Decline and fall of the Zionist left
While the Israeli Labor Party has slumped to a record low, Meretz was saved by Arab votes. Tony Greenstein reports
Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1949, when the State of Israel held its first elections - a mere year after the Nakba, in which three quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled - thus allowing Israel to call itself both democratic and Jewish.
In that election Mapai, the Israeli Labor Party, gained 46 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. In second place was Mapam, the United Workers Party - then in an alliance with Ahdut Ha’avodah, a militaristic, left-Zionist party - with 19 seats, giving the parties of labour Zionism an absolute majority. (Twenty years later the leadership of Ahdut Ha’avodah - Yisrael Galili, Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yigal Allon - would form the basis of the Greater Israel movement, Gush Emunim, and abandon labour Zionism for messianic colonialism.) However, the leader of Mapai, David Ben Gurion, preferred to form a coalition with the religious parties, since the definition of ‘Jewish’ could not be a secular one and had to be in the hands of the Orthodox.
In the 1951 elections Mapai and Mapam lost five seats, but they still had exactly half of those in the Knesset and in practice, along with client Arab parties, an overall majority. In 1955, after Ahdut Ha’avodah had split with Mapam, the parties of labour Zionism lost a further seat, but in 1959 they won 63 seats, giving them an overall majority again. In 1961 they secured 59 seats and in 1965 the three labour Zionist parties - which now included Rafi, Ben Gurion’s rightwing breakaway from Mapai - totalled 63 seats. In 1969 the Israeli Labor Alignment, a merger of all the labour Zionist parties, won 56 seats - the highest number any party has ever achieved in an Israeli election.
In 1973 the Labor Alignment got 51 seats to Likud’s 39, but in 1977, in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, when Israel was taken by surprise by the joint attack of Egypt and Syria, Likud got 43 seats to Labor’s 32 and Menachem Begin formed the first Likud government. Since then the Israeli Labor Party has only twice formed a government.
The first such time was in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister. The Israeli Labor Party took 44 seats and Meretz (which included Mapam and other parties) had 12. The government rested on the tacit backing of the Arab parties.
Contrast this with the 2019 election. The Labor Party ended with just six seats in comparison to the 24 it held as the Zionist Union (with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah) in the 2015 Knesset. Meretz declined from five seats to four. So from a high point of 65 seats in 1949, the parties of labour Zionism have now slumped to just 10 seats between them. What makes this even worse is that, although Meretz is a Zionist party, a large number of its votes - about a quarter of its total - came from Arabs. A Zionist party that relies on Arab votes in order to retain any seats in the Knesset does not have a healthy or promising future. Meretz lost significant support to Benjamin Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party.
If it had not been for a very significant increase in votes from Israel’s Druze population, which previously voted for Likud and parties of the Zionist right, Meretz would not have won any seats. This switch of the Druze to Meretz was a consequence of Netanyahu’s decision to introduce the Jewish Nation State Law last summer, and in Kafr Qasim, the site of the infamous massacre in 1956, Meretz gained 39% of the vote.
Even members of the kibbutzim, the last reservoir of support for labour Zionism in Israel, voted predominantly for Kahol Lavan, as the most likely way of getting rid of Netanyahu. Ideologically there is little or nothing now to distinguish labour Zionism from its centrist rivals.
What is the explanation for this collapse in support for labour Zionism? I suggest it is a culmination of a series of factors. The labour Zionist parties were never socialist or even leftwing in the sense that is normally understood. Meretz is, at best, a party of civil liberties, but it does not challenge the Zionist basis of the Israeli state. It does not approve of its more overt racist characteristics, but it signs up to Israel as a Jewish state.
As for the Labor Party, today it has no social base. Whereas once the major organisation of labour Zionism, Histadrut - a trade union which was also Israel’s second largest employer - provided a comprehensive series of services, such as national health provision, today it is merely a conglomeration of individual unions. Its companies have long been in the hands of private capital.
The lack of any socialist or leftwing ideology, and any economic or social base, has left Labor rudderless, without a purpose. It is widely viewed as not standing for anything. This was one reason that in 2017 it elected as its new leader Avi Gabbay, the ex-CEO of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications firm, and a former minister in Netanyahu’s government! Gabbay had only joined Labor three months before.
His strategy was simple: to move the Labor Party further to the right in order to be able to compete with Likud. He even took advice on this from Tony Blair. Gabbay announced that he was opposed to dismantling any settlements in the occupied territories and supported Netanyahu’s attempts to deport Israel’s 40,000 black African refugees, because they constituted a ‘threat’ to Israel’s national identity, not being Jewish.
This strategy has failed dismally. Netanyahu has demonstrated that, when it comes to staking out a position on the right, no-one can beat him. Netanyahu was even responsible for the electoral merger of Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit - an openly racist party influenced by the late Meir Kahane - into the United Right. This gave secular Israelis even less reason to vote for Labor, especially since Gabbay had told his own party that the left had forgotten what it is to be Jewish!1
Gantz’s Blue and White Party - led by former generals and Yair Lapid, leader of the ‘centrist’ Yesh Atid (in practice firmly on the right) - was held together by only one thing: opposition to Netanyahu. I predict that it will not be long before this wholly artificial and unprincipled alliance will haemorrhage members.
Avi Gabbay will no doubt be despatched back to Bezeq, but for the Israeli Labor Party the main problem still remains, what exactly does it stand for? As Israel moves further to the nationalist right (with a plurality of Israeli Jews wanting to see Arab citizens expelled 2 - a sentiment shared by Likud’s partners, Yisrael Beteinu and the United Right Party of Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz - the old labour Zionist ideals, which represented collective colonialism, are now only of interest to historians.
Meretz also faces a dilemma. A Zionist party relying on the support of Israel’s Palestinians is a living contradiction! Meretz has never been a party of left activism and it has never, for example, supported Israel’s teenage refuseniks who will not serve in the occupied territories. It should consider the votes it received in this election as being on loan only.
What Meretz, which is committed to a two-state solution, will not face up to is that Israel is now one state, from the Jordan to the sea. With nearly five million Palestinians living under occupation, it is an apartheid state. In these elections we had the obscenity of 400 settlers in Hebron having the right to vote, whilst the 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron did not. Meretz has no answer to this, or the fact that two legal systems operate in the same area of land. Its problem stems from its desire to see a non-racist Zionism; a democratic Jewish state. These are impossible contradictions.
As Israel races to the nationalist right, its defenders in the west - from Donald Trump in the United States to Theresa May and Tom Watson in Britain’s Labour Party - have only one answer: to accuse Israel’s critics of ‘anti-Semitism’ l
Labour Zionism once relied on the kibbutzim - now they vote for the centre-right Kachol Lavan
Labor’s leader, Avi Gabbay, consulted Tony Blair about going to the right
Ha’aretz November 13 2017.↩