Israeli politics cannot be compared with those in western capitalist democracies like Britain. The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not the same in Israeli politics as elsewhere. In the West they bear some relationship to class, New Labour notwithstanding. The left has represented, in however distorted a fashion, the interests of the working class and relies on them for voting support. The right bases its appeal on private capital and appeals to the middle and bourgeois classes.
In Israel ‘left’ and ‘right’ applies to one’s position on whether to support peace with the Palestinians or a Greater Israel. Hence Ratz, the Citizen’s Rights Party, which merged into Meretz, in the 1988 Knesset, was the most liberal of Israeli parties when it came to its attitude to the Palestinians, with founder Shulamit Aloni, who became Education Minister, supporting the Refuseniks (soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories) and adopting a non-Zionist position of opposition to the racism of a Jewish State. But economically it was a free-market position which merged with Mapam, a traditional party which originally described itself as ‘Marxist’ (in fact Stalinist).
In fact it is the Israeli working class, in particular Mizrahi/Oriental Jews, who have voted for the right in Israeli politics. Begin came to power in 1977 directly as a result of the vote of the working class. Israeli Labour was historically the enemy of the Oriental Jews and was rightly seen as their oppressor.
The Israeli Labour Party, which is erroneously seen as a party of peace, has always contained a pro-settlement wing, of which Yigal Allon and Israel Galili, of the left Ahdut Ha'avodah faction, were the most conspicuous representatives. It should never be forgot that it was Israeli Labour NOT Likud who established the first settlements and it was the Allon Plan which outlined the strategy followed to this day that the Jordan valley be colonised in order that any Palestinian state be surrounded by Jewish settlements on all sides.
The traditional parties of the Zionist Left, based on the kibbutzim and the ‘trade union’ Histadrut have been reduced to electoral insignificance. In 1949 Labour and Mapam had an absolute majority in the Knesset. Indeed David Ben Gurion, leader of Mapai, opposed building a coalition only based on the Zionist left parties and reached out to the United Religious Front and the Progressives as partners, excluding Mapam in the process.
Israeli Labour also accepted the Zionist rules of the game. No government coalition must ever depend on the votes of Arab parties. After all this is a Jewish state!
Until the 1977 elections that brought Menachem Begin of Likud to power, the Zionist left parties had never gained fewer than 54 seats and even as late as 1992, with the fateful election of Yitzhak Rabin, later to be assassinated, the Zionist left parties gained 56 seats as Meretz, which by now included Ratz, Mapam and the centre party Shinui, gained 12 seats.
But since the 1999 election the decline has been rapid. From 36 to 25 to 24 to 16 and now 13 seats, the traditional parties of the Zionist left have become irrelevant as former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, leader of the Israeli Labour Alignment, sought to prove his macho credentials with the genocidal attack on Gaza. The explanation for the dramatic decline in Labour Zionism and the equally rapid rise of the openly racist and semi-fascist Right is two fold.
As Zeev Sternhall shows in his excellent book, The Founding Myths of Israel, the Zionist left parties were never based on class struggle. How could they since their main goal was to build a Jewish state in conjunction with Zionist and Jewish capitalists. They could hardly promise to accept such money on the basis that they were going to overthrow capitalism! Instead the Palestinians and Arab Labour were defined as the class enemy, hence the Boycott of Arab Labour campaigns of Histadrut in the 1920s and 1930s.
Colonialism in its formative and early years often takes on a co-operative form, which western social democrats mistake for socialism. Hence the Kibbutzim were on the surface egalitarian, but they operated within a colonial conquest; they were stockade and watchtower settlements. There was never a time when they were profitable and it is little wonder that as they developed industries they began to employ cheap Oriental Jewish and Arab labour. In short they became collective capitalists. And of course Kibbutzim, including those of the ‘left’ Mapam Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz federation, always excluded Arabs from membership. In other words they were thoroughly racist institutions, established on the confiscated land of the expelled Arabs.
The late Noah Lucas, a prominent but critical Zionist, described how the Kvutzah (forerunners of the Kibbutzim) were a result of
‘an alliance between the embryonic labour movement and the Zionist financial institutions. The pragmatism of the more radical socialists among the pioneers was revealed in their readiness to enter such an alliance with the Jewish bourgeoisie abroad.’
As Professor Franz Oppenheimer, who was closely involved in settling the land explained:
'The Kvutza did not originate as a deliberate social experiment. Its forms were elaborated by accretion in the school of circumstances.' [Noah Lucas, Modern History of Israel, p.56.]
Arthur Ruppin, the father of land settlement in Israel and a fervent believer in eugenics and the racial sciences, summed it up thus:
‘I can say with absolute certainty: those enterprises in Palestine which are most profit bearing for the businessman are almost the least profitable for the national effort and per contra many enterprises, which are least profitable for the businessman are of high national value.’ [Ruppin; Building Israel, New York 1949 pp. 47, September 1965]
Indeed the most vicious anti-Arab militia, the Palmach shock troops of the 1947-8 war, were based on the ‘Marxist’ Mapam and Ahdut Ha'avodah. It was they, under Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon, who in 1948 expelled 50,000 Arabs from Lyddah and Ramleh and massacred thousands of others.
But today, when Israel is an openly capitalist society, aligning itself internationally with the most right-wing authoritarian police states, there is no room left for co-operative capitalism. Hence Histadrut’s industries were privatised in the early 1990s. Put simply, the social base of labour Zionism has all but disappeared.
The other reason that the socialist Zionist parties have declined is that their ‘peace’ proposals were based on naked racism – the need to preserve the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. In other words, there were too many Arabs. That was the basis of their support for 2 States, in reality one state, Israel, and a Palestinian Reservation. Every racist aspect of Israeli society was pioneered by Israeli labour. It was not for nothing that the settlers in the West Bank could say that their right to settle in Ariel and Kiryat Arba was the same as the original settlement of Tel Aviv. Except whereas today’s settlers base their claims on the fact that god gave them the land, the ‘left’ Zionists claimed their right to settle was based on the bible, the existence of whose god they denied!
The settler-right represent the logical culmination of Zionism and no one represents it better than the leader of Yisrael Beteinu, Avigdor Liebermann, a former member of the Jewish Nazi party Kach. YB openly questions the right of Israeli Arabs to be citizens of the Jewish State, demanding a McCarthyite ‘loyalty oath’. It wants to hive them off to a Palestinian Reservation in the West Bank. Like the revanchist nationalist myth of the ‘stab in the back’ that lost Germany the 1st world war, Liebermann openly describes Israel’s Palestinian citizens as a fifth column.
It is therefore a mark of just how far and how fast Israel has moved to the openly racist, expansionary right that Liebermann’s YB obtained 15 seats, only one less than the combined total of Israeli Labour and Meretz.
Socialists and genuine anti-racists should not be disappointed at the outcome of Israel’s elections. On the contrary, the disappearance of the hypocritical ‘shoot and cry’ brigade of ‘left’ Zionists and the ascendancy of the openly racist right is a welcome clarification of the political situation. Of course this will be blamed on Arab intransigence, but this was always the explanation of settlers – from Algeria to South Africa – of why they had to engage in yet more bloody reprisals and repression. It was Israeli Labour under Barak who led the recent attack on Gaza, just as Amir Peretz, ex-Histadrut Chairman and Defence Minister launched the attack on Lebanon in 2006.
One thing is certain. The 2 State Solution is Now Dead as a Doormouse.