The Center and the Left
When then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Avigdor Lieberman, hard-right secular leader of the Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”) party of being a “leftie,” it was meant as a supreme insult.
Lieberman sneered in response. “I’ve lived in Nokdim (a West Bank settlement) for 30 years but the big hardliner (a jab at Bibi) lives in Caesarea.” (The latter is a wealthy, seaside resort town north of Tel Aviv. In fact, the only golf course in Israel is located there.)
Historically, the Left has been comprised of, well, left-wing parties. In recent years, though, the concept of “left” has been skewed by Netanyahu and others to refer to anyone who opposes them.
This brief introduction to the centrist and left-wing parties in Israel will focus on the actual – not phantom – parties and issues on that part of the political spectrum.
A refresher on the right wing may be helpful to putting it all together. Our earlier coverage of those parties can be found here.
I. A VERY BRIEF AND HIGHLY SELECTIVE HISTORY OF THE ISRAELI LEFT – PART 1
The Israeli Left – which founded and controlled key institutions and government for the first 30 years of the state’s existence – has become a bit of an all-purpose punching bag in recent decades. Its most recent peak was in the early ‘90s under the leadership of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by an extremist who saw the Oslo Accords as an unbearable betrayal of Israel.
Over the following decade, as the peace process was discredited and unraveled, Palestinian violence crescendoed with the four-plus-year Second Intifada. From 2000 to 2005, approximately 1,000 Israelis were murdered by suicide bombers attacking civilians. Thousands more were injured. The nation’s psyche was shattered, as Shany Mor wrote about so movingly in his recent essay.
Since 2005, there have been ups and downs for the Left in Israel, but the trajectory is a negative slope. The party of Founding Father David Ben Gurion now struggles to hold onto 7 of 120 Knesset seats. Currently led by Merav Michaeli, the Labor base is very small, shrinking, hardcore and tends to be on the older side. Unlike much of the western world, younger Israelis are more inclined to be right-wing than left, an interesting trend that makes sense when you consider that many came of age during the Second Intifada.
Which brings us to the really interesting part of all this: What, exactly, is the “Left” in Israel these days and how is it distinguished from the Right?
II. ONE STATE, TWO STATE: A DEFINING ISSUE OF THE LEFT
In the early 90s – the heyday of Oslo Accords negotiations and optimism – the phrase “two-state solution” became the sine qua non of any “serious” discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli future. The Accords referred to two states throughout, but they did not contemplate two equal, sovereign states. Not by a longshot.
Palestine was always to be demilitarized. It was understood by all parties that Israel would maintain a permanent security presence in the Jordan Valley, bordering the Kingdom of Jordan. According to a complex plan, Israel would have full sovereignty in certain areas, the Palestinians in others, and there would be mixed governance in the rest.
The simplest way to explain it is that Palestine was to be an independent state with respect to all matters but military, security and defense.
Over the years, though, various interlocutors became lazy with how they threw around the term “two-state solution.” It morphed into the view that there would be two sovereign states with no limitations on the Palestinian exercise of authority. Perhaps the strongest proponent of this inaccurate interpretation was former Secretary of State John Kerry. As the powerful top diplomat of the Free World, Kerry’s cavalier use of the term in this way pretty much ensured its adoption universally. His fundamental misunderstanding of the limitations of “two states” baked into Oslo was highly problematic. He just kind of made up his own version of the phrase and it became the solution du jour.
When the centrist and left-ish parties in Israel refer to “two states” they – with the exceptions of Arab parties and far-left Meretz – refer to the Oslo concept. That is what they would adhere to and advocate making their position on this issue indistinguishable, fundamentally, from that of the center-right and right-wing parties.
This is the core issue in any Israeli election today. All roads lead to this juncture and how it is addressed: Will the state remain Jewish and democratic or stumble into a situation where the occupation of the West Bank continues, compromising Israel’s democratic bona fides? Or, will it remain truly democratic and separate into two states? Another option, of course, will happen over time if the situation is not consciously addressed; that Israel will become one state, including the West Bank, but with a very mixed Arab and Jewish population. The West Bank Arab population would either become full citizens of Israel with equal rights or they would continue to live in a society governed by different laws. The character of such a nation would, of necessity, be very different from the Israel envisioned by its founders and what stands today.
III. A VERY BRIEF AND HIGHLY SELECTIVE HISTORY OF THE ISRAELI LEFT, PART II
The Left has a residual hold on the Israeli psyche, hard-baked from the pre- and early state years. Many of the immigrants to Mandatory Palestine were committed socialists, the majority leaving the wretched poverty and limited futures of ghetto life in eastern and central Europe. They were also heavily involved in communist and socialist political movements, often Jewish iterations of the broader national parties that weren’t terribly welcoming to their “kind.”
The collective ideal permeated everything about the “Yishuv” and post-Independence Israel. 
Collectivism was the preferred model for state institutions and economic enterprise. Agriculture was the economic foundation of the fledgling state and kibbutzim – collective settlements that were set up like miniature socialist states – the basis of the agricultural sector. All assets belonged to the kibbutz and every aspect of life was communal; children were raised together in a special dormitory, jobs were assigned by a powerful secretary, meals were prepared and taken in a communal dining hall.
With its roots in European socialism and communist movements, the kibbutz population was almost exclusively comprised of Ashkenazi Jews. Kibbutz members and their children were seen as the best of the best; selflessly building the nation and personifying the New Jew; the bronzed, brawny Jew with dirt under his nails who was emancipated from the dreary life of incessant religious study of his forefathers. The kibbutz children were paragons of good health, good looks and, not surprisingly, tended to be drafted into the elite combat units in the army and air force. Whereas North American students vied for acceptance to top colleges, Israeli youth competed to be drafted into the most demanding army units.
Then, there was the organization of labor and economic institutions. It is impossible to overstate the centrality of the Histadrut to the founding and flourishing of Israel. The Histadrut organized workers and the economy, providing a degree of stability and planning that was desperately needed.
Left-ish sensibilities are deeply embedded in the national DNA. So much so that when it has appeared – as in this upcoming election and previous contests – that one or more of the left-wing parties may not cross the Knesset threshold, Israelis rallied to ensure that they did. It is unthinkable, to many, that the founding parties be wiped out.
The precipitous decline of the Left really gained momentum in the mid-to-late 80s, when hyperinflation ravaged the economy and the First Intifada shook the nation. Being a peacenik became more and more difficult while the potential peace partners were bombing civilian buses and cafes.
And then Oslo happened. For many, it allowed for a surge of optimism that a negotiated peace was actually achievable. And then there was the murder of PM Yitzhak Rabin. And then the Second Intifada. And all these events dealt lethal blows to the Left. This scenario also contributed to the rise of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which has become a comfortable home to many Labor party refugees.
These days, the former jewels in the Israeli crown – the kibbutzim – have been, for the most part, drastically reinvented along market economy principles or become rundown, sad little places; resembling old paper mill towns in North America long after the paper mill shut down.
Thriving kibbutzim often still have a hand in agriculture but have become appealing sites for other industries to locate. The kibbutzim themselves have developed secondary industries which more often than not have no connection to their agricultural roots.
Israel’s voting demographic is flipped compared to the voting demographics prevailing in western democracies. In Israel, the older voters are more inclined to vote left whereas younger voters are increasingly leaning to the right wing. There are many variables driving this countertrend, with security not necessarily being the most influential. The growing communities of religiously observant, and extreme, account for much of the right-wing trend. The older cohort which carries a deeply embedded residual respect for the sacrifice, vision, determination and accomplishment of the founding generation is what keeps the Left going. Without the collective ideology it is a certainty that the nation building enterprise would not have been nearly as successful as it was.
IV. KEY ISSUES FOR THE ISRAELI LEFT
In most democracies, the Center and Left prioritize issues related to social justice, economic management and regulation and, increasingly, the environment and climate. In spite of noble efforts to highlight such matters Israel always reverts to the topline issue: The Conflict (with the Palestinians) and security, more broadly. Without secure borders and domestic control over terror attacks within Israel, nothing else matters.
And on this issue, opinions and worldviews seem to be very entrenched among the Israeli electorate, with little “swing” vote to woo. Additionally, the Left has lost much of its luster. Many who voted in previous elections for Labor or Meretz, for example, did so out of a concern that otherwise the parties might not cross the threshold, and any credible democracy requires some representation from all perspectives on the spectrum. The Left sits as more of a respectful nod to the past than any recognition of a strong popular consensus in the present.
V. PARTY BY PARTY
Knesset #24 – 17 seats; currently polling at 22-23
With 17 mandates and polling consistently to take 22-23 in the upcoming election, Yesh Atid seems to have a firm hold on the second largest party – in terms of Knesset seats – after Likud. The party has also established itself as the leader of the center-left camp; one that has the power and political savvy to negotiate a successful coalition and execute. The “change government” created by Lapid – no matter one’s political affiliation – was earth-shatteringly bold.
Yair Lapid, Drawing by Igor Tepikin
And having the opportunity to act as prime minister during this lame duck period confers significant advantage on Lapid. It is he who represents Israel internationally, which he manages quite deftly. In addition to the mid-July visit of President Biden and his handling of the recent rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Lapid also teamed up with President Biden to issue a sharply worded condemnation of Iranian leadership for encouraging, if not ordering, the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie recently in Chautauqua, New York. Every one of these limelight moments must irk Netanyahu. Lapid, in terms of bloc leadership, is his main competition. And each one of these marquee moments if handled well, enhances his electoral chances.
(Formerly Blue and White-New Hope)
Knesset #24 – Blue and White – 8 seats
Knesset #24 – New Hope – 4 seats
Currently polling at 12-13 as National Unity
Since entering the political ring in 2018, General and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has gone from bust to boom and then all over again. Leading the Blue and White ticket in 2019 with Lapid taking second spot, and Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi filling out the front bench, Gantz’s political naivete led to many novice scrapes and burns. His party fell apart. Bibi ran circles around him in coalition negotiations and at the Cabinet table and Gantz, for a while, was painful to watch. Like, you just felt sorry for the guy.
In the runup to election #4, many discounted his political future, questioning if he would cross the threshold. Not only did he do that, but he came through with an astonishing eight mandates. Since then, his polish and steady temperament has served him in good stead. Benny Gantz won’t set the world on fire, but he’ll stare ahead and walk in a straight line.
As discussed in our Election Guide for the Right, the merger for Election 5 of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party with Gantz’s Blue and White was mutually beneficial. Sa’ar conferred right-wing and leadership credibility on Gantz. In return, Gantz offered Sa’ar a real chance of surviving to cross the threshold. But with the recent addition to the team of General Gadi Eizenkot, who is considered to be left of Benny, Sa’ar is going to be pressured to demonstrate to his constituents that he isn’t going to be pulled to the center or, worse, the dreaded left.
Drawing by Ioan Szabo