Maya Ilany is the deputy director of Yachad, which campaigns for a two-state settlement to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Eric Lee is the editor of LabourStart, and when living in Israel in the 1990s ran the BibiWatch website. They participated in a panel on “the future of the Israeli left” at Ideas for Freedom 2019, alongside Tom Harris. Maya and Eric spoke to Solidarity (in their personal capacities) about the context for the discussion.
There’s still a majority for two states
What are the prospects for the left, following the poor results in the 9 April elections?
Maya Ilany: When we talk about the left in Israel, we need to distinguish between political parties, grassroots movements and campaign groups, and ideas. Which parties are considered part of the left is subjective. A very generous definition would include everyone from Blue and White, in the centre, through to Hadash on the radical left. Some would also include Balad [a secular Arab nationalist party].
Labor and Meretz (the Green Party) crashed at the last elections. Unless there are major changes in their leaderships and campaigns, I can’t see a different result for them in the next elections. It looks like everyone on the left will run the same campaign as they did first time round. They will be running against a right-wing that has already learnt lessons from the last election, and will be running a joint slate of smaller right-wing parties to ensure they pass the threshold this time.
If we talk about ideas on the left – a two-state settlement, a peace plan; and radical economic platform; the welfare state; secularism, separation of synagogue and state; equality; democratic and constitutional checks and balances – those ideas are still, despite years of right-wing propaganda, very popular amongst the Israeli public. There is still majority support for a two-state settlement. There is majority support for LGBTQ rights, full civil equality, secularism, for transport services to run on Saturdays… it’s only a small minority that is ideologically committed to “Greater Israel” expansionism and settlement, and religious law.
There seems from a distance to have been something of a revival in social movement activism. Is this impression accurate, and is there any potential for this to find an echo in official politics?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “revival”, but as things have been getting worse around many social issues people have been taking to the streets. However, these movements have tended to be led by people whose social position is more secure, so lots of the most affected are still absent from the struggle. But in the past year, we have seen huge demonstrations against anti-LGBTQ laws, against domestic violence, against deporting asylum seekers.
Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between politicians and those leading the struggle on the streets. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem for the left, which is that it doesn’t function as a coherent political camp, or an ecosystem that includes parties, campaign groups, journalists, and so on. Left organisations function as lone satellites floating through space, without much communication or collaboration with each other, and often with a lot of conflict within the left. The right stokes division: orthodox Jews against secular Jews; Jews against Arabs; religious people against LGBTQ people and so on… We have to combat that and make all these different groups to come together and see that they have a lot in common. This means that the left has to spend more time attacking its political opponents and less time attacking each other.
A recent conference organised by the Berl Katznelson Foundation is a source of hope. It took place in Tel Aviv and was attended by 900 people. Figures from the entire left spectrum, from the centrist Blue and White party to Ayman Odeh from Hadash, all sat together on panels to discuss strategy, not just for the next elections but for the next ten years. I’m an optimist, so I believe it is possible for the left to regroup.
New ideas to stop decline?
I’ve been asked to comment on the prospects for the Israeli Left in 2019 and my short answer is: bleak. To understand how bad things are, one needs a bit of a historical perspective.
In the first Israeli parliamentary elections in 1949, over 50% of the votes were cast for the two socialist parties, Mapai and Mapam, which won the majority of seats in the Knesset. Seventy years later, in the elections earlier this year, those two parties (now Labor and Meretz) won just 8% of the vote. They have gone from complete dominance of Israeli politics to total irrelevance.
But it’s just the spectacular electoral collapse that matters. There’s been a nearly total disappearance of the political culture in which the Israeli Left thrived. Three decades ago, two of the daily newspapers in Israel were socialist — the Histadrut’s Davar and Mapam’s Al Hamishmar. Both had existed for many decades and both were shut down in the 1990s.
The newspapers in Israel today are all in decline, and one of the most popular, the free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, is Bibi Netanyahu’s house organ. More important than that is the collapse of the Histadrut trade union federation, which was until the early 1990s one of the most powerful trade unions in world, with Israel having a very high rate of trade union density.
Thanks to changes introduced by the Labor Party, hundreds of thousands of workers quit the Histadrut, and according to OECD data trade union density in Israel fell by 50% in the first years of this century. The once-mighty Histadrut has now been reduced to a rump. In the face of the collapse and imminent disappearance of the organised Left — especially the Labor Party — the response of the Left’s leadership is to do... more of the same.
This is where my questioning of the two-state solution comes from. For the last two decades or so, the Israeli Left used the slogan of ‘separation’ as a way to reach out to right-wing Israeli Jews who didn’t like, or feared, Palestinians, and for whom the slogan of “peace” was anathema. One recent media campaign put the two alternatives before the public as “annexation” or “separation” — peace not being considered as an option. But it didn’t work. It didn’t stop the Left’s decline.
It turns out that Israeli Jewish voters who don’t believe in peace are more likely to vote for a right-wing party like Likud than for tough retired generals who lead parties of the Left or centre. For a whole range of reasons, the Israeli Left appears to be in terminal decline, and instead of looking for new ideas, it repeats the same tired old slogans which convince increasingly smaller numbers of people. The only hope is not a change in the leadership of the Labor Party — though that is desperately needed — but a change in the message.
A new Israeli Left will be born, just as strong trade unions will reappear, because these things are needed. But there are no short-cuts, and this will be a long and difficult struggle.