If the Israeli left fails to seize this moment, it will find itself in the dustbin of history.
Labor Party Head Merav Michaeli’s exit from politics several weeks ago was a much-predicted development since not only the outbreak of war, but since the establishment of our current government. In the last election, Labor clinched four seats, the lowest turnout for the party in Israeli history. Some blamed the decision to not unite with Zehava Galon’s Meretz party. Others, on the diminished sense of security that Israelis felt after a turbulent couple of years with the Palestinians. A few, the muted voter participation in Tel Aviv, where young people, as is the case all over the world, are less reliable at the polls.
All these explanations come up short in analyzing exactly what happened, considering the Israeli left has been on an (albeit nonlinear) downward spiral since the Camp David Summit in 2000. What both Labor’s losses in the last election and Michaeli’s congenial farewell speech each signify, rather, is the death of the new Zionist left, and, we sincerely hope, a much-needed revival emblematic of the ethos of the old Zionist left.
First, what is the “new Zionist left?” One only must look to Michaeli’s rebranding of the Labor Party in 2021 and within the anti-judicial reform protests of 2023 to get an accurate sense.
Since the Second Intifada, when as many Israelis know, the “land for peace” equation quite literally blew up in the faces of hundreds of innocents, “the left” as in, institutions like HaAvoda (Labor) and Meretz, were crucified for what turned out to be fundamentally flawed political program. It became clear that negotiating with the Palestinians was a dead end – as in, will end in dead bodies. The unfolding tragedy led the left, after Camp David, to rather than offer an alternative to the increasingly popular Netanyahu-led politics, which promised to remove the possibility of a Palestinian state indefinitely and continue to settle the West Bank, pivot to what we recognize it as today: a championing of social issues, like the role of women, Arab social mobility, LGBT rights, and fighting the intrusion of religion in the public square. This is the “new Zionist left.”
There is no doubt that the new Zionist left has championed righteous causes. The right in Israel, which is increasingly linked to religious and racist forces, has pursued policies to undo the social fabric of the state for years, whether it be Haredi parties pressuring the transfer of funds from the military (during war), the Arab sector, public schools, museums and theaters to religious education, the division of men and women in secular spaces (including the IDF) or forces within the settlement movement whose objectives continue to undermine liberal democracy. These issues are important enough to galvanize the country into taking to the streets each Saturday for more than half a year; most protestors cognizant that the government’s plan for “judicial reform” was merely a scheme for the religious right to override a necessary check on power.
Yet unfortunately, the polls, since long before the war started, have failed to match the energy in the street. Labor has been consistent with around 1.8% of the vote, not nearly enough to clinch representation in the Knesset. Meretz, not even in the current Knesset, is running at five-six seats, positive movement, of course, but not enough to resuscitate the Zionist left from its era of blaring defeatism.
We propose that what happened on October 7th was not only a tragic and painful wound for the Israeli people. We suggest that it also set the stage for a political turning point; an opportunity to address Labor and Meretz’s abysmal polling numbers. October 7th, and the war we currently find ourselves in, is an opportunity to replace the new Zionist with the old Zionist left.
The movement to return to the old Zionist left is not to implement more socialism in Israel’s economy. Nor is it a call to jettison domestic disputes from our platform. In fact, there is no reason to be any less aggressive on social issues, considering 73% of Israelis – and even 70% of Likud voters – support public transport on Shabbat. 73% are in favor of allowing businesses to open on Shabbat. 68% support complete separation of religion and state. 70% – support equal rights for the LGBT community; 76% of Israelis – and even 57% of Jewish Home voters – think same-sex marriage should be legalized; and 60% of Israelis believe same-sex couples should have adoption rights. Despite the right’s relentless campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, most of the public still supports this institution: Israelis’ level of trust in the judicial system is the highest measured since 2001, which only increased after the Netanyahu government’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary.
In addition, our call to return to the “old” is also certainly not an encouragement to return to the era of Oslo and Camp David – the idea of negotiating with the Palestinians with the “land for peace” program.
Rather, we are suggesting that the Zionist left cease to ignore the Palestinian issue and cease to ignore the arena of foreign policy. On the contrary, the left must aggress in fashioning themselves the new vanguard for a secure State of Israel. The left must present a political program that envisions a specific future for the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and simultaneously take the mantle of expanding the Abraham Accords: reaching normalization agreements with Saudi Arabia and other states opposed to Iran’s increasing regional influence, recognizing this as the only viable path to achieving progress with the Palestinians. On Iran itself, the left must be bullish on confronting the Iranian militarily when practical, as in continuing strikes against nuclear sites and individual personnel responsible for the nuclear program and the sponsorship of regional terrorism.
This is what David Ben-Gurion did. “Security First” is the original framework of the Israeli left. For too long the right has used the Second Intifada and rockets from Gaza as a bludgeon against left-wing people, hypocritically refusing to take responsibility for the near constant violence we have seen in the last twenty years, near constantly under right-wing leadership.
A determined right has been using aggressive tactics and has championed a divisive “us or them” rhetoric whereby the religious right is proclaimed as representing Zionist Israel while everyone else is labeled a traitor: the left, Arabs, the Supreme Court, uncooperative media, and even the IDF and police. The new Zionist left has needlessly conceded that this is true, failing to provide an alternative program that in reality matches the policy preferences of a majority of Israelis.
According to the 2017-2018 National Security Index 55% of Israeli Jews support the two-state solution (as do 96% of Arab citizens of Israel). This is not empty support for a slogan but true acknowledgement of what this would demand: 63% of Israelis support evacuation of settlements as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, while only 27% are opposed. In other words, the public is still consistent in supporting this solution.
The solution toward partitioning the land must still be championed, but with radically different language and with different feasible goals. Instead of redrawing maps to indicate where a Palestinian state would lie, the Israeli left must instead focus its efforts on drawing a final Eastern border – designating which settlements are “in” Israel, and which are officially out. Also included in this program must be the refusal to remove soldiers from outside of Israel’s border. The left must reiterate, if it is to make security its primary issue, that occupation of territory that can be weaponized to harm the State of Israel is legal and important, so long as it is temporary. What will spell the end of the occupation, the removal of soldiers from territory, is a future agreement with the Palestinians, facilitated by the Arab world which in the past has indulged Palestinian rejectionism, that completely abandons the idea of millions of Palestinians and their descendants returning into the borders of sovereign Israel.
The left’s rallying call of the past – the “negotiation fetish” championed by Presidents Clinton and Obama, must end abruptly. Before any long drawn- out political process is undertaken, the Palestinians must sign a predetermined agreement that they are willing to concede on the claim of return and in doing so no longer seek to turn the Jews into a minority in their own nation-state through a demographic death-knell. The left must be on the forefront of pressuring international powers and bodies, including the United States, to ostracize, defund and/or dismantle the institutions of prolonged Palestinian rejectionism, including UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Palestinian Authority policies that reward the families of terrorists, and political organizations that work to penalize Israel for settlement building with no desired concessions for the Palestinians.
Reverting the “new Zionist left,” which in its obsession with social issues and avoidance of foreign policy and security policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians has plummeted in the polls, to the “old Zionist left,” which re-prioritizes security and an eventual solution to the conflict, is the last opportunity of the Israeli left to revive itself. Only by presenting specific policy proposals, pertaining to the issues the Israeli public cares about the most, especially considering this particularly violent war, can the left hope to see positive movement, and representation in not only the Knesset, but in the governing coalition.
If the left fails to seize this moment, it will find itself in the dustbin of history. After our current war with Hamas, there will be no legitimate political movement in Israel that does not centralize personal and national security. None will be able to rely on domestic disputes alone. This was the realization that led to Merav Michaeli’s overdue departure from the Labor Party and Israeli politics, it was a realization that came to many on election night in 2022, and it dawned upon many Israelis during the early, horrific hours of October 7th.