Analysis: Are Labor’s hawkish MKs returning to the party’s roots or abandoning the Left?

Some of Labor’s hawkish MKs have grown increasingly vocal, raising eyebrows among those to their Left.

Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (C) and then-defense minister Shimon Peres (2nd L) greet hostages rescued from Entebbe back in Israel (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE/URI HERTZL TZHIK/IDF ARCHIV)
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (C) and then-defense minister Shimon Peres (2nd L) greet hostages rescued from Entebbe back in Israel
This week, lawmakers in a large faction in the Knesset shouted at Arab and Meretz MKs who opposed increasing the penalty for rock-throwing and said boycotting Israel is legitimate, voted in favor of making the government’s ties to the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division official and squabbled with leftwing reporters on Twitter.
Think the large faction is Likud? Think again. All of the aforementioned events involved MKs in the Zionist Union – more specifically, from Labor.
Some of Labor’s hawkish MKs have grown increasingly vocal, raising eyebrows among those to their Left, but the MKs themselves say they are simply continuing in the tradition of the party’s historic leadership.
This tension has been present throughout Labor’s history, but this week it became more palpable than it has been in years.
On Sunday, Labor chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog put to rest rumors that his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy in opposing the world powers’ deal with Iran indicated that he is about to join the coalition.
Two days later, Labor Secretary- General MK Hilik Bar and MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) were at the center of a brouhaha of the sort that usually involves Likud, Yisrael Beytenu or Bayit Yehudi MKs.
Bar, a deputy Knesset speaker, presided over the final vote over a Justice Ministry bill that would increase the penalty for throwing rocks at moving vehicles to up to 20 years and no longer require the prosecution to prove the rock-throwers’ intention was to injure or kill.
The Joint List’s stance was that the bill is “racist, unconstitutional and meant to suppress the grassroots civil battle and protests of the Palestinians,” and its MKs made that position known in speeches and by interrupting other legislators while they spoke.
“You are here because the IDF protects you,” Bar said. “Thanks to IDF soldiers, you are able to be here and speak freely. Just like they protect me, they protect you.”
“Protect me? They kill women and children,” MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) responded, with many other members of his faction chiming in.
“You tell me, how would you be in the Knesset if we didn’t have an army? If those crazies in Syria and slaughtering your brothers were here… they would kill me and you,” Bar continued.
Shmuli moved the argument to Twitter, where he said that “it’s unfortunate that Meretz backs rock-throwing as ‘legitimate.’” “Another self-proclaimed patriot,” MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) tweeted back. “Compete in your primaries over who is more right-wing and leave us alone.”
When a left-wing Haaretz reporter tweeted that Labor is “protecting Netanyahu,” Shmuli retorted: “And you’re protecting rock-throwers. Did you ever think that we are expressing a substantive point and don’t ask what Bibi will say every minute?” Bar chimed in on Twitter: “We are the opposition to the Government of Israel. Not to the people of Israel, the State of Israel or the IDF. That’s the difference between us.”
On Wednesday, the Knesset debated bills by MKs Basel Ghattas (Joint List) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) meant to cancel the existing law allowing the government to distance itself from organizations that call to boycott Israel and for citizens to sue if they faced financial harm because of the support for boycotts. Shmuli shouted at the two and once again continued the discussion on Twitter and criticized leftwing blogger Tal Schneider for what he said was conflating opposition to boycotts with opposition to all Israeli Arabs.
Also Wednesday, Labor MKs Eitan Broshi and Dani Atar voted in favor of a Bayit Yehudi bill anchoring the government’s ties to the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division in legislation. The party’s position on the bill was a very contentious issue in the Zionist Union faction meeting earlier in the week.
The Settlement Division was the flagship fight for MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) in the last Knesset, and gained her the support of many of her faction’s MKs. Shaffir called for it to be fully transparent, even though it is not officially a government agency, and said too much of its money goes to settlements over the Green Line.
Atar is Labor’s representative of moshavim and Broshi represents kibbutzim, and soon after the vote, they released a joint statement that “we are for working settlements [kibbutzim and moshavim]… The Settlement Division is the only element working professionally and in a high-quality way to help the Gaza envelope, Lebanon border and Golan Heights.
The rules of management and good governance should be followed, including full transparency, and we support legislation on this topic, but not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Keeping on the theme of settlements, Bar implied on Thursday that Zionist Union does not oppose construction in settlement blocs and east Jerusalem.
“I will support construction in any place that will definitely be Israel’s sovereign territory,” he told Army Radio.
Shmuli took issue with the contention that Labor is changing its positions: “This isn’t a media campaign. Not every time someone is statesmanlike and nationalist and wants there to be security does it mean he’s in the Likud. I don’t agree with that assumption… Look at Labor’s history. Would you be surprised if [former prime minister and Labor leader Yitzhak] Rabin opposed rock-throwing?” According to Shmuli, Meretz first started a false rumor that Herzog is about to join the Netanyahu government – Gal- On said as much in an Army Radio interview last week – and once they saw that didn’t work, they’re starting a new campaign, to color Labor as rightwing extremists.
“We’re not moving Right; Meretz is moving Left. We stand with Meretz in our commitment to a two-state solution and against racism and violence against Arabs, but our argument starts when Meretz proposes a bill to allow boycotts against Israel and opposes punishing rock-throwers,” he told The Jerusalem Post Thursday. “It is outrageous that Tami [Zandberg] called rock-throwing a ‘grassroots protest.’ Meretz is turning into [ultra-nationalist Arab party] Balad, and I don’t want Labor to be dragged in the same direction.”
As for the boycott bill, Shmuli pointed out that the leaders of the BDS movement are against Israel’s existence, and he cannot support that. Zandberg, however, continued to insist that Labor is abandoning the Left, telling Army Radio Thursday: “What Shmuli is trying to do is distance the Left from itself.”
“[The Left’s] job is to be a confident alternative that doesn’t confuse security and patriotism with the dangerous policies of the Right,” she said.
Zionist Union faction chairwoman Merav Michaeli – someone who is solidly on Labor’s left flank – responded to the accusations that Labor is moving Right to attract votes, saying: “It’s legitimate to have an ideological debate and it is also legitimate to discuss what will be more electorally attractive.
It’s not something we’ve talked about in a concrete way, but [the idea] is expressed.”
Michaeli said she doesn’t take the criticism that Labor is becoming more right-wing too seriously, because there has always been tension between doves and hawks in Labor for as long as the party has existed.
“I don’t get that excited about it, because it’s clearly part of party life,” she stated. “Long live democracy!”