Why the Israeli Left Is Lost

Their ideas and platform are incredibly popular. So why are they on the verge of collapse?

An Israeli woman rides her bicycle past campaign posters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel.

URIEL SINAI/Getty Images

The first election I clearly remember as a child growing up in Jerusalem was that of 1992. Israel had only two television channels back then—one of which aired infomercials on a loop—so being allowed to stay up late to watch the returns that night was mesmerizing: It ingrained politics in my mind as the best show in town. The climax of a drawn-out ideological feud between two Yitzhaks (Shamir and Rabin), that election was so nerve-racking that I recall my mother sitting perfectly still by our kitchen table; she wanted to hear the results but couldn’t bring herself to watch. In the end, Rabin won by a hair’s breadth, and managed to push through an unprecedented peace agreement. Dovish Israelis still look back to that year as the heyday of Israel’s left wing.

On Tuesday, Israelis will vote once again, but the circumstances could not be more different. No one will be waiting anxiously in the kitchen, and those in the peace camp won’t rejoice. The Israeli left is sleepwalking. Polls predict that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu list will win handily, leaving the entire center-left bloc (excluding the Arab parties, who have traditionally declined to serve in the coalition) with about 40 seats—only one-third of the parliament. Rabin’s Labor Party, which had alone garnered 44 seats in the election two decades ago, is expected to muster, at best, 18. As a last-ditch effort to try to snatch votes from the right, Labor has rebranded itself as a centrist party, making it “the only social-democratic party in the world that doesn’t agree to be labeled ‘left,’ ” as Menachem Brinker, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, put it to me.

Something strange has happened in Israel: While almost two-thirds of Israelis have a negative view of “the left,” 67 percent say they support a two-state solution that would include a divided Jerusalem—the very compromise that has been the defining feature of the left’s agenda. Even among Netanyahu’s hawkish electorate, 58 percent say they are in favor of such a solution. It’s a paradox that cannot be easily explained. How is it possible for an ideological camp to collapse so resoundingly just as its platform is becoming more widely accepted than ever?

“It’s a very strange phenomenon,” said Yuli Tamir, a former education minister of the Labor Party. “All the characteristics that used to be identified with the left are no longer taboo, and yet the left is losing votes.” What makes the paradox even more baffling is the fact that instead of pushing his party to adopt the public’s positions and move further to the center of the political map, Netanyahu instead recently joined forces with the extremist Yisrael Beiteinu Party. He now heads a joint list that boasts some of the most radical elements in Israeli politics, including former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Opinions divide as to what triggered the left’s political crisis. Some consider it a short-term, fixable downturn owing to Labor leadership. They placed the blame squarely on current Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich, who is seen as equivocating on the Palestinian issue and who has voiced her support for continued funding of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Others lament the low voting turnout of Israeli Arabs, which is expected to hover below 50 percent. Many point to a broader, inherent problem afflicting the left in recent years: Demographic shifts in Israeli society have seen the left’s “natural” electorate—of educated people, mostly of Ashkenazi origins—decline, while the right’s three leading voting groups—of Orthodox, Russian-born immigrants, and those of Sephardic origins—are consistently on the rise. Yet no one disputes what Tamir calls the left’s “biggest trauma”: The failure of the peace talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000 and 2001, and the subsequent onset of the Second Palestinian intifada.

Shlomo Ben Ami, who served as foreign minister during the Camp David and Taba negotiations, balked when I asked him about those failed talks. “You’re talking to the person who offered the Palestinians full sovereignty of the Temple Mount!” he said. “The peace process ruined the Israeli left because of its failures. People don’t care that you make concessions—they get it. But what they don’t like is concessions without an agreement.” Ben Ami pointed to the moment that sealed the failure of these talks for the average Israeli: Barak’s declaration to the press as he returned from Camp David— “We have no Palestinian partner.”

In his autobiography, Bill Clinton called Arafat’s rejection of that peace offer in 2001 “an error of historic proportions.” It seems that this “error” cost peace-seeking Israelis just as dearly. In a poll taken in 1999, at the beginning of Barak’s term, 64 percent of Israelis believed that Palestinians wanted peace; by 2002, that number almost halved. “The public bought the narrative of the right,” according to Ben Ami. “They said, ‘Look, Oslo ended with exploding buses; the Camp David-Taba talks ended with suicide bombings; the pullout from Gaza led to rockets being fired on Israel’s largest cities.’ Even the term ‘peace process’ had become a derogatory term. ‘Left’ had become a word that no one wanted anything to do with.”

To those on the left (including Ben Ami), however, this narrative of the right wing is overly simplistic and deeply flawed, not to mention smacking of self-righteousness. While the reality of rockets and suicide bombings is, of course, undisputed, they say that this cause-and-effect account conveniently ignores the consequences of Israel’s 40-year occupation of the Palestinians; it also ignores the impoverishment and utter desolation that govern life in Gaza and the West Bank as a result. (At 40 percent, Gaza’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world.)

This difference between the left and right narratives serves only to illustrate the larger chasm that divides present-day Israel: The left sees the right as suffering from a misguided sense of victimization, whereas the right sees the left as a group of bleeding-heart apologists. The political discourse has become more polemic as a result. According to Yoaz Hendel, the director of the right-wing Institute for Zionist Strategies and a former adviser to Netanyahu, “There is now a dichotomy that I disagree with, whereby the right got a monopoly over Zionism and the left got a monopoly over human rights.”

That dichotomy has only intensified in recent years while the magnitude of the Camp David failure and the violence of the Second Intifada may still reverberate for a long time to come. Nahum Barnea, Israel’s most influential political columnist, defined the left camp as being “on a downward spiral” for the past decade. “The Israeli left lost its self-confidence. They realized that there’s no partner for peace, and without a partner, why is peace even relevant?” said Barnea. “The whole idea was to reach a bilateral agreement, not to take unilateral action. From that moment on, the left walks around as if in a daze and has nothing to hold on to.”

Meanwhile, a recent poll by Molad, a liberal think tank, shows that the majority of the public support positions championed by the left. In fact, despite Netanyahu’s expected reelection and trouncing of the left, 60 percent of the public believe that the country is heading down the wrong path. On socioeconomic issues, the trend is even more pronounced: 79 percent, for example, say they are in favor of imposing higher taxes on the rich—a cause heralded by center-left parties like Labor and the new Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), and 65 percent are in favor of redirecting government funding away from ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and toward public education.

But given the implosion of the left electorally, what does the public’s adoption of its positions really mean? Does the fact that a majority of Israelis now believe in a two-state solution represent a mere passive acquiescence, or does it reflect a genuine shift in public opinion?

“The polls are real,” Brinker said, sounding guardedly hopeful. “Likud voters vote Likud because it’s a symbol, but they think that ‘the doves’ are right when it comes to the practical solution. They say that the Palestinians are demanding more than any government can offer them right now but still half of them accept this solution and believe in a separation.”

Others, like Tamir, trust the survey’s findings but don’t think it spells a viable comeback path for the Labor Party in its current disarray. “Most people think that a two-state solution is the thing that will save Israel but that it’s impossible to achieve,” she said. “That’s what is sowing the seeds of this great desperation. People just don’t think it will happen. There’s a sense that the country will not be able to protect its unique character without a compromise, and yet a sense that the moment to reach such a compromise has already gone.”

Hendel, however, discounted the results of the survey, saying that they were more theoretical than practical. “At the end of the day, if you want to go and start a process that is so complicated, your public just isn’t there. It doesn’t matter what it keeps saying in the polls. The public just isn’t there. It’s skeptical. They see peace more as a vision, a nice enough goal.”

Perhaps the person who best understood this precarious political calculus was Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s hardline ex-generals, who as prime minister in 2005, sent troops to vacate Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. In doing so, Sharon followed the example of Barak, who pulled the Israeli military out of Lebanon five years before. The emphasis in both cases was on unilateralism—a sense that negotiations with the other side would be futile but that the status quo was likewise unsustainable. Unilateralism, however, has come to be seen by both camps in Israel as a last resort: the right opposes the dismantling of Israeli settlements, while the left opposes the lack of a comprehensive deal that would lay the foundation for two states—Israeli and Palestinian—existing side by side.

Without a comprehensive deal, however, the only way the left can possibly rebound is by offering a clear alternative to half the population that has grown alienated from it. Yachimovich has tried to do that by dimming the issues she thought proved controversial and by adopting a more politically conservative agenda. But judging by the election’s projected results this move hasn’t paid off. Which leaves the left with only one tangible option: to refuse to join Netanyahu’s coalition under any condition and instead, as Tamir and Barnea both put it, “keep fighting.”

As for the future, no one I spoke to within the left’s camp still envisions negotiations of the Oslo kind, where two leaders sit across the table from each other and hash things out until they reach a compromise. The days of handshakes and ceremonial peace signings are over. In order to solve what the left sees as a morally corrupt status quo, it is holding out for regional turmoil. Ben Ami said that he was “waiting for a catastrophe” to stress to both sides the urgency of a deal.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, such a catastrophe isn’t hard to envisage. But mostly what the left seems to be hoping for is a concerted international effort—from the United States and, they hope, also from Jordan and Egypt—that would put a stop to terror and bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. If the United States would impose its presence, they agree, that path is still possible. Even Hendel, Netanyahu’s former right-hand man, acknowledged: “If [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen will say that he’s ready, and Obama will force Israel’s hand, everyone will start negotiations. Everyone. Including Bibi.”