The Israeli left wing has been frozen out of power for almost a generation, and it is now 18 years since an overtly left-wing prime minister, Ehud Barak, led a government dominated by a left-wing party.
In the intervening period, leftist and centrist parties have participated in various governments, while the centrist Kadima party, which included figures from the Likud and Labor, ruled for three years.
For the most part however, and certainly in the last decade, the right wing has dominated Israeli politics, while the left and its policies have been relegated to the back benches.
Nitzan Horowitz, the co-chair of the Democratic Union alliance of left-wing parties and number one on its electoral list, very much wants to change this state of affairs.
In an in-depth interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Horowitz set out why he things the Israeli left has been our of power for so long and why, in his opinion, there are many more left wing people in the country that it would appear.
He laid out an uncompromising agenda for what his party would demand in return for joining a center-left coalition, including a freeze on settlement construction outside major settlement blocs close to the Green line, and that peace negotiations with the Palestinians be an immediate priority for the government.
At the same time, Horowitz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of seeking to perpetuate Hamas’ rule in Gaza so as to thwart a sustainable agreement with the Palestinian Authority, but said he did not regret Israel’s disengagement from the territory.
He also panned the largest opposition party Blue and White, and its leader Benny Gantz, for its inclination to join a right-wing government with the Likud, and said that only a vote for his party would guarantee change.
Sitting in the Democratic Union campaign offices in Tel Aviv this week, Horowitz sought to explain why the left-wing has been so bereft of power and influence for so long.
Asked why this should be, Horowitz asserted, after a pause for consideration, that the left wing itself was to blame because although it had not led governments it had participated in right-wing ones.
In 2011, Ehud Barak, now one of Horowitz’s co-chairs, split the Labor party and took five MKs with him into his new Independence party to remain in Netanyahu’s government.
And the center-left Yesh Atid party joined a Netanyahu-led government in 2013, as did Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party.
Horowitz argued that the Israeli left had compromised itself by association by participating in these right wing governments, and that instead of remaining in the opposition and emphasizing the alternative the left presented, it had let itself be coopted by the right.
“The left has not seen in itself, and has thus not projected outwards to the public, that is is a clear alternative,” he said.
This perspective also informs his hostility to, and recent campaign against, Blue and White, who he accused of “stealing” left wing and centrist votes from the left wing parties with the intention of delivering those votes and the Knesset seats that come with them to the right wing.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has expressed on several occasions his desire to form a national unity government with the Likud, and even said earlier this week he would consider forming a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a rotation agreement if he took the first period of the arrangement as premier.
“When the entirety of the left wing understands that we need to replace the government and not help continue the rule of the right wing then we will work in a different way. We need to behave as an alternative, not to continue the current government.”
Seeking to explain, nevertheless, why as few as 12 percent of Israelis define themselves as left wing, Horowitz argued that large proportions of the Israeli public agree in principal with left-wing ideals, such as the two state solution with the Palestinians, greater religious choice, and positions on similarly critical issues.
Turning to those very positions, Horowitz said that if the Democratic Union joins a new government it would from day one seek to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians over the establishment of a Palestinian state.
He said it was of “supreme interest” to Israel to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, particularly in light of what he described the “creeping annexation” of the West Bank which he said is currently occurring.
Horowitz said that annexation of all the territory of the West Bank would be “a catastrophe” and turn Israel into “an apartheid state” if it did not give the Palestinian residents equal rights, such as the right to vote in Israel.
He also rejected plans such as that of the New Right party led by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett to annex Area C of the West Bank in which all the Israeli settlements, dotted around the territory, are located, because, he says, it would stymie any possibility of creating a Palestinian state and preventing the “apartheid” he says he fears.
“We don’t want their territory in the West Bank to become like Gaza where they are choked off, with small enclaves with millions of people who have no other option than to throw missiles at you and do terrorism. You need to give them room to develop, not like the hell in Gaza,” he said.
The Democratic Union leader insisted that a bilateral agreement with the Palestinian Authority, including security arrangements, could create a stable relationship between Israel and a putative Palestinian state, in which the Palestinian security services would continue their cooperation with the IDF to guarantee Israel’s security.
Asked specifically about Gaza, and why Israel should risk withdrawing from the West Bank given the strategic threat Gaza has become since the disengagement, Horowitz insisted that a comprehensive, bilateral agreement could be made to work.
“The problem was it was done without an agreement, unilaterally and you need to do it with an agreement,” he argued.
“There was terror from Gaza before the disengagement as well. Now our situation is better that we’re not in Gaza, and I am not sorry about the disengagement. It was the correct step.”
Even though the disengagement was unilateral, it was nevertheless handed over initially to the Palestinian Authority, and was only subsequently overrun by Hamas.
Horowitz acknowledged that Hamas was a central obstacle to his vision, but argued that there have been opportunities to remove the terror group from power, and asserted that Netanyahu was satisfied to leave Hamas in control of Gaza so as to prevent a full diplomatic agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
“The person who is perpetuating the rule of Hamas is Netanyahu because he doesn’t want governance like we have in Ramallah, he wants a schism, what is called divide and conquer, so he can say ‘you can’t do an agreement with the Palestinians when Hamas controls Gaza and the PA controls the West Bank’,” he claimed.
Asked if his vision did not entail trusting the Palestinian Authority with Israel’s security, he argued that the daily operations of the PA security services in the West Bank already provide this security, although he conceded that his was backed up by the presence of the IDF in the territory.
“An [IDF] presence and security arrangements can be coordinated and agreed even when there is a Palestinian state,” said Horowitz.
And he rejected the argument that few people today define themselves as left wing because they do not want to trust their security to the Palestinian Authority, by arguing that only through a peace agreement can true security be obtained.
“We fought wars with Egypt, thousands of Israeli soldiers died, and in the end the president of Egypt came to Israel, and we did an agreement with them, formalized relations with them and since then we have not had any war.
“There is only so much you can do militarily, you need the diplomatic dimension too. It doesn’t work alone.”
In regard to demands he would make to enter a center-left government, Horowitz said that freezing settlement construction outside the major settlement blocs close to the Green line and the evacuation of some 100 illegal settlement outposts would be conditions for his entry into any coalition.
Horowitz said that the Democratic Union would also oppose any attempt to pass a High Court of Justice override bill as has been promised by numerous politicians on the right.
He argued that the impetus for such a law which would allow the Knesset to override the High Court if it strikes down legislation was to allow Netanyahu to pass an immunity law to prevent his indictment, and to prevent the High Court from stopping the annexation of parts or all of the West Bank.
He said he would not agree to any form of override legislation, even if it employed a higher threshold than the bare majority of 61 MKs for such votes which the right wing is demanding.
“It is correct for a democracy to have judicial oversight, and it is very important that the High Court is able to strike down extremist laws such as those which injure equal rights,” he insisted.
Asked if, as Shaked argued to the Post in a recent interview, it was not the court that had overreached and disturbed the balance between the different branches of government, Horowitz pointed out that the High Court has struck down only 18 laws since Israel’s first basic law, of quasi-constitutional status, was passed in 1992, and argued that in his opinion the court had been if anything too restrained.
Turning to another of the Democratic Union’s flagship issues, Horowitz said that his party would seek to “provide choice in marriage” by instituting a provision for civil marriage, allow public transport on Shabbat, and more generally provide greater pluralism for how Israelis conduct their personal status issues.
“Banning public transport on Shabbat, the chief rabbinate’s control over marriage, and its monopoly in general has no connection to religion. It doesn’t influence your faith or your values or your connection to God. It is about politics, jobs, money and power,” he said determinedly.
And he went further, promising that his party would never back down from its goal of religious liberalisation in Israel, regardless of its electoral consequences.
The haredi political parties have in the last two decades forged a close alliance with the right wing, and as left wing insistence on greater religious freedoms have grown, the possibility of political cooperation between the two sides has diminished.
The fact that they currently control 15 Knesset seats means they are by any standard the key-holders to the balance of power between left and right, but Horowitz says he could not and would not give up on his principles in this regard.
“I cant give up on the rights of secular people and the freedom of secular people and say that it is ok that there is religious coercion. How could I do that? It would be a betrayal of my voters,” he said.
Horowtiz and the Democratic Union are putting up a determined fight. They are blasting Netanyahu and the right wing for the corruption in its ranks, and lambasting policies it deems to be dangerous to the future of the country.
At the same time the party has opened up a second front against Blue and White in a concerted effort to claw back votes it sees as rightfully belonging to a full committed left wing party.
Whether this combative and pugnacious approach will bring it electoral success will only be known come September 17.