Politics & Policy

Why Did Israel’s Left Lose?

Mideast futures.

Tuesday, Israelis went to the polls. The big story of the elections is the devastating defeat of the left-wing Israeli Labor party. This is a continuation of a steady decline in Labor’s fortunes that began during the elections of 1992. Labor lost between eight to ten additional Knesset mandates in each of the subsequent elections. In Tuesday’s elections the decline was so severe that, for the first time in history, the party is threatened with losing its status as one of the two largest parties in Israel.

This is a surprising result because the election campaign was marked by revelations about a financial scandal involving right-wing candidate and sitting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon, who allegedly received $1.5 million in illegal payments, was nevertheless able to maintain his party’s majority of 35 seats in the Knesset. And this despite the fact that allegations were made both against Sharon personally and against his Likud party. In the weeks before the election, the media was filled with stories about Likud candidates who bribed voters during the party’s primary elections. Other reports talked about key members of Israel’s organized-crime community who became members of the Likud’s central committee. But the scandals that rocked the party and its leader did not seem to matter greatly to Israeli voters. In fact, Likud’s victory and Labor’s defeat changed the Israeli political map from a system dominated by two large parties to a system in which only one party — Likud — monopolizes Israeli politics.

Likud’s scandals did not translate into a Labor victory because the leading party on the Israeli Left was still viewed as responsible for the failure of the Oslo accords and the subsequent decline in personal security. Over the past two-and one-half years, Israelis faced the worst terror attacks in the history of the state. For average citizens this meant changing daily routines, avoiding public places, and living in constant state of worry over their loved ones. But this dismal situation did not bring about a vigorous process of soul-searching or ideological reexamination on the Israeli Left. The Left was unable to admit that the collapse of Oslo meant that its ideas and values failed. Rather, its leadership split between those who believed that Israel had to go back to the negotiating table despite Palestinian violence and those who believed that violence had to cease first. The majority of Israelis, who had to live with daily Palestinian terror, viewed this internal Labor debate about how quickly Israel should return to the negotiating table with a mixture of anger and disbelief. Labor and its leaders seemed more and more out of touch with the daily life of most Israelis. This was despite the fact that since the 1999 elections Labor served as a member of Sharon’s national unity government. Although the majority of Israelis approved of the unity government, debates within the Labor’s rank and file only emphasized the party’s inability to adjust to the failure of its worldview. Even as scores of Israelis were being killed or injured by terror, many in Labor argued that Sharon successfully turned the party into an automatic seal of approval for his brutal policies toward the Palestinians.

But there was much more to Labor’s failure than the peace process. Likud’s ability to quickly recover its popular support following the reports of corruption resulted in part from Labor’s self-righteous reaction to Sharon’s misconduct. Many Israelis viewed Labor, whose own leader also faces allegations of corruption, as hypocritical. Right-wing voters also suspected that the story about Sharon’s financial blunders was leaked to Haaretz reporter by interested parties on the Left who engaged in a political hit job on Sharon (this suspicion was later confirmed). The feeling that Likud and its leaders were being treated unfairly further deepened when Sharon decided to defend himself in a television address to the nation. A few minutes into the broadcast, Sharon’s speech was forced off the air by a Supreme Court judge who heads the Central Elections Committee (this committee guarantees equal airtime to all candidates during an elections campaign). The judge argued that Sharon’s explanations amounted to illegal use of his position as prime minister for campaign purposes. There was no precedent in the history of Israel for a judge forcing a sitting prime minister off the air. Israeli voters, who respect the Supreme Court, nevertheless viewed the judge’s decision as unjust and even politically motivated. They viewed it as part of the WASP’s (White Ashkenazis who Sympathize with Palestinians) general mistreatment of the Right and its supporters.

The growing resentment toward the Israeli WASPS caused droves of Likud’s voters to return to their home base. Israeli voters reacted to what celebrated author Amos Oz, himself a supporter of the peace camp, described recently as the hatred of Israeli left-wing intellectuals “not for the government, but for the entire self-existence. Among some of the radical intelligentsia in Israel today I see hatred not only for the religious, but also for the settlers, the Right, and the nationalists. I see sweeping hatred for the architecture, for the music, the folk songs, the memories — for everything. For the streets on which people walk. For the buses on which people travel.”

Israeli voters, particularly those who support the Right, are painfully aware of the Left intelligentsia’s sweeping disgust with everything that is not a part of their lifestyle or cultural preferences. Religious people in Israel, Sephrdi Jews, settlers, and new immigrants all feel insulted by the arrogance of what has become known in Israel as the “northies” — the left-wing intelligentsia who mainly resides in the fashionable neighborhoods of north Tel-Aviv. For the intellectuals of the Left, the essence of Israeli society is (or should be) a combination of the Kibbutzim and the Weidman Institute for science. But anyone who is not a WASP intellectual, a wealthy but politically correct businessman, a member of the press corps, the Supreme Court or the universities simply does not have the right to exist. Anyone who does not abide by the cultural strictures defined by a narrow “righteous” Left is considered an ignorant boor.

A week or so ago, I was reminded of the depth of my own sense of insult. Reading one of the Israeli dailies online I came across a story — which shocked me — about a husband and wife who disagreed about whom to support in the upcoming elections. The husband, who supports Likud, insisted that his wife, a Labor supporter, vote for Likud. Their fighting over the issue almost brought about a divorce. As a last resort they decided to bring their case before the local religious rabbinical court, which is responsible for matters of family law. The rabbis ruled that the woman had to vote according to her husband wishes. This was a sad statement about the treatment of women in Israel. But what really outraged me was a response by a reader of the article who wrote to the paper that she was “a proud Ashkenazi” who was disgusted with the barbarity of “these people.” Her comment, irrelevant since the article did not mention the family’s ethnic background, was enough to open my old Sephrdi-Israeli wounds. In the eyes of some members of the WASP Israeli elite, Sephardim will always remain backwards and unequal. As long as Sephardim, immigrants, settlers and religious people in Israel continue to be slighted by the Left they will keep supporting the Right.

But the “proud Ashkenazi” reader pointed in her unguarded comments to another piece of the puzzle of the results of the 2003 Israeli elections. In an Israeli electorate divided on questions of identity, the most important split, which expresses itself in a deepening culture war, is being waged over the question of religion and Jewishness of the state. Two large parties: Shas (Sephrdi religious party) and its political nemesis, ultra-secular Shinui, are dominating this debate. While Shas advocates stronger religious legislation, opposes the drafting of a constitution for Israel, and ran under the slogan “whoever supports God should join me” Shinui advocates a formal separation of church and state, drafting of ultra-orthodox youth to the Israeli Defense Force, and the establishment of a secular government without religious parties. Interestingly, neither party holds strong stands on questions of peace and security. Centrist Shinui calls for a return to the negotiating table, but not with the current Palestinian leadership. Shas, whose voters tilt to the Right, similarly supports a return to negotiations, but believe it is impossible under the current circumstances. The battle between secular and religious Israelis created one of the largest blocs of voters (a total of 32 Knesset seats of Shinui, Shas, and United Tora Judaism) who vote strictly on questions of Jewish identity and hatred toward the other camp. This is an extraordinary event in a state rocked by existential questions of security and a collapsing economy.

The fact that such a large block of Israeli voters chose to cast their vote on the basis of seemingly secondary issues in the 2003 elections points to some of the most worrisome aspects of Israeli politics today. Israelis have lost trust in politicians and the political system. The crisis is so sever that a recent poll, which asked adult Israelis to rank their level of trust of the political system, 65 percent, ranked it as very low. Only nine percent said they had a high level of trust in the system. Moreover, the large majority of Israelis now believe that their political system in inherently unstable. In the same poll, 40 percent of those asked believed that the next elections will take place within two years and 23 percent expected them to take place within a year, rather than the usual four years. This widespread attitude was reflected in the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Jewish state. Israeli voters expressed their frustration with the system by simply not going to the polls.

It is now up to all the major Israeli parties to regain the voters’ trust. Cleaner, more stable politics will go a long way in regaining that necessary trust. But just as important is the parties’ ability to put an end to the division of society into a collection of hate-filled factions. Labor, Likud, and other parties will have to realize that since the collapse of Oslo’s dream of a new Middle East, Israelis were not given a new long-term vision for their country — its character, or its future. Instead, the Israeli political system has been channeled into an intellectual dead-end that has given rise to the politics of hate and resentment. Only the injection of a new set of ideas and new visions will save Israel’s great old parties from further collapse and give Israeli voters what they lack: a belief in a brighter future.

— Meyrav Wurmser is senior fellow and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Hudson Institute. Ms. Wurmser is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.

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