Is the decline of Israel’s progressive forces terminal?
Call them the left, call them liberals or progressives, call them what you like, but the Nov. 1 election in Israel was a body blow from the electorate that knocked them out. It leaves open the question whether this force in Israeli society can ever recover to fight another day for the democratic character of the Jewish state.
While the designated new-old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is engaged in the customary horse-trading, with his prospective partners in a coalition government ranging from the ultra-orthodox, known in Hebrew as Haredim, and the religious messianic ultra-right parties, the left progressives and the moderate right are left to lick their wounds. Their predicament goes beyond losing an election, and extends to losing ground and losing touch with large parts of the Israeli electorate, mainly as a consequence of loss of direction and of any appetite to present a daring alternative to what the right has to offer.
For the progressive forces in Israel, whose core principles are to protect the democratic system, defend civil and individual liberties, and reconcile and coexist with the Palestinians, the future at the moment appears to be unsurprisingly doom and gloom. But this should not necessarily be the case. Being on the ropes might be exactly where they need to be in order to rethink their role in Israeli society, and claw their long way back to becoming electable again. For that to happen, Israel’s democrats must go through a frank and painful soul-searching, and ask themselves how they have reached the lowest ebb in their history, especially when one considers that they founded the country and for many decades governed it.
The left must take a surgical knife and dissect its failure in the last election and those before it, and identify the segments in society that could most benefit from supporting progressive parties, but are under the spell of the right and especially of Netanyahu. It also requires that these progressives develop a program which embraces left-liberal-progressive values, but in a manner which does not feel threatening to certain segments in society that adhere to traditional values, and also is not susceptible to populism in its nationalistic, or religious or messianic forms.
This latest election showed that the banner of “anything but Bibi,” which brought together a number of parties, will never be enough to win. It is a sad reality of Israeli society that most voters consider it legitimate for someone who is standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust to serve as prime minister. The law, flawed as it is, allows that, and the people want it. But it is for those who believe in good governance and accountability to build an argument for such democratic values that are universal and not Netanyahu-specific.
Evidently, as the incoming government takes shape, it is a reflection of the sociopolitical and demographic changes that have taken place in Israel over the years. While Judaism has always played a central part in the Zionist movement, including for those who declare themselves ardent atheists at least in a historical-cultural sense, orthodox Judaism, in its most extreme forms, is gradually monopolizing the Jewish state and altering it beyond recognition.
Progressive forces who are currently despairing are deeply concerned that demographic realities, and the rise of populism, are working against them. After all, the Haredim community is growing at a rate that is more than twice the national average, and already children make up half their population, and young adults between 18 and 35 another quarter, suggesting that their impact on future election results will only grow, and exponentially at that.
Only by progressives embarking on an honest, nationwide discussion with those who hold opposite views, will there be any chance of restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.
However, in the longer term, this can only lead to a deepening crisis in society, as the Haredim parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, or the far-right Religious Zionism, are certain to lead the country to becoming less democratic and less economically progressive, while promoting policies that will lead to increased confrontation with the Palestinians and more generally with the international community.
UTJ and Shas’ source of power is in ensuring their supporters’ dependency on government handouts and charity, by sticking to their separate education system in which core issues such as math, the sciences and foreign languages are not taught. Consequently, they are condemning their supporters to poverty and reliance on the welfare state, which in turn depends on taxpayers. Their growing numbers mean that it is an increasingly smaller proportion of society that generates wealth and pays taxes that carry the burden of sponsoring families that by and large contribute little to the country’s wealth.
This could lead to resentment and tensions between the two sides of this unfair equation: Among the ultra-orthodox for being held back, and those who unfairly finance this unfair and damaging arrangement. Those who are attracted to the far-right’s toxic “vision” of permanent war, conflict and oppression of others, who thrive on hatred of the Palestinians and general defiance of anyone who does not belong to their “tribe,” might find that there is a price to pay for that, too. At the end of the day the burden of dealing with these despicably immoral policies will land on the shoulders of the IDF, whereas most of the Haredim do not serve in the army, leaving it to those whom they despise for being “leftist and secular” to do the dirty work for them.
But as these developments are taking place, a space is being created for more progressive forces to reach out to those who see them as elitist and arrogant (not without some justification), and humbly and resolutely open an honest dialogue which is not afraid to revive a discourse of peace and social justice, of reinforcing the democratic system, and a model of Judaism in which religious scholarship is not in conflict with modern education and the rights of minorities to be respected.
Such a dialogue must include, as equals, the Palestinian citizens of Israel. This will inescapably be an uneasy dialogue when we consider the deep residues of anger and pain over years of ethnic and religious discrimination and neglect. Nevertheless, only by progressives embarking on an honest, nationwide discussion with those who hold opposite views, will there be any chance of preserving Israeli democracy and restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.