Why the Israeli Left Is Lost
Their ideas and platform are incredibly popular. So why are they on the verge of collapse?
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.”
Ruth Margalit is an Israeli writer based in New York. She is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.