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Israel’s Left Is Down but May Not Be Out

Israel last week managed to elect what will be an apparently stable right-wing government coalition, seemingly breaking a cycle of close elections after five rounds of voting in less than four years.

And while former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his bloc celebrate his imminent return to office after 18 months as opposition leader after winning 64 seats in a 120-seat Knesset, those on the other side are wondering whether the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties can recover after a dismal performance that saw the former win a precarious four seats and the latter out of parliament altogether.

The somewhat good news for voters who did not want Netanyahu redux is that there has been very little shift in evenly divided voting blocs. In fact, says Professor Gideon Rahat, chair of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the final result was down to “an accident of political misjudgment” by Labor leader Merav Michaeli.

Michaeli declined to combine her party with the smaller, more left-wing Meretz, even as Netanyahu and his cohorts united, understanding that every vote counted in another tight race among an equally split electorate. As a result, Meretz narrowly failed to squeak past the 3.25% electoral threshold that would have given the party the minimum of four seats in the next parliament.

And a different distribution of votes could have shifted the balance in the next Knesset and denied the Likud leader his victory.

“The reason that the anti-Netanyahu bloc didn’t create a draw … is simply because Meretz and [Arab party] Balad didn’t cross the electoral threshold, so almost 300,000 votes went in the dustbin,” says Professor Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The bad news for Israel’s left-wing, say both academics, is that while the number of voters who do not want to see Netanyahu return has not changed, the number of voters who actively support Meretz or Labor is shrinking.

“I don’t think there is any more room for two Zionist left-wing parties,” Rynhold told The Media Line, citing a leftward shift by Labor in recent years.

“When Labor was more center-left like with [former party leader and current President Isaac] Herzog … that made room for Meretz,” he said, referring to the 2015 elections.

“In terms of the demography of the population, the pool that Labor and Meretz draw from is getting smaller as a percentage,” he said.

I don’t think there is any more room for two Zionist left-wing parties

Rahat also posits that the left, which always stood for equal rights and furthering the peace process, no longer has a unique purpose as those issues have either progressed, fallen by the wayside or been adopted by other parties. As such, he told The Media Line, there is very little cause for the Israeli voter to plumb for Labor or Meretz when more successful outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid is promoting the same issues in the platform of his own centrist Yesh Atid party.

“The left was shrinking and was replaced by either Yair Lapid with his middle-class interests and policies or with [National Unity leader and outgoing defense minister] Benny Gantz,” with his security credentials, according to Rahat.

“That’s a problem of the left,” Rahat added. “You represent everything with your shrinking power [and] at the end of the day you are not needed anymore. Gay rights would be taken care of by Yair Lapid and Gantz and even Bibi [Netanyahu] would keep the status quo” on such social issues.

Even more damaging, according to Rynhold, is the perception of the left as the fervent promoters of an agreement with the Palestinians, something that he says is largely viewed in Israel as a failed policy.

“In terms of what it means to be left-wing in Israel, the main component of that has been discredited for 20 years, which is supporting the peace process,” he said.

“So, what you’re left with is a number of issues to do with religion and state and for that, you can vote for [Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor] Liberman on the right,” Rynhold added.

For “individual rights and things like that, there’s not really any difference between Lapid and Meretz,” he also concluded.

Rynhold and Rahat both believe that, for the left wing to survive, there will have to be an amalgamation of these smaller parties into a larger and therefore more politically robust entity.

A similar move was carried out by Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power – Netanyahu’s allies on the far right – to great effect as the joint slate picked up 14 seats to become the third-largest party in the next Knesset.

“If they want to have any future of course they have to merge; they [just] have to decide how to merge,” Rahat said of Meretz and Labor.

“I think they need to very seriously consider creating one Zionist left-wing party,” said Rynhold. “It would have a clear identity and … it’s not something that you need two parties for.”