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.”