Israeli left’s ideas are winning; why aren’t its politicians?

Leftist politicians have been duped by false propaganda claiming the public opposes a two-state solution

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay attends a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay attends a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

As Israel heads for elections in April, the political center-left camp is in disarray. But it doesn’t have to be. Moreover, it’s mostly the left’s own fault.

The primary cause is the acceptance of the myth that the majority of the Israeli public is right-wing. Israeli political discourse is flooded with wisdoms such as “the left is dead” and “Israel has veered to the right.” A growing band of right-wing politicians and journalists proclaim these slogans at every opportunity,convincing those who seek a broad electoral base that they must take a hard-right turn or make do with political irrelevance on the left-wing end of the spectrum.

Facts belie this myth: In a recent analysis by Molad, numerous surveys unequivocally demonstrate that a clear majority in the Israeli public supports left-wing positions on foreign and domestic affairs. Most telling is that 59% of the public support the two-state solution – yet 57% believe that the majority of Israelis are against it. In other words, the majority think they are a minority. Similarly, the public embraces the left’s positions on other fronts, such as the economy, social welfare, state and religion, LGBT rights and more. Yet the left consistently fails to translate this ideological triumph into a political one.

63% of Israelis support evacuation of settlements as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians

American public opinion reflects the same phenomenon. A recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland shows Americans are increasingly giving up on the two-state solution and prefer one state for Israelis and Palestinians. The growing approval rates for the dangerous and irresponsible one-state solution illustrates a sense of despair rooted in current Israeli politics.

Not only is Israel’s left splintered, its leadership does not understand its voters’ positions.

How did this happen? And how can Israel’s left regain its voice and influence?

For years it succumbed to the right wing’s propaganda and meekly accepted the false assertions that the public is moving right.

A determined right has been using aggressive tactics, while benefiting from cooperative media and a highly effective network of wealthy think tanks. It has championed a divisive “us or them” rhetoric whereby the religious right is proclaimed as representing Zionist Israel while everyone else is labeled a traitor: the left, Arabs, Supreme Court, uncooperative media, and even the IDF and police.

Yet, responsibility for the left’s demise lies mostly with its own representatives. Many of the progressive leaders, feeling isolated and worn down by the attack of the religious right, have bought the spin that their ideas are unpopular and thus, if they want power, they must disguise their true positions and distance themselves from the “leftist” brand. Consequently, they embarked on a series of self-destructive practices in the hope of attracting “centrists.” Instead of competing with the right and countering its attacks, they abandoned their political views and fashioned themselves “centrist.”

Take, for instance, Avi Gabbay’s declaration, shortly after being elected Labor party’s leader, that his government will not dismantle West Bank settlements, even though 63% of Israelis support evacuation of settlements as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, while only 27% are opposed. Thus, Gabbay has not only positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu, but also in opposition to his own voters – and the majority of Israelis. His predecessor, Yitzhak Herzog, also declared: “We are not left-wing,” and Herzog’s predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich, went so far as to say that “calling the Labor Party leftist is a historical injustice.” Labor is not alone: Yair Lapid commented that the unity of Jerusalem is non-negotiable.

Liberal-democrat politicians are trying so hard to distance themselves from the label “left” that they have repudiated their own voters. Demonization of the left in Israel has accelerated and left-wing politicians are actually helping the right wing. This is not merely damaging self-criticism; it is political suicide.

This self-defeating behavior extends to mass protests on such issues as the cost of living, LGBT rights or even the Nation-State Law. They have been politically castrated; protestors do not call for the government to be replaced even though the government is responsible for the injustices against which they are railing.

The attempt to create a consensus at all costs undermines the left, as it is a false consensus. The subtext is clear: “It’s not a matter of right or left, so the left has to toe the line with the right,” or “there is no opposition or coalition on this issue, so the opposition will support the coalition.” By succumbing to rebukes from the right and siding with it, the left is effectively forsaking the public good. Political failure inevitably follows.

With the April elections taking place while Netanyahu is under a cloud of serious criminal investigations and the US is reducing its involvement in the Middle East, this is the time to learn from past mistakes. The left must replace ambiguous campaigns with a strong political infrastructure and positioning and long-term consolidation. The left will not win the upcoming or future elections until parties, politicians and civil society organizations vigorously commit to comprehensive progressive policy, effective media messages and a coherent political identity, enabled by a strong and dedicated progressive infrastructure.

Still, there is good news. Since the majority of the Israeli public supports progressive positions on security, economy, education, religion and the conflict, the left is here to stay. Israel’s future depends on its left’s ability to reinvigorate and rebuild itself. As we’ve suggested here, there is a way. The Israeli left must be courageous, assertive and take the necessary steps.

Orni Petruschka and Liat Schlesinger are chairman and executive director, respectively, of Molad, the center for the renewal of Israeli democracy.

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