Belief in the coming of the Messiah is a concept which enables one to believe in anything – even the seemingly impossible.
If one believes in the coming of the Messiah one can believe that one day there will be peace between Israel, the Palestinians and her Arab neighbors.
If one believes in the coming of the Messiah, one can believe that one day there will be true religious pluralism in Israel, with all streams of Judaism being recognized as legal alternatives, and with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population fulfilling their obligations to the state in which they live.
And if one believes in the coming of the Messiah then one can start to believe that, after years in the political wilderness, the Left has a real chance of regaining the public support it lost during the past two decades, and return to power with a government which believes in democracy, freedom of speech and is prepared to give peace a real kick-start.
The events of the past week, since the dissolution of the Knesset, have not been kind to the ruling Likud Party. Netanyahu has seen his right-wing coalition fragment and splinter from within. He has exchanged harsh language with his close ally, Avigdor Liberman, he has seen his party almost revolt against him in the convention hall, and he has seen the far Right, composed of Naftali Bennett, Ariel and Liberman threaten to take his mantle of patriotic defender of the homeland against all comers. From within, and for the third time in a row, he has seen Moshe Feiglin gain even more support than in the past, to the extent that this time Netanyahu will probably have little option other than to offer him a real position of power if, by some lucky chance, he can remain head of the largest party and retain his grasp on power for yet another term of office.
But it is the new Center-Left coalition, headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, which is of real interest. It is much more Center than it is Left, but that is exactly where it needs to be if the voices of pragmatism are to begin to claw their way back into power. The leftwing parties, including the ideological splinters such as Meretz and even the Arab parties, have to put their differences away, as difficult as this may be for them to swallow, in order to change the political structure of the country which, for the past two decades, has been governed most of the time by right-wing coalitions.
This requires maturity on the part of the ideological Left, and fewer intellectual challenges and questioning.
But the reward, if they are successful, would be the first real structural change in Israeli politics since the earthquake of 1977 when Menachem Begin wrested power from the Labor Party after 30 years of left-wing hegemony.
The Left of then is not the Left of today. Israel has become transformed into a middle class, high tech global society, unlike the period of austerity and egalitarianism of the Ben-Gurion, Eshkol and Golda Meir period. This is nothing to be ashamed of – on the contrary it is indicative of the huge economic and social success of this young country which enables it to compete with the First World economies in Western Europe and North America.
But it does require a reformulation of what it means to be on the Left, to be part of liberal politics, which believes in a welfare state, which believes in liberal values protecting freedom of speech, the rights of the ethnic minorities and the status of the migrant populations.
It is a Left which believes that conflict resolution is something real, however difficult it is to attain, but that real compromises can be made if a partner is to be found on the other side and there is a move away from violence in return for an end to occupation.
Moreover it is a Left which is proud to be labeled “liberal” and does not have to prove its Zionist credentials as a prelude to any debate with the ultra-nationalists and super-patriots of the Right who have hijacked the term for their own narrow political interests.
It is a Left which represents the mainstream, so that is it no longer necessary to have a “Center” party, the name of which and the identity of whose leader changes every four years. We have had the Dash Party of Yigal Yadin, the Third Way Party of Avigdor Kahalani, the Shinui Party of Tommy Lapid, the Kadima Party of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Omert, the Hatnua Party of Tzipi Livni and the Yesh Atid Party of Yair Lapid. Each of these parties has ridden the wave of a successful first election campaign, has, at best, remained stable during a second election and has almost always collapsed and fallen away by the time the third and subsequent elections come along. The lack of any deeper roots in Israeli society has always resulted in the failure of the “centrist” parties to deliver.
They are but a flash of the pan, cashing in on whatever the political and social flavor of the day is, too easily taken in by articulate and suave leaders who are able to demonstrate their command of the digital media and who succeed in getting their face, their simplistic message and their jingles across to a population fed up with the big parties and seeking a quick fix. The alternative is total withdrawal from the political process and a decision to stay at home rather than vote – a process which has been on the increase in the past three elections as participation rates have fallen dramatically for a country where it would have been unheard of just 20 years ago to be apathetic about politics.
Why should Israel not demonstrate its real democracy by having a Center-Left coalition government which will also enjoy the direct support of both the haredi and the Arab parties? If it is a government which is really dedicated to both social and political change, one which will enable these populations to become a full and equal part of Israeli society, there is no reason this could not happen. The increase in the lower electoral threshold to 3.25 percent necessitates that the previous splinter parties and factions join together and cooperate in order to ensure their representation in the Knesset. It will be easier for any government leader (Netanyahu or Herzog) to negotiate fewer coalition agreements with larger parties, than the normal horse trading which has been so characteristic of past election campaigns.
At the end of the day, politics is politics and parties will have to compromise over their beliefs in order to be part of a greater whole. If it seemed almost impossible to think of a comeback for the political Left, then the early agreement between Herzog and Livni, along with the internal fragmentation of the ruling Likud coalition, offers a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel which has gotten darker and more extreme in recent years.
To make it happen, we must temporarily push our ideological positions to the side and to identify the common objective which will be beneficial for the entire State of Israel – namely, a change of government and a shift back toward the Center and Center-Left, with policies which will bring an end to the exclusivist, ultra-nationalist swing of recent years.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone