The weakening of Israel’s leftwing legacy

By Shlomo Roiter Jesner
20 March 2018
Israel Israel
How can a left in decline make a revival against an ever-strong Netanyahu?
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The state of the left in Israel is more precarious today than ever before. While the country was founded on socialist principles back in 1948 by the Mapai party, which eventually transitioned into modern-day Labor, the direction Israeli politics has taken recently could not be more different to what its founders envisioned.

Emphasising principles like working the land and building agricultural communes, or kibbutzim, Mapai ruled Israel until the 1977 election of the Likud party’s Menachem Begin. While Israel swung back to the left with Yitzach Rabin’s return to power in 1992, Rabin should be viewed more as a hawk who became dovish than a representative of the traditional Israeli left. In recent decades, Israeli politics has been dominated almost exclusively by the hardline, rightwing Likud which, due to Israel’s representative system, requires a coalition to rule. Coalition partners are usually found to the right of centre, such as with the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennet, or among the Jewish ultra-orthodox parties – although more socially liberal parties, like that of Moshe Kahlon, have also been incorporated into the coalition.

Social issues or security concerns?

The weakened Israeli left should not be seen as an aberration but something that has become the norm, driven in large part by the lack of a coherent security policy. Historically the right in Israel has focused on security while the left has concerned itself with social issues, such as managing the cost of living and increasing government subsidies. Such issues are pertinent given the cost of living in Israel is considered the highest among the OECD, but insufficient in a country where security plays such a significant role in citizens’ daily lives. Therefore, a direct electoral choice between the security-oriented right and the socially-focused left almost always favours the rightwing parties.

Despite the right’s focus on security issues and their traditional aversion to territorial concessions, almost all land concessions to date have been made by rightwing governments, exhibiting a level of pragmatism that has helped them widen their appeal among leftwing voters. Such was the case with both Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s 1982 return of the Sinai and Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

As well as appealing to citizens’ security concerns, Likud and the right have also successfully held onto power by incorporating left-leaning parties into their coalition, for example to Kulanu party of current finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, which aims to reduce the cost of living and address social concerns. The left has, at the same time, focused its political efforts on social issues without developing a coherent and appealing security strategy. Although these social issues are important, something we saw during the 2011 social justice demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters from across the political spectrum to the streets, they will always take a back seat to daily security concerns.

Divisions among the left, unity among the right

Additionally, the right has been buoyed at the expense of the left by its unity. Despite significant similarities in their politics, the left has traditionally been more divided in Israel than the right. This phenomenon can best be demonstrated by the 2013 Knesset elections, when five leftwing parties ran on separate lists against just two rightwing lists, with Netanyahu’s Likud and current defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu parties running a joint list. This division led to the decimation of leftwing parties, for example the moderate Kadima, which dropped from 28 seats to a mere two.

The left has learnt from the 2013 election, uniting themselves under the umbrella of the Zionist Union in the 2015 election, winning a whopping 24 seats to Likud’s 30. Parties that refused to include themselves paid dearly at the ballot box, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid falling from 19 seats to just 11. This sense of division extends to the left’s relationship with the Arab parties. Despite inevitable differences of opinion on security issues, co-operation should be possible on social issues, particularly with socially-conscious Arab parties like Hadash and Balad. Fostering co-operation both among the Israeli left and working with the Arab parties could facilitate the emergence of a reinvigorated left that would be able to pose a realistic political challenge to the ruling right.

Underhand tactics

The weak position of Israel’s left has been exacerbated through their attempts to discredit Likud by targeting the integrity of the party leadership. These efforts have taken place at the expense of focusing on developing a clear security policy or building inter-party co-operation. Despite almost 12 years of various investigations against Netanyahu and his family, no criminal charges have materialised and attempts to sway public opinion against the prime minister have been largely unsuccessful. Recent developments that have prompted the Israeli police to state they believe there may be grounds for an indictment, however the potential departure of Netanyahu does not foreshadow the downfall of the Israeli right. It remains more likely that the prime minister be replaced from within Likud or another rightwing party than that the left regain control of the government. Calls for Netanyahu’s resignation by opposition leaders such as Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid do not strengthen their prospects for replacing him. Rather they give an impression of weak politicians using underhand tactics to undermine a prime minister who still enjoys vast public support.

For the Israeli left to regain dominance, it must take advantage of current political uncertainty and evaluate its past weaknesses to rebrand itself accordingly, emphasising a positive policy programme that makes it the only viable alternative to Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Failing to do so will just mean a continuation of the existing political dynamics and the further alienation of potential support bases for the left that could, if activated, dramatically change the face of Israeli politics.

Image: Benjamin Netanyahu
Image credit: Roman Yanushevsky /