The violent history between Israel and Palestine has pushed the Israeli left to the brink of total collapse.
TEL AVIV – The holiday of Passover, which marks the Jewish exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, typically has Israeli security forces on high alert. This year, tensions flared throughout the holiday weekend on March 30, after tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered at the Gaza-Israel border to protest Israel's stifling blockade over the isolated enclave and demand refugees too be allowed to move back to homes that are now in Israel. The Israeli military quelled what was billed as a peaceful sit-in, killing at least 15 Palestinian demonstrators. In the following weeks, the death toll mounted to 35.
It is in the context of Israel’s numerous conflicts that the influence of the Israeli left has dwindled over the years. Many leftist Israelis say they have no choice but to hold out hope for change.
“The only solution will be the left, even though, at the moment, it’s not offering me very much in the way of solutions. It needs a change in strategy, and fast,” said Yael Raz Lachyani, the spokesperson of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, an agricultural community in southern Israel, which is about 800 meters away from the Gaza Strip.
In the summer of 2014, when Israeli forces clashed with Hamas militants and bombed Gaza in a 50-day long war, Nahal Oz was targeted by rockets from Gaza. Ever since then, local residents have claimed to hear sounds of Hamas operatives digging tunnels beneath their neighbourhood. Both Israeli and Hamas officials have warned that the next round of war would take place underground, as the two sides reiterate that Hamas would continue to engage in tunnel warfare.
Lachyani, a 41-year-old mother of three said that her home community, originally founded by leftists, has followed the nation’s rightward shift – including those who oppose negotiations with the Palestinians – over the past decade and a half. But she says that her dilemma to remain hopeful for peace is particularly painful as Israel marks 70 years since its founding, known in Hebrew as “Independence Day” and in Arabic as “the Catastrophe,” which caused the fleeing or forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.
Lachyani believes that “there is no other solution to the Gaza problem, besides dealing with Gaza,” she says, meaning that she hopes for the creation of a Palestinian state beside Israel. She also knows that she is part of a minority.
The Israeli left that played a significant role in Israel’s founding has in the past decade and a half become politically impotent, with its landmark ideas – secular, universal values and the persistence of peace negotiations vis-a-vis the Palestinians – deemed impossible as the conflict trudges on and leadership on both sides stagnate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has served more than a cumulative decade in power, making him the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in the second decade of what was originally planned as a temporary four-year term.
Many observers say that the final nail in the coffin of the Israeli left was placed last July, when Avi Gabbay, a former supporter of Netanyahu’s Likud, won a stunning victory to lead the centre-left Labor Party. Among Gabbay’s first public announcements was to support Donald Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem, a controversial move which the US administration and even members of the Israeli right have long asserted could complicate peace negotiations with Palestinians.
“A united Jerusalem is even more important than peace,” said Gabbay, causing uproar among his party members and experts who worried that his leadership would transform the traditionally dovish Labor Party, long the bastion of Israel’s liberal democracy.
In reality, Gabbay’s rightward pivot has been festering for decades and has always been more about internal politics than about peace with the Palestinians. While the Labor Party was first founded in 1948 by European immigrants to Israel, it has, in recent years, been condemned by voters for being “elitist” and “out of touch.”
When immigrants first arrived from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, they were politically and economically marginalised by the founding Labor Party, which placed them in shantytown transit camps in the Israeli periphery. In the last elections in 2015, Netanyahu successfully mobilised those ethnically-charged identity politics. He was criticised for inciting fear of Arab-Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, when he sounded an election-day alarm that Arab-Israelis were arriving “in droves to the ballots boxes.”
In the border town of Sderot, which has been hit by rockets from Gaza in the past and where unemployment is rampant, Likud earned 43 percent of the vote, to the Zionist Union’s seven percent.
Netanyahu “spoke in “fluent Mizrahi” – he latched onto the most primordial fear: that of the Arabs,” wrote Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff. Polls show that Netanyahu, who is at the head of two potentially incriminating corruption scandals, is still expected to win the 2018 elections.
Tzvia Greenfield, a former Israeli politician with the left-wing Meretz party and the author of the book Crashing: the story of the collapse of Israel’s Left, said that the left’s decline has been accelerated by its internal divisions, between a radicalised, anti-Zionist branch that has dominated its narrative, and another, “saner” pro-two-state-solution left that has, by and large, chosen to get out of the game and, in some cases, emigrated to Europe, the United States and other popular Israeli brain-drain destinations.
“I think that the lack of legitimacy that’s given [in Israel] to a Jewish, democratic country is very problematic,” said Greenfield, who added that the rise of Gabbay is only another symptom that “something is off within the Israeli left.”
“The Israeli left is on the verge of disappearing just as support for our positions is growing,” Tamar Zandberg, the newly appointed Meretz chairwoman, wrote in an op-ed in Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli daily. She also spurred an uproar when she stated that her party’s new aim was to “exert influence from within,” by potentially joining a government in which the hawkish, right-wing Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a member.
“Our challenge is to translate these positions into political power and to translate that power into policy,” wrote Zandberg in Haaretz.
Yigal Elhanan, whose sister was killed by a Palestinian militant in 1997, says that that none of Israel’s current left-wing parties represent him. In the last elections, he voted for the alliance of Arab-Israeli political parties known as the “Arab List,” the third-largest faction in the Israeli parliament which has limited influence.
Elhanan still regularly joins street protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but in recent years, and especially since the last bloody Israeli-Gaza war in 2014, he’s seen unprecedented levels of violence and vitriol. During that war, as Hamas fighters fired rockets from Gaza at central Tel Aviv, right-wing Israeli nationalists attacked anti-war protesters as they chanted “Death to Arabs!” and “Death to leftists!”
“It’s clear now that there’s only a certain amount of leftists that the Israeli public can see at once,” says Elhanan. “The crisis of the left is really the crisis of Israeli society. After 70 years of entering and exiting periods of bloodshed, it just gets you worn out.”