Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: The decline of the Israeli left


NEW YORK — Whatever happened to the vaunted Israeli Labor Party that ruled Israel at its founding in 1948? During Israel's early years the country was ruled by its first prime minister, the iconic David Ben-Gurion, who was followed by Lev Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, until the Likud of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir took power in 1977. A break with Likud rule took place when Rabin regained Labor's dominance in 1992. There was also one more moment when Labor ruled, from 1999-2001, under Ehud Barak.

For Labor, Rabin's time in power (1992-95) were glory years, with laws to reduce poverty and income inequality, for maintenance grants for single parents and the disabled, unemployment allowance, universal access to health care initiated through a national insurance policy, affirmative action to get Palestinians into the public sector, increased budgets for Arab councils and schools, and peace talks making real progress in Oslo. The Oslo accords did attempt to set up a framework to end the Arab- Israeli conflict, and also the first agreement signed between the Israeli government and the PLO. It was a noble goal, despite the elusiveness of success.

With Rabin's assassination by a right wing zealot in 1995, Rabin's rival, Shimon Peres, took over, called an election, and lost to Benjamin Netanyahu. In the seven elections since, Labor has averaged 16.5 seats, but that plummeted to just six seats in September. And its left-wing alliy Meretz (now the Democratic Union) won only five seats. The left is broken.


The main opposition to Netanyahu is now the centrist Blue and White Party led by ex-army chief Benny Ganz and former journalist Yair Lapid. They may not promote the same fervent and demagogic nationalist and populist line that Bibi has made into his own brand, but they remain linked to a policy of tough militarism. In addition, they may not embrace Trump and Putin like Bibi, and they may be more progressive in terms of limiting the role of religion in public life and guarding LGBT rights, but on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the difference between them and Bibi is more stylistic than substantive.

Netanyahu and others have been so successful at turning "left" into an insult suggesting disloyalty and weakness that Gantz and Lapid have been at pains to portray themselves as anything but. And the key political issues in Israel are security, and what to do with the West Bank. Given an Israel where the ultra-Orthodox Haridim, religious Zionists, the secular Russian immigrants, and Misrahi (Jews from Morocco and other Arab countries, some who hold a deep-seated resentment towards the European-descended Ashkenazi elite) are a majority of the electorate, the Left is faced with a very hard political road. In fact, 56 per cent of the voters describe themselves now as right wing and only 12 percent of Jewish Israelis identify themselves as left wing.

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The September election, the second in five months, has left Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz vying to build and lead a governing coalition. There will be a lot of haggling until one of them achieves power, but the left, which supports Gantz and Lapid, plays little role in the process.

In trying to make some sense of those years when the left held power, I read a new biography by the historian and journalist Tom Segev titled "A State at Any Cost — The Life of David Ben-Gurion." Segev's biography provides a dense, detailed portrait of a complex, driven man filled with contradictions, though relentless about creating an independent Jewish state. Whatever Ben-Gurion's flaws, Segev perceives him as a visionary leader, effective organizer and powerful advocate without whom Israel as an independent state may never have been realized.


Ben-Gurion's prime commitment was to Zionism, not socialism. Segev wrote that between these two ideologies it was always "an unambiguous choice — whenever a contradiction between Zionist and socialist interests arose, he always chose Zionism." Still, Ben-Gurion was elected secretary of the Israeli labor organization Histadrut in 1921, which ultimately became one of the most powerful institutions and largest employers in the county. Its membership in 1983 was 1,600,000 (including dependents), accounting for more than one-third of the total population of Israel. However, its size declined in the 1980s as the economy became increasingly deregulated. Despite its power diminishing, one can see socialism played a profound role in Ben Gurion's administration and Israeli life for a long time.

Segev's biography is nuanced and honest about Ben-Gurion's personal failings and neuroses, viewing him as "self importantly egocentric" and insensitive to everyone who didn't share his vision. He also sees him as emotionally scarred by his mother's death when he was 11, leaving him prone to anxiety, depression and mood swings. Ben-Gurion differed radically from a Netanyahu, for he had a moral center, so according to Segev "the Nabka — what the Palestinian Arabs called their tragedy — the displacement of the Arab population during and after the 1948 War, haunted him until the end of his life." He had trouble reconciling the expulsion of the Arabs with the humanistic values he tried to adhere to.

Segev saw Ben-Gurion was also a harsh and tough-minded politician who could indulge in political double talk when it came to Suez so he could escape full responsibility for the Egypt invasion. Nevertheless, he had the kind of grandeur and vision that no contemporary Israeli politician on the right or the left conveys. The left is in decline, but if a politician of Ben Gurion's stature appeared again, I fantasize its resurrection would be possible.

Leonard Quart can be reached at inwrit@aol.com


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