The 20-year death spasm of the Israeli Left - analysis

The ideological left in Israel has been in free-fall for two decades, and now Labor and Meretz combined have a grand total of 11 seats.

Campaign advertisements for Benny Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party outside a polling station in Jerusalem, April 9, 2019 (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Campaign advertisements for Benny Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party outside a polling station in Jerusalem, April 9, 2019
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
A milestone passed this weekend with no fanfare and hardly anyone taking notice. It was the 20th anniversary of the last time a left-wing party won a general election in Israel.
Ehud Barak’s One Israel, a combination of Labor and smaller parties, won with 26 seats, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud receiving 19. At the time, there were direct elections for prime minister, and Barak won with 56.08% to Netanyahu’s 43.92%.
But Barak’s tenure as the country’s 10th prime minister was short-lived, and the Likud reared back into power two years later in 2001 under Ariel Sharon. In the two decades since, no left-wing party has won an election in Israel. The historic Labor Party has been in decline ever since, with the exception of 2015, when it surged to 24 seats under the name Zionist Union. Similarly, Meretz, which received 10 seats in the 1999 election, never returned to those glory days.
The ideological Left in Israel has been in free-fall for two decades; in the April 9 election, Labor and Meretz together garnered a grand total of only 11 seats.
Blue and White may have been called “weak Left” by the Likud campaign this year, and shares some policy positions with Labor or Meretz – especially when it comes to social issues, like matters of religion and state or LGBT rights – but overall, it’s difficult to call the bloc the ideological Left.
Its rise dovetails with growing popularity for centrist parties since Barak was toppled, whether it was Shinui, the Sharon-founded Kadima – a right-wing mishmash like Blue and White but with more experienced leadership – or Yesh Atid, one of Blue and White’s components. Even Zionist Union, which was 2/3 Labor and 1/3 Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, presented itself as centrist.
In 2019, the idea that the Left could win an election seems as distant as it truly, historically is.
And statistics suggest very little chance of that changing.
In April’s election, the Right-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc won 56% of the vote, the Center won 28%, the Left 8% and Arab parties 8%. That gave the Right-haredi bloc 65 seats to the Center-Left-Arab bloc’s 55. But for those still speaking in terms of Left and Right, it shows that for every left-wing voter there were seven on the Right.
Polling by the Israeli Democracy Institute has shown an overall rise in the number of Israelis identifying as right-wing over the past decade. Even more interestingly, the number of right-wing voters under 35 has consistently been higher than those over 35. In 2008, 57.7% of young voters were right-wing, as were 44% of older voters. In 2018, 63.5% of young voters were right-wing; only 46.7% of older voters were.
One can extrapolate from these numbers that not only has the number of Israelis who call themselves “Right” grown over the past 10 years, but that this group will likely continue to grow.
Demographics may not be destiny, but it’s worth noting that Orthodox voters, who in general have a high birth rate, also tend to be more right-wing. And while Barak had three religious parties – Shas, UTJ and the National Religious Party – in his coalition, a scenario in which any of those could sit with the Left or even the Center grows less realistic with every passing election.
And there’s also a matter of life experience. Eighteen-year-old voters may not remember any politics before Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009.
Other voters under 35 are unlikely to remember the heyday of the peace process in the early 1990s. Some of their political memories will begin with the Second Intifada, which the Palestinians launched in 2000 after Barak’s generous offer to PLO chief Yasser Arafat at Camp David. Some of them may begin with the Gaza disengagement, which came from the Likud but has been fully disowned by the party, and the resulting waves of rockets and operations in Gaza. Security may not be everything for Israelis, but polls show it is the number-one consideration when they go to vote.
The 2011 social protests that were supposed to rock Israeli politics had little impact eight years later, except that Kadima was replaced by Yesh Atid, now merged into Blue and White. Housing may still be unaffordable for young voters, but the economy is booming overall and unemployment is low. And Israel is the 11th-happiest country in the world.
Whatever the explanation, the Left has had 20 years of death spasms – and it would take a drastic shift for it to win the next election, or the one after that. Israel has shifted, and even the Center has to wink at the Right to compete.