Last Saturday, an interesting and symbolically important event took place at Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands of Israelis converged to join a rally, organized by the Peace Now movement, to voice opposition to Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestinian territory and support the two-state solution. It was the first public sign in many years that the beleaguered Israeli left was still alive.
The rally brought back memories of a once-vibrant and influential leftist movement that included Zionists, non-Zionists, Jews and Arabs. For a few hours on Saturday evening, participants relived the euphoria of the mid-1990s, when an end to the decades-old conflict between Arabs and Jews was within grasp, and when Palestinians could almost taste liberation and self-determination.
Deja vu? Not quite. The left was dealt a lethal blow at this very square at a peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a radical Jew. No one knows exactly how or why this movement unraveled, but Israel’s mood had changed. In 1996, voters brought back Likud hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a right-wing, anti-peace coalition.
The once-dominant Labor party was now on the retreat. Its degeneration as a political force continued for the next decade and a half. The rise of so-called “third way” parties reshaped Israel’s political landscape. It ushered in far-right parties that rewrote the country’s political agenda and underlined the demographic reconstitution of the electorate in a way Israel has not seen since its birth.
Labor joined the next three coalition governments under Ehud Barak (1999-2001), Ariel Sharon (2001-2006) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009), but its influence was quickly receding. It had become a shadow of its former self, having ruled Israel for generations almost uncontested, relying on the support of the powerful Histadrut labor union and smaller leftist parties and movements led by intellectuals, business elites and security figures.
Historically, it was Labor governments that dallied with various peace initiatives, especially after the 1967 war. But it was the conservative Likud, under Menachem Begin in 1977 and Yitzhak Shamir in 1991, which engaged in peace negotiations with the Arabs and later the Palestinians. Begin secured a peace treaty with Egypt. Shamir’s participation in the Madrid peace conference was short-lived and unsuccessful.
Rabin’s 1992 victory against Shamir allowed him to form a Labor-led government that eventually concluded the historic Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. That represented the pinnacle of the pro-peace camp, and his assassination marked its eventual decline.
Today’s Labor, now called the Zionist Union, is a center-left alliance that is led by the uncharismatic former lawyer Isaac Herzog and includes once-Likud hawk and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the Hatnuah (Movement) party.
It needs to reinvent itself, find new common denominators and appeal to a wider electorate. Its voice must be heard in Washington too so officials there understand that Netanyahu’s rejectionist position does not represent all Israelis.
Its platform includes resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and halting construction in some settlements. Herzog is said to have exchanged letters with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas committing to full withdrawal from the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem.
In the 2015 elections, the Zionist Union won 24 seats, making it the second-largest party in the Knesset (Parliament). It scored victories in major cities including Tel Aviv, and in affluent and liberal areas of Israel. Interestingly, Arab-Israeli parties, running under the Joint List, came in third with 13 seats in the 120-seat legislature.
But more importantly, Netanyahu’s Likud remained in front with 30 seats, and was able to form a coalition with far-right parties supported mostly by settlers, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
His key partners include Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu nationalist party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi Zionist religious party. Netanyahu’s dependence for his political survival on these two parties, which reject the two-state solution, has effectively disqualified him as a peace partner.
The Zionist Union has been criticized for either giving in too much to the Palestinians, or for not being daring enough to cross the religious-ethnic divide and join forces with the Arab parties of Israel. Together, at least theoretically, they can reinvent Israel’s left and present a serious challenge to the growing settler-Russian voter base in Israeli politics.
Instead, disgruntled Israeli liberals have seen their country veer violently to the right, departing from the secular-socialist-Zionist base that Israel represented for millions of Jews worldwide. They are keen to point out that while Israel is governed today by a far-right ideology that borders on racism, intolerance and apartheid politics, the reality is that the country is divided.
They point out that US politicians tend to support these far-right policies, ignoring the other half of Israelis who do not want to be forced into making the choice between a democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Israel, and a Jewish but racist and undemocratic one.
Saturday’s rally brings into the equation the fact that Israel’s left, while on the defensive (in fourth place in a recent poll), remains a plausible alternative to the destructive, chauvinistic, self-serving ideologies of the far right. The left needs to reinvent itself, find new common denominators and appeal to a wider electorate. Its voice must be heard in Washington too so officials there understand that Netanyahu’s rejectionist position does not represent all Israelis.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.