When Israel goes to the polls for a third time in a year, the Labor party might well disappear. Once hegemonic, the party that founded the state is now irrelevant. Etan Nechin argues in this overview of the history of the Israeli Left that it will only have a future if it understands why, stops aping the Right, and offers a radical reimagining of the Israeli economy and society alongside a new peace plan. The editors invite critical responses to this essay.
The Israeli Labor Party that led the formation of Israel and enjoyed uncontested power for decades won 25 seats in the 2015 general election, six in the May 2019 elections and four in the September election, leading to a mass exit of party members and infighting among its leadership over the last crumbs of power. Recent polls even show that when Israel goes to the polls for a third time in a year, Labor might even fall under the voting percentage threshold and evaporate. How, within the span of a few decades, did the party that enjoyed total hegemony become irrelevant?
The Left turned against the unions and the welfare state
Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party, was the strongest political force in Mandatory Palestine. One reasons for this hegemony was that David Ben-Gurion, besides being Israel’s first prime minister, was also the first secretary-general of the Histadrut, an umbrella organisation for the Jewish trade unions. Within seven years of its inception in 1920, the Histadrut accounted for 75 per cent of the Jewish workforce. With the power of labor in his hands, Ben-Gurion formed Mapai, the Labor Zionist Movement. Labor and Zionism became synonymous: workers came under the auspices of the Histadrut that provided for all their needs, including education, healthcare, pensions, culture, and more. Those workers in turn became a political force that secured and centralised Mapai’s hold on power. Ben-Gurion once said that ‘without the Histadrut there would be no Israel’.
However, there was fundamental flaw: unlike other trade unions around the world, the Histadrut was also Israel’s biggest employer, and its leadership was centralised amongst a select few that were socialist, Zionist, and very Ashkenazi. They instilled policies that came to be known as the ‘Red Notepad’, meaning card-carrying party members were favoured for jobs and other opportunities, mostly over immigrants from Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, and the rest of those who came from the Arab-speaking world in the early 1950s. These new immigrants were put in transit camps and in industrial towns in the north and south, far away from the centre of power. The Ashkenazi elites treated them as second-class citizens; the Histadrut became a hub of systematic inequality, not to mention the position of the local Arab-Palestinian population, who were only allowed to join in 1958.
Ironically, these quasi-socialist leaders, who held May Day parades, were bankrolled for the most part by American capital and German reparations, equalling 25 per cent of Israel’s gross national product in the first decade of its existence, keeping the nascent state afloat during the austerity it suffered throughout most of the 1950s.
The final nail in the coffin of the old welfare state was hammered home by Haim Ramon, a young labour leader and minister of health in the Rabin Government who became the head of the Histadrut in 1994. Ramon devised a plan to have the government take over health services from the Histadrut. This meant that the Histadrut lost its main source of revenue that came from members’ fees, causing a sever deficit in the organisation. This gave Ramon the justification to sell off the Histadrut’s assets, including worker’s pension rights, and to lay off thousands of workers who now entered into the hyper-privatised corporate market place that was eroding unions and worker solidarity. In the year and a half Ramon was in charge, the Histadrut saw a loss of almost a billion shekels and two-thirds of its members.
The process of selling off the state’s — and workers’ — institutions accelerated throughout the late 1980s and culminated not in Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing Likud government, but in the government of Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin. The national phone company, the national airline, the national shipping company, the two biggest banks, the chemical plants, and many more state companies were sold wholesale to a few wealthy families. It wasn’t because the companies themselves were not-profitable — the lion share of them were — it was an ideological decision made by the heads of the Labor Party and the Israeli-Jewish Left.
‘There is no partner’: The Left told Israel to give up on ‘Land for Peace’
The faltering state of affairs changed overnight—or six days—with the astonishing and overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The victory lead to a frenzied euphoria in the country but also seismic shifts in the Labor Party: the post-war era saw Ben-Gurion exiting political life and Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, dying in office, and a new generation of leaders emerged, with the likes of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin vying for the leadership held by the bullish Golda Meir.
The 1967 war also marked the beginning of the occupation. Suddenly Israel had access to cheap, non-unionised labour. This didn’t only hurt unskilled Israeli labour, but also investment: it was much cheaper to hire Palestinian workers than buying and developing new machinery and technologies.
The occupation also meant that Israel doubled its size and population, causing its defence spending to skyrocket from 10 per cent in 1966 to 30 per cent in 1973 after the debacle of the Yom Kippur War. That war, which Israel barely survived, showed it was not invincible.
Rabin’s government did succeed in signing the Oslo Accords and a peace agreement with Jordan, but the bubble of euphoria the Left was in burst in the most violent way: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a nationalist Jew following Israel’s largest rally in support of the Oslo Accords.
In 1999, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak. Barak, the last prime minister from the labour-left, who tried to revive the dying Oslo plan in the 2000 Camp David Summit, but due to a mixture of arrogance, pressure from the Americans, and Yasser Arafat’s unwillingness, the summit collapsed. On the long plane ride back to Israel, Barak and his advisors racked their heads to spin the failure. They found a solution. Barak put the blame on the Palestinians by saying, ‘there is no partner’. This phrase that would become the official Israeli stance on the conflict ever since. The Right may have assassinated Rabin, but it was Barak who buried the hopes of the Left.
The collapse of the peace process, along with hardening of the Palestinian position, brought about the Second Intifada and the election of Ariel Sharon and the Likud. Today, Israeli society has largely given up debating peace, mired now in conflicts over identity politics spurred by its politicians. The society has fractured into well-defined sectors that Netanyahu has learned how to please or pit against each other as he sees fit. Weary and apathetic, Israelis have been running to parties disguised as ‘centre-left’ that campaign on cheaper phone plans and apartments and advocate an innocuous type of Zionism without pushing for the renewal of the peace agreements. Their vision is comfort over coexistence — the status quo in exchange for smartphones.
‘They are not nice’: The Left alienated the Mizrahim
In Israel, groups outside the seats of power and the bucolic Xanadu of the Kibbutzim began speaking up. One of the first organised attempts to resist the regime was the formation of the Israeli Black Panthers, a group of activists who protested against the discrimination of Mizrahi Jews and demanded access to education and jobs. Instead of embracing them and acknowledging the systematic inequality, Labor leaders pushed them away. When asked about the Black Panthers, Golda Meir simply shrugged and said, ‘They are not nice.’ What Labor leaders didn’t notice was that these not nice people were beginning to become a significant political bloc.
Buoyed by the resentments of Mizrahim and other disenfranchised groups, the Likud Party led by Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion’s long-time rival, delivered a huge upset in 1977 elections; for the first time in Israel’s existence, Labor was in opposition.
Begin is known for signing the peace agreement with Egypt in 1978. It was he, a politician of the Right, and not a leader from the Left, who gave up the Sinai Peninsula, an area twice the size of today’s Israel with access to the Suez Canal, and forcefully removed Jewish settlements. But as the world looked upon Begin and Anwar Sadat shaking hands, presided over by Jimmy Carter, Begin enacted another plan, one that would change the economic fabric of Israel. Despising the socialist hegemonic apparatus, he began dismantling it. He attacked the Kibbutzim, calling them ‘those millionaires with pools’. He appointed Simha Erlich as finance minister, who abolished foreign currency regulations, which flooded the market with money and cheapened imported goods, causing major inflation and eventually a recession. At its highest point, inflation reached 1,000 per cent.
Under Begin’s regime, the government ended subsidies on products like bread and milk, and utilities like electricity, petrol, and public transportation, leaving the market to determine prices. The hardest blow to unionised industry was the doubling of interest on credit, meaning factories fighting raging inflation couldn’t get money to produce more goods and pay workers. In the early 1980s, well into Begin’s second term, Israel was waging an never-ending war in Lebanon, the state’s debt had doubled, the stock market collapsed, school hours were cut, poverty skyrocketed — the infrastructure of the welfare state was crumbling to dust.
In 1983 Begin resigned and left Israel on the brink of bankruptcy. There was no clear winner in the 1984 elections and Shimon Peres, an unpopular Labor Party technocrat became prime minister of the unpopular unity coalition government. However, instead of reversing course and bolstering the ailing welfare state, the government announced severe austerity measures and continued the privatisation of the state’s assets.
The middle and working class, who began losing trust in the two party system, began voting for niche parties. One of these parties was Shas, acronym for ‘Shomrei Sefarad,’ or the ‘Sephardic guardians’, an ultra-orthodox party founded in 1984 as a backlash to the under-representation of Sephardic religious Jews in politics. The party offered its voters free education through its government-funded religious school system and benefits through their support network. Because Labor hadn’t offer solutions on a national scale, voters opted for sectoral welfare.
The Left gave up on a Jewish-Arab coalition
It is a lesser known fact that there was Arab representation in the first 12 Israeli governments as part of the Labor’s satellite lists. Although they had no ministers, and some saw them as fig leaves, these Arab parties were part of the coalition and raised issues affecting their constituencies without changing the Jewish nature of Israel.
Historically, there were two main strands of ideological parties to the left of Mapai: Mapam, a Jewish-Socialist party formed from an alliance between the Kibbutz Worker Movement Hashomer Hatzai’r and the left-Labor Zionist group Ahdut HaAvoda Poale Zion, and MAKI, a Communist party, represented by the Palestine Communist Party (PCP), which was a Jewish-Arab mixed anti-Zionist party.
The PCP was established in 1919, and after splitting between Arabs and Jews in the 1930s, reunited in 1949 as The Communist Party of Israel (MAKI). Meir Vilner, one of its leaders, who initially opposed the partition plan, would be a co-signer of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In a speech, Ben-Gurion said he wouldn’t sit with ‘Herut or Maki’ comparing the Jewish-Arab party to Herut, the nationalist right-wing party.
Ben-Gurion instead attempted to instil ‘Mamlachtiut’ — a way to override inherent ideological, historical, and cultural divides in Israeli society by consolidating power in the state’s hegemonic apparatuses. This meant that there wasn’t any space for other narratives, especially by marginalised groups, not culturally nor politically.
Nevertheless, MAKI represented a consistent alternative voice in the early years of Israeli politics. This Jewish-Arab unification lasted until 1965 when a rift in the party over the stance of Arab nations against Israel led a majority of the Arab members to leave and form Rakah, the predecessor to the present day Hadash. This rift was part of the global post-colonial struggle in which Arab leaders decided to forsake universal class struggle and refocus on a nationalist agenda. This fracture was the point of origin of the perception, widely held in the Israeli-Jewish public today, that Israeli-Arab leaders are less concerned with their constituencies than they are with Palestinian nationalism.
Hadash remained a minor political player until 2015, when it was absorbed into the Joint List, a coalition of majority Arab members. At the moment, it only has one Jewish MK, and although its chairman, Ayman Odeh has called for increasing its Jewish membership, there are still factions in the Joint List that harbor more nationalist agendas that deter more mainstream appeal.
Mapam was the second largest party in the Mapai coalition. It was the first mainstream political party to have an Arab MK and it opposed Israel’s martial law over the Arab population. But struggles in Mapam were focused on its internationalist stance and its relationship with the Soviet Union, not the local Arab population. Despite its progressive credentials, it failed to embrace the Arab population and offer an alternative to Mapai and its successor, Labor. Mapam eventually united with Raz, a small Jewish-left party and in 1984 formed Meretz to consolidate opposition against the Lebanon War.
Apart from campaigning on a peace process, Meretz ushered in an agenda centred around civil liberties, i.e. secular life. Its peak of power was in Rabin’s government in which it was a main partner. Meretz, apart from campaigning for peace negotiations, increasingly focused on women and LGBT rights, as well as ending the orthodox monopoly. Although there are two Arab members in today’s Meretz, it is seen by the public as a bourgeois, identity-driven party caring more for spoiled Tel-Avivians than the working class, let alone the Arab population. Meretz gradually lost influence over the years until in 2019 it unified with the newly formed party of Ehud Barak, The Democratic Camp, an initiative meant to oust Netanyahu. It is led by Nitzan Horowitz, and after scraping by the last elections, Barak stepped back into retirement. As both The Democratic Camp and Labor are languishing around the electoral threshold again, the two parties have merged. The only Arab member from both parties, Issawi Frej from the Democratic Camp, who is said to have save the party in the last cycle by bringing crucial Arab sector votes, was pushed down to the 11th place in the join list. The merger, which many on the left saw as necessary but temporary, only further entrenches the party in the traditional Zionist camp, meaning Jewish and militaristic.
Both of these examples, the disintegration of the Israeli Communist movement and the Labor-Democratic Camp merger show the mistrust and suspicion on both sides. Part of it comes from the fact that Arab leaders were consistently delegitimised and marginalised by Labor, which represented the traditional Left. As the Rabin government was pushing for the Oslo Accords, it relied on outside support from Arab MKs. Although no Arab party leaders would sit in a Zionist majority coalition, they supported the agreement and was the force that held Rabin’s minority government in power after the religious parties resigned in opposition to Oslo.
After Rabin’s assassination and the ascent of Netanyahu, the divide remained. Barak, who formed the last Labor government, instead of taking a bold stance and calling upon Arab parties to join the coalition, relied again on the religious parties. It is no wonder, then, that he came to the Camp David summit with no support from his coalition. The agreement he tried to ram through died on the vine, and with the subsequent intifada, led to a crisis in Jewish-Arab relations.
Since then, Arab members of Knesset have been either invisible or viewed as a fifth column. The passing of the 2018 Nation-State Law alienated the Arab population even more. While for many years Labor represented the home and centre of the Left, the party did everything to show the Arab population that it was welcomed but only as a partial visitor. In other words, the home Labor represented was a Zionist-Jewish one rather than an Arab-Jewish one.
‘The Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.’ The Left allowed itself to be framed by Netanyahu
Politically, Netanyahu has made the Left look weak and a part of some ‘deep state’ establishment. Today, he seeks now to convince his voters that there is no alternative to ‘Bibi,’ that his indictment is an attempted ‘coup’ that must be ‘stopped’. He presents the electorate with the choice ‘Bibi or Tibi’: either the global player who can make Trump and Putin do his bidding or the well-known Arab MK.
The Left received a big blow when in the 1996 elections Shimon Peres, a default prime minister for the second time, lost to the Likud candidate Netanyahu, then a young politician who had grown up in the US, studied at MIT under Milton Friedman, and as opposition leader had fanned the flames of hatred against Rabin.
Netanyahu’s first tenure wasn’t memorable, but it was marked by a period of economic Americanisation and the sowing of nationalist seeds, epitomised by Netanyahu’s hot mic gaffe as he whispered into a famous rabbi’s ear, ‘The Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.’ After a hiatus from political life, Netanyahu returned as treasury minister in 2003, further privatising and globalising Israel’s economy while taking an increasingly hardline right-wing geopolitical approach. Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s leather chair in 2009 and has now been serving for a decade. Under his leadership, the Israeli economy has become globalised: its credit rating had been upgraded, and it is now a significant player in hi-tech, agriculture, medicine, and other sectors, as well as enjoying a rise in tourism.
On the other hand, Israel has the highest gap between rich and poor in the OECD; union density has plummeted from 80 per cent in the 1980s to 25 per cent in 2018; the universal health system that was separated from worker unions is in constant crisis, with patients waiting hours for treatment and beds lining the hospital corridors.
The character of the ‘Start-Up Nation’ shows how the Israeli economy has changed. Israeli industry, including the technological sector, used to be fully or semi-governmental. This meant that the state had a stake in creating a robust infrastructure to make these companies sustainable. The new hi-tech models, namely start-ups, are based upon individual success with no commitment to creating a sustainable business model to expand the industry and create jobs. Young entrepreneurs strive to be absorbed by mega-corporations, and once they do, they take the money and run, leaving their fancy offices in Tel Aviv or Herzliya vacant.
Towards a New Israeli Left
Since the early 2000s, new ‘centre-left’ parties have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, their members a mishmash of celebrities, generals, and washed-up politicians. To place themselves in the centre of the political map each has adopted the tactic of attacking the Left, whether Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of Blue and White, saying he wouldn’t sit with those ‘Zoabies,’ referring to the Hanan Zoabi, the Arab MP, or Yoaz Hendel, a Blue and White MP, who boycotted a rally against Netanyahu’s corruption because Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash, was on the platform.
The Zionist Left, paralysed by the death of the peace process and with no grassroots support from workers, has given up on its own values. The leaders of the Zionist-Jewish Left, from Barak onwards, have been following the Right in embracing late capitalism: the privatisation of institutions, and the strengthening of a civil-privatised society as opposed to national-collective one. Instead of embracing its socialist roots and updating its programme accordingly, it slowly became liberal-pragmatic, offering light fixes to an economic system more enmeshed in the new globalised world; and instead of being bold and revolutionary on the national front, following the examples of the establishment of the state, the Oslo Accords, and peace with Jordan, it came to be seen as incremental.
Repeating its past mistakes, one of the Left’s major faults is that it has embraced the Netanyahu point of view that the Arab population and their parties are not viable political partners, so 20 per cent of the Israeli population is seen as not loyal and not legitimate. Instead, the Left tries to pander to Netanyahu’s voters by evoking a fake militarism.
Amir Peretz, Labor’s current leader, is trying to reverse course and run Labor as a ‘social’ party once more. However, instead of looking to join forces with Meretz and The Joint List, he sought alliances with forces outside the traditional Left camp, with ‘Gesher,’ a party led by Orly Levy who proclaims that she is interested in worker’s and women’s rights yet has a dire record in the Knesset when it comes to voting on social issues. A former member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party — a leftist she is not. It was no surprise that voters, old and new, did not buy Peretz’s social agenda, leaving Labor in the dust.
The Israeli Left, therefore, is in a state of flux. In the coming post-Netanyahu era, it needs to reassess not only its political positions, but also its political strategies. Israeli society, although fractured, is enjoying a stable economy for now. Israeli society has not yet recovered from the trauma of the Second Intifada. All this makes any ushering major political shifts hard to execute. But this is the ground on which the left must begin to rebuild itself.
In the past elections, Joint List Chairman Odeh made a surprising and historic statement, announcing that he would be willing to sit in a broad centre-left party under certain conditions, including renewing the peace process with the Palestinians, reversing the controversial Nation-State Law, fighting crime rates in Arab areas, establishing a new Arab city, and building a hospital in an Arab city. His campaign slogan was ‘I’m a partner.’
Although many on the Jewish political map still attacked him for undermining Zionist ideology and ‘supporting terrorists’ and many on the Arab side accused him for betraying the Palestinian and nationalist agendas, Odeh, in being pragmatic despite being a devout Marxist, entered a new political space for an Arab politician. He is focused on results so is willing to sit with parties that are ideologically opposed to his own. He has managed to create a new political and public reality: even members of right-wing parties are now saying that having Arab government members and ministers is legitimate.
The traditional center-left parties, from Blue and White to Labor and Meretz need to take this blueprint and apply to Jewish-Zionist sphere. At every chance they get, they need to show Israelis they have ‘a partner.’
They need to reach out to Orthodox religious communities who moved to the Right in the past three decades but aren’t ideologically hardwired. They need to make the case to them that the Right, although sustaining their communities with political indulgences, is harmful to them in the long run with their hyper-capitalist, globalised agenda. They need to suspend the call for them to serve in the army, especially parties like Meretz who oppose the occupation.
The Left also need to form a coalition between social groups from ex-Soviet and Ethiopian communities in the major cities to disadvantaged communities in industrial towns in the periphery based on tenants of the economic progressive left in order to counter the Right’s embrace of the globalised, hyper-capitalist policies. This can be done by mobilising workers’ groups not under the umbrella of a shared ideology but shared goals, such as curbing Amazon’s destroying Israeli commerce and creating networks for those workers who are not yet unionised.
The Left must try and build its base not among the old political elitist and nepotistic structure based in Jerusalem and occupied by generals, rabbis, descendants of political dynasties and the yes-men who prop them up, to grassroots networks comprised of workers, local leaders, and activists; become a “Party-Movement” for those outside the circles of influence.
Perhaps a leader will emerge, one that can unite Israel’s warring factions under her or his vision, but until then, members of the fragmented Left need to offer a bold new horizon for Israelis, Jews and Arabs — a radical reimagining of Israel’s economy and society, position in the region, and approach to resolving the conflict.