Sunday, 14 April 2019

Israel’s General Election – The Death of the Zionist Left


The Israeli Labour Party Slumps to a Record Low and the Arabs Save Meretz from Oblivion!


Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1949, when the State of Israel held its first elections. A mere year after the Nakba, when ¾ million Palestinians had been expelled thus allowing Israel the ability to call itself both democratic and Jewish.
How a Labour Kibbutz shifted its votes since the 2015 general election
In that election Mapai, the Israeli Labour 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.  20 years later the leadership of Ahdut, Israel Galili, Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yigal Allon, would form the basis of the Greater Israel movement Gush Emunim and abandon Labour Zionism for messianic colonisalism.
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.
Avi Gabbay of Israel's Labor Party and Yair Lapid of the 'centrist' Yesh Atid
In the 1951 elections Mapai and Mapam lost 5 seats but they still had exactly half the seats in the Knesset and in practice, with client Arab parties, an overall majority. In 1955, after Ahdut had split with Mapam, the parties of Labour Zionism had lost a further seat. In 1959 the Labour Zionist parties gained 63 seats giving them an overall majority again.  In 1961 the Labour Zionist parties achieved 59 seats and in 1965 the three Labour Zionist parties, which now included Rafi, Ben Gurion’s right-wing breakaway from Mapai, totalled 63 seats. In 1969 the Israeli Labour Alignment, a merger of all the Labour Zionist parties gained 56 seats, the highest number any party has ever achieved in an Israeli election.
In 1973 the Labour Alignment gained 51 seats to Likud’s 39 seats 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 gained 43 seats to Labour’s 32 and Menachem Begin formed the first Likud government. Since then the Israeli Labour Party has only twice formed a government on its own.
The first such time was in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister. The Israeli Labour Party gained 44 seats and Meretz (which included Mapam and other parties) gained 12 seats. The government rested on the tacit backing of the Arab parties.
Contrast this with the recent election. The Israeli Labour Party gained just 6 seats in the recent elections in comparison to the 24 seats it held as the Zionist Union (with Tzipi Livini’s Hatnuah) in the 2015 Knesset. Meretz declined from 5 to four seats. 
The morning after - shell shocked Israeli Labor Party leaders gather
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, it relied heavily on Arab votes, about a quarter of its total, in order to retain any seats in the Knesset. Meretz lost significant support to Benjamin Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party. A Zionist party that relies on Arab votes does not have a healthy or promising future
If it had not been for a very significant increase in votes from Israel’s Druze population in particular, which previously voted for Likud and parties of the Zionist Right, Meretz would not have gained any seats. This switch to Meretz was a consequence of Netanyahu’s decision to introduce the Jewish Nation State Law last summer. In Kafr Qasem, the site of a famous massacre in 1956, Meretz gained 39% of the vote.
It wasn't  Herut/Likud militias who perpetrated this massacre but those of the Labour Zionist militias
Even members of the Kibbutzim, the last reservoir of support for Labour Zionism in Israel voted predominantly for Kahol Lavan on the basis of wanting to see Netanyahu removed. 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 Zionist parties? I suggest it is a culmination of a series of factors. The Labour Zionist parties were never socialist or even left-wing in the sense that is understood in the West.  Meretz is, at best, a party of civil liberties but it doesn’t challenge the Zionist basis of the Israeli state. It doesn’t like its more overt racist character but it signs up to Israel as a Jewish state.
The Israeli Labour Party today has no social base. Where 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 a national health service, today it is merely a conglomeration of individual unions.  It’s industry has long been privatised.
The lack of any socialist or left-wing ideology and any economic or social base has left it rudderless, without a purpose. The ILP is not seen to stand 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 the ILP three months before.
Gabbay’s strategy was simple.  To move the ILP further to the right in order 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 he 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 election merger of Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, an openly racist party of the late Meir Kahane, into the United Right party. This gave secular Israelis even less reason to vote for the ILP, especially since Gabbay had told his own party that the Left had forgotten what it is to be Jewish!
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 Labour Party the problem still remain. What exactly does the Israeli Labour Party stand for? As Israel moves further to the nationalist Right with a plurality of Israeli Jews wanting to see Israel’s Arab citizens expelled, 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 refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Merertz 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 5 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 had no vote.  Meretz has no answer to this or the fact that two legal systems operate in the same area of land.
Meretz’s 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’.
Tony Greenstein

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