's an issue for the centre. The left still has this issue, but it no longer owns it.

The Israeli public will not vote for the left on issues of foreign policy and security because of what Barak did when he came back from Camp David. Barak practically forced both Clinton and Arafat to go to the negotiating table in Camp David. Everyone who knew anything about the Palestinians knew this was not a good time for a final deal; they were not ready. Abu Mazen came up to Barak beforehand and told him not to press them into one. (Also, Arafat was not the right person to bring to the negotiation summit. Arafat was not a negotiator, but a leader. You needed lower level people to thrash out the details and then bring in the leaders for the final negotiations.)

Barak tried to force the Palestinians to accept an offer they would not admit; they said no. Barak said Israeli gave up everything she had to offer; they said no, so we have no partner for peace. If even Barak, a leader of the left, said this, people bought that there was indeed no one to negotiate with.

After Camp David, Saeb Erekat went on CNN and gave the message of the Palestinian delegation, saying, "we have made great progress; we should continue talking. Israel made some interesting offers; negotiation should continue." If Barak had said the same, Middle Eastern history would have been very different. And the fact is Barak continued to negotiate with the Palestinians. Barak upped its offer from 66% of the West Bank to 77% and eventually to 98%. In Israel the left always try to sugar-coat the offering to the Palestinians to sell it to the public. Haim Ramon went on TV saying we'd give them 80% and then another 10%; we're going to keep 10%. They never said—including Rabin and Barak—said they were never going to divide Jerusalem. This is a no go from the Palestinian perspective.

Having to come to terms with the deal the Israeli public have to make, instead of saying this is the real deal, Barak chose to say we have no partner. From that moment public perception changed. 43% of the people who voted for Barak in '99 said after Camp David they had changed their mind concerning negotiation with the Palestinians over the territories and compromise. 43% of the 50% who vote for the right switching sides then explains how Sharon got into power.

[Some questioning of this by an audience member. The speaker says the issue of the second intifada was framed; he said he would speak about this in his second lecture, which I did not attend.]

[In response to a question:] The disintegration of the great parties: With Kadima taking the place of the historical Mapai—instead of there being one big party in the right with smaller parties around, and one on the left with smaller parties around, we thought we'd have a large Kadima in the centre with medium parties on the left and right, and then small parties around. Instead we ended up with medium-sized parties all around. What happens now is a process where the Israeli political field is reorganising itself. This could happen in two major ways: realignment—people holding the same political ideologies forming into new groups, a constructive way to change the political map—or dealignment, where the parties further disintegrate, which could lead to a very difficult situation.

Another big mistake that even Meretz made was the support of the second Lebanese War, from the beginning. The political result of this was that when the war failed, there was no alternative in the left, the only alternative was that of the right: let's go to war and fight even harder. Given the choice of fight poorly or fight even harder, this drove even more people towards the camp of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman—even though people still have the same ideologies towards peace they always did. They still want to compromise; they just don't want the left to make that compromise because they said they wouldn't.

What they should have done in Lebanon is give an ultimatum and try and figure out what had really happened—and whether the army was ready to go to war. Instead of which the army bombed a power station in Beirut, where there was no Hezbollah, and harmed the moderate government of Siniora. What they should have done is negotiated for a prisoner swap—something they're ending up doing anyway. [Arguments from the audience that this merely tells Hezbollah that kidnapping works. The speaker says you have to operate under the assumption your enemy is going to try and harm you regardless, and you have to do what you have to do to minimise their losses. More discussion on that.]

How to persuade people not to vote for tribal loyalties, but on real issues. This is happening of its own accord, but only slowly. Education will help. And the more educated people are, the more they will vote for the left. But at the present the level of political education in Israel is very poor. And in the last three years education's budget has been cut by 30%.

As for the media, these are perceived by the public as being 3.81 (I think) on the above scale, because they are perceived as being Ashkenazi, middle-class liberals. Which they are, but in reality this bias does not exist in the reporting they do.

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