Israel’s power-starved left seeks its political fortunes in the center

Shut out of government for a generation, Labor is shifting its tone, arguing that the right offers no hope of peace and, after this summer’s conflict, that it can’t win wars either

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. on December 1, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90/File)
Then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. on December 1, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90/File)

The Israeli left is in shambles. A generation ago, it advanced the claim — an enthralling prospect at the time — that Israel could attain peace with its neighbors, including its most intimate neighbors the Palestinians, in exchange for land won in war.

It was more than a political program; it was an identity. Proponents of the Oslo land-for-peace formula marched together, sang special songs together, voted together, celebrated their heroes together and exchanged dire warnings about the rejectionist, expansionist Israeli right, the enemy whose chauvinistic fantasies threatened to topple the dream of peace in our time.

At left-wing gatherings in the 1990s, it was far easier to talk about the blinkered ideologues of the right than about troubling signals and inconsistencies in the rhetoric and actions of the partner Yasser Arafat.

And that left won elections. In 1992, it elected Yitzhak Rabin on an explicit platform of finding a way out of the conflict with the Palestinians. In 1999, with some of Oslo’s luster faded but an electorate no less eager for solutions, Ehud Barak won his mandate and charged into peace talks like a man with something to prove.

Now, the Labor Party, for decades the 800-pound gorilla of Israeli politics, is only the third-largest political party in the Knesset, and the fourth-largest in many polls. It hasn’t won an election in 15 years.

Two major recent surveys, in the Makor Rishon daily on September 5 and the Knesset Channel (Israel’s C-SPAN) on September 11, suggest this situation is not going to change in the foreseeable future. The explicitly right-wing bloc of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home weighed in at 57 and 56 parliamentary seats respectively in the two polls, nearly half of the 120-seat Knesset. Meanwhile, the self-identified left of Labor and Meretz drew a combined mere 17 seats in the first poll and 25 in the second.

Polls change, parties rise and fall, leaders surprise with unexpected policies or parliamentary alliances, and, indeed, the right’s current numbers may be inflated from the summer war with Hamas, but all these caveats take place on the margins. Fifteen years of political shifts have not changed the basic facts. A 40-seat gap is a crushing political lead. A 40-seat gap that continues nearly a generation of right-wing political dominance may be a historic shift.

Thousands attend a rally on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, marking 18 years since the assassination of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. October 12, 2013. (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Thousands attend a rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, marking 18 years since the assassination of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. October 12, 2013. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Analyst Tal Schneider, a political blogger (Hebrew link) and former Maariv correspondent who identifies with the center-left, gives voice to the frustration.

“The Israeli public today votes on the diplomatic-security situation,” she told The Times of Israel last week. “Patriotic or nationalistic feelings are on the rise, and the public agenda continues to be dominated by the military-defense issue. As a result, even if the left tries to place a mirror [before Israeli society] and offer solutions, show diplomatic flexibility and reach arrangements with the Palestinians – no one is listening.”

The Labor Party’s precursors, Mapai and the Alignment, ruled Israel for its first 29 years, never once losing an election. It was only in 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud first defeated Shimon Peres’s Alignment, that the left lost its hegemony over Israeli political life. With the Second Intifada in 2000, that slipping influence hardened into a shutout from the halls of power.

Now, after 14 years in the effective opposition, despite periods as a junior partner in a Likud- or Kadima-led government, the question must be asked: is it the left’s turn to wander for a generation and more in the political desert? Or does the left have a path back to power in the foreseeable future?

The militant center

The left’s collapse is not really comprehensible outside the larger context: the implosion over the past decade and a half of the ideological certainties that defined Israeli political identity in the ’90s.

Haifa University political scientist Dan Schueftan describes this generation-long shift thus: “Mainstream Israeli public opinion adopted both the most important paradigm of the right and the most important paradigm of the left, and this is what I call ‘center.’ The most important paradigm of the right is, ‘You can’t trust the Arabs.’ You may reach a good settlement with an Arab state, but it’s based essentially on deterrence, not on peace, not on goodwill. And the most important paradigm of the left is that we should not be controlling the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians, and therefore we should withdraw from the overwhelming majority of territories that we occupied in 1967 where Palestinians live. This combination of the two paradigms is where the Israeli electorate is.”

Schueftan’s description of this center carries added significance. The director of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center, Schueftan is one of the architects of these changing political paradigms. His research, and in particular his 1999 book, “Disengagement – Israel and the Palestinian Entity,” has had an outsized influence on the development of this new Israeli centrism, at least among decision makers. Schueftan is sometimes characterized as a defense hawk, but his articulation 15 years ago of the security and economic case for some Israeli territorial withdrawals also made him one of the intellectual godfathers of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

In Schueftan’s view, one reason that the electorate’s simultaneous acceptance of both sides’ paradigms has favored the right at the ballot box is simple: the right is implementing the policies of the center.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a ceremony honoring Israel's SWAT police units, on September 4, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a ceremony honoring Israel’s SWAT police units, on September 4, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)

“This is what brought the so-called ‘Israeli right’ to a hegemonic position in Israeli public opinion,” he says. “I say ‘so-called right’ because whereas the MKs of the Likud party are very deep inside the right, and some of them are far-right, they would be unelectable if the policies [pursued by the party] would have been the policies of the right. They’re unelectable without [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and Netanyahu does not pursue a policy of the right. When [Netanyahu] says ‘two states for two peoples,’ he understands that this is where Israel needs to go in the final analysis, and Israeli voters accept it. The Israeli voter will not go to a ‘Greater Israel’ direction, or to a ‘give peace a chance’ direction.”

It is remarkable how closely this description of the Israeli mood, by a noted defense hawk, is echoed by an Israeli columnist closely identified with the left.

Writing in the name of the “silent 70 percent of Israelis in the center,” Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit had this to say last week:

“We’ve had it with the messianic believers in the entire Land of Israel, who don’t understand that without dividing the land, there will be no state, and we’ve had it with the messianic believers in a perfect peace, who don’t understand Hamas and the Islamic State and don’t know where they are living.”

Israelis have been “broken,” he writes. “We’ve been broken by the crude discourse of power and pillars of smoke, and also by the empty discourse of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Mahmoud Abbas hope and peace in our time.”

The popularity of this sentiment, which trusts neither the hardness of the right nor the softness of the left, has been shown in countless polls and studies of Israelis. Perhaps the most recent example can be found in this month’s Tel Aviv University-Israel Democracy Institute War and Peace Index, which asked Israelis in the wake of the Gaza war how Israel should deal with “the challenge posed by Hamas” — via the “military route,” the “political-diplomatic route,” or a combination of the two. A quarter of Israeli Jews (25.7%) reflected the statements of hawkish leaders like Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and urged a military solution alone, 7.1% said a diplomatic one, and a vast center of 65.6% urged a combination. Since the other side can’t be trusted, diplomacy depends on power, and since the other side can’t be wished away, military power alone can’t resolve any aspect of the conflict.

In polls that ask Israelis which politician is ‘most suited to be prime minister,’ Netanyahu consistently emerges the unassailable front-runner

Right-wing parties may loom large in polls, but vast numbers of their voters are ideologically centrist, as the fickle fates of such parties in recent years attests. In late 2005, when prime minister Ariel Sharon took the Likud’s centrists with him to his newly-formed Kadima, this exodus was the main factor in the Likud’s subsequent drop in the 2006 elections from 38 seats to 12.

Similarly, Jewish Home had three seats in the last Knesset, holds 12 in the current one, and may win as many as 19 in the next. But two polls published late last year in Haaretz, which were sponsored by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace in Washington, suggested that as many as half of the votes in the last election for Jewish Home, a party ideologically committed to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, came from voters who do not actually oppose an Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the territory as a matter of principle.

The picture, then, is more complex. The right hasn’t won an ideological contest against the left. It has simply won the contest for the skeptical center’s trust.

On chaos and leadership

The death of political ideology didn’t just devastate the left. It had a second victim: the large, agenda-setting political party. The ruling party, Likud, controls less than one-sixth of parliament, with the same number of seats (19) as its “junior” partner Yesh Atid. Jewish Home may hold just 12 seats, but has polled repeatedly in recent weeks at the same 19.

Ruling coalitions are no longer constructed from a single large center-left or center-right party and a handful of small satellites, the dominant formula from 1948 until the late 1990s. Today’s coalitions are composed of medium-sized parties held together by increasingly complex quid pro quo agreements that reflect the growing number of constituencies with dedicated Knesset seats.

Yet while Israelis are divided about parties, they tend to have strong preferences when it comes to individual party leaders. Perhaps the right’s most potent political asset, the polls attest, is Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

Asked in a September 1 Knesset Channel poll which right-wing leader was “most representative of the views of the Israeli right,” Israeli voters gave first-place not to Netanyahu, but to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (39%). Just one-quarter (28%) said Netanyahu, and 20% said Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, April 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, April 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu may lead a right-wing government, but, as Schueftan suggested, he is not actually seen by most Israelis as the ideological rightist his detractors say he is.

And therein lies his power. In polls that ask Israelis which politician is “most suited to be prime minister,” Netanyahu consistently emerges the unassailable front-runner. In the Knesset Channel poll this month, Netanyahu took first place with 30% of the vote, Bennett second with 13% and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog third at just 10%. A May poll in Globes put Netanyahu at 32%, with Herzog at second place with 13%. And before that, in February, Netanyahu led with 40%, with Herzog a distant second at 14%.

The left’s best chance for a political comeback may rest in this collapse of large-party politics. Labor does not need to regain its former glory of 40 or more seats to return to power, but merely to grow large enough to appear to other mid-sized parties as a viable partner in the formation of a Knesset majority.

“Labor’s only chance is to make trouble,” one influential right-wing commentator said this week. To regain power, “it would have to create acrimony in the coalition, and then it might be able to pull [centrist parties] away from the right. It can try to depict the right as opposed to peace [i.e., opposed to separation from the Palestinians], but it would have a better chance creating friction on economic issues.”

But, as Netanyahu’s coalition partners know well, Labor cannot draw the center unless it puts forward a candidate far more popular than the party. In the last election, both Yesh Atid and Jewish Home at various moments in their campaigns openly endorsed Netanyahu, even as they asked Likud voters to switch to them. Netanyahu won that election long before election day. The actual vote was a contest over the makeup of the coalition, not over its leader.

For Labor to have any hope of leading the center, and thus the country, it needs its own Netanyahu, a leader who polls among large swaths of non-Labor voters as a competent centrist. Can Herzog be that candidate? And if not Herzog, who?

The Herzog strategy

Last Tuesday, a handful of left-wing activists met at the high-brow Tel Aviv bar Casa Veranda on swank Rothschild Boulevard for an event intended to examine “how to turn the left into a winning brand.”

A Facebook page advertising the event (Hebrew link) may summarize the sentiment among left-wing activists better than any pundit:

“Are you sick of ‘left’ being turned into an epithet and a scapegoat? Are you sick of hearing that nothing can be done about this? … The question is, what do we do? How do we change the reality? The brand? How do we remain ourselves — that is, leftists — and still return to the front of the political map and public debate?”

Yet the event may have revealed more about what is wrong with the left’s political elites than what might be done to change its fortunes.

As one invitee lamented sardonically (Hebrew link), the conference seemed to confirm the left’s elitist stereotype, and included speakers who were more closely identified with past failures than with a more successful future.

“I was invited to a conference on ‘how to turn the left into a winning brand.’ Where is the conference? On Rothschild Boulevard. Who is speaking? Among others, Lior Horev ([Ariel] Sharon’s man)… and Dedi Suissa (Ehud Barak’s man). There are, of course, no Arabs at this conference. Who represents the women? The former adviser to [Shimon] Peres, Behira Bardugo. In short, [may you have] many pleasant years in the opposition while Netanyahu and Bennett write the last lines in this episode called the State of Israel.”

Today's Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Today’s Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

To be sure, the left has a perception problem, but conference organizers may have missed the point in implying that it is primarily a “rebranding” problem.

According to veteran political strategists, Labor’s real challenge lies in positioning itself as an answer to disappointed centrists, who vastly outnumber the devoted left.

Herzog’s “real opponent isn’t Bibi [Netanyahu],” argues political strategist and former cabinet secretary Israel Maimon. “He has to make inroads into the center, to take from Yair [Lapid] and Tzipi [Livni].”

Herzog “has a double war. He has to bring votes from Meretz and from the center,” Tal Ashkenazi, a well-known figure in Israeli political advertising, said last week on a Knesset Channel panel. “He has to speak in two voices, but wisely.”

And, indeed, Herzog has spent much of the past year trying to appeal to the center without alienating his shrunken but devoted left-wing base. The refrain has been simple: Labor largely agrees with the right about Israel’s security needs, but only Labor can deliver the other side of the coin, an end to Israeli control over the Palestinians.

The right’s foot-dragging on peace talks, Herzog has argued, delivers neither of these: instead of making Israel more secure, it has guaranteed both continued warfare and continued involvement with the Palestinians.

‘If the right isn’t strong enough to destroy Hamas, and can’t deliver what we need diplomatically, then why do we need a right?’ — Labor MK Hilik Bar

“At every moment of decision over the past five years,” the Labor leader charged in a Channel 2 interview last month, “[Netanyahu] ended up making the decision that strengthened Hamas, instead of strengthening Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas]…. I think after this campaign [in Gaza], the Israeli public will have a very clear choice to make. In the end, the Israeli voter has to decide, personally, whether he sees a future of two states in this land or not.”

And in an interview on Channel 10 earlier this month, he said, “After [the war] the dust will settle, and the diplomatic arm [of Israeli policy] will come into play – and suddenly we will discover that it doesn’t exist.”

It is hard to find in Herzog’s public rhetoric the promise of peace, trust, coexistence or reconciliation. Herzog focuses on a simpler and far more popular desire: separation. The right, he explains, can fight all the wars it wants, but it can’t deliver separation over the long term.

Hilik Bar, a Labor MK and the party’s secretary-general, is one of Labor’s most outspoken articulators of this centrist strategy.

“The right’s assumption that the left is weakened is fundamentally mistaken. If the right isn’t strong enough to destroy Hamas, and can’t deliver what we need diplomatically, then why do we need a right?” he asks rhetorically.

MK Hilik Bar [Labor] in the Knesset, March 06, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
MK Hilik Bar of the Labor Party in the Knesset, March 6, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
“The electorate will choose the left “if the left presents the agenda that is its true self, what the left once was – uncompromising on security, and unwilling to give up [on achieving an agreement] with the Palestinians.”

One way to attract voters, Bar believes, might be to better explain the potential benefits of a peace deal to Israelis. “The left needs to stop talking about an Israeli-Palestinian tango and start dancing a group dance, a hora, with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, pragmatic forces in the Arab and Muslim world. If the left can present this sort of framework, the people will be convinced that a diplomatic horizon is preferable to a permanent two-year loop of war where we keep tiring the enemy but not defeating it. Then the right won’t have a chance” come election-time.

The right of today, he says, “is extremist. It’s not the Likud of [former ministers] Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, but of [MKs] Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon. And it doesn’t even offer security.”

And, it must be said, Labor isn’t the only part of the left engaged in an earnest campaign for the center. Even the Geneva Initiative, an effort by Israeli and Palestinian activists to advance a peace agreement modeled on the Oslo talks, sees its primary target audience in the center, and even in the center-right.

“The majority that supports creating a border between us and the Palestinians somewhere near the ’67 lines exists, but it has to be activated,” argues Gadi Baltiansky, director-general of the Geneva Initiative-Israel. “It’s true that the public wants a right-wing leader to implement the left’s policies, but it’s also true that the ideological map has moved left. ‘Two states for two peoples’ was once the motto of the extremist Hadash [party]. Labor never called for it [during the Oslo process]. Now it’s been uttered by the leader of Likud, even if he doesn’t do anything to bring it about.”

And, Baltiansky might have added, unilateral withdrawals of the sort proposed by Schueftan were adopted on the left as early as 2002, when Barak’s former chief negotiator Gilad Sher and former IDF intelligence chief Uri Sagi published a policy paper (Hebrew link) at the Van Leer Institute calling for an “initiated separation, which will allow a future return to negotiations with the Palestinians.” It was a plan conceived by left-wing planners, published by a left-wing think tank, but which found its greatest champion in Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

The future, Baltiansky argues, thus belongs to the left, whatever the polls may say.

“After the war in Gaza, we see people from the center, from Shas, from Likud, some who voted for Liberman. They’re in a dilemma, they’re perplexed. [They say,] ‘We thought that if we don’t do anything, nothing will happen. There wasn’t peace, but there was relative peace, the economy was okay.’ These people don’t have an answer now. They don’t say, ‘Okay, we will support the Geneva Agreement tomorrow morning.’ But they are asking themselves, ‘Do we win the next war, or do we prevent it?’”

The left’s parties and leaders lag hopelessly behind in polls. But its electoral strategy is changing. It is seeking new audiences and attempting — as yet unsuccessfully — to articulate a vision that could resonate with these audiences. And it is hoping, in the words of a much-loved business-school aphorism, that failure will indeed breed success.

Correction: This article was corrected to reflect Labor’s presence as a junior coalition partner in several governments over the past 14 years.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed