A Different Perspective: Neither Left nor Right

Instead of dealing with social issues, Israeli leftists and rightists focus primarily on this country’s territorial problems.

Settlers protest sign_390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Settlers protest sign_390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
In Israel, the political terms Left and Right are not like their nominal counterparts in the rest of the democratic world.
Instead of dealing mainly with economic and social issues, as is the case abroad, the Israeli leftists and rightists focus primarily on this country’s territorial problems.
Left-wingers here advocate substantial if not total withdrawal from the West Bank and right-wingers insist on the retention of this biblical area in its entirety.
Outside of Israel, leftists are those who support trade unions, advocate fair and adequate pay for salaried employees, and generous welfare benefits for the needy. Rightists there advocate minimal regulation of private business, lower taxes on corporate profits and less monitoring of private interests.
This is true of France (where the terms Left and Right were coined after the revolution of 1789), the United Kingdom, the United States and all the other democratic countries whose political makeup includes a Left and a Right.
One result of the unique Israeli case is that unlike the free world’s political setup, it does not have a political framework for economic and social reform.
The main distinction between the leftist Labor and rightist Likud parties is that the former is much more flexible on the territorial issue than the latter.
There was good reason to expect Labor’s priorities to change when Shelly Yacimovich became its leader in September, but the outspoken concern she expressed for the wide gap that exists here between the high and low income brackets ahead of her election as party leader was muted the moment she became its theoretical candidate for the premiership.
On the other hand, the Likud indeed has a significant percentage of active unionists among its members, but they do not expect their party to devote itself to the working class’s special interests. A case in point is the controversy between the Histadrut labor federation and the government of Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the hiring of so-called “contract workers” (ovdei kablan) at salaries far below the norm for staff personnel and without any fringe benefits.
The leftists should have gone to bat for the ovdei kablan, but like the rightists, they ignored their plight.
In its overview of the ideological differences between the two factions on the international scene, Wikipedia is explicit: “Left-wing values include the belief in the power of human reason to achieve progress, secularism, sovereignty exercised by the legislature, social justice and mistrust of strong personal leadership. The Right’s concern is with anti-clericalism, unrealistic social reforms, doctrinaire socialism and class hatred.”
The consequences of the unique Israeli definition of Left and Right can also be seen in the fact that the grassroots movement for social justice that emerged last summer was not endorsed or adopted by any of the country’s political parties – not even by Labor or Meretz, which are commonly regarded as left-wing parties.
It is also fair to say that Israel’s leftists have not been involved in the minuscule effort to help families whose resort to makeshift tent colonies is due to their lack of money to pay for decent housing.
Nor have they been acting effectively to narrow the shockingly wide income gap that separates the affluent from the indigent here – something about which all Israelis should be ashamed. The ultra-wealthy 1 percent of the population, including the so-called tycoons and their offspring, continue to enjoy maximal creature comforts and diversions such as lavish travel abroad while the lower third of the population can hardly make ends meet.
The time has come for Israel to get its priorities right.
Instead of ostensible endorsement of the “two-state solution” to the dispute with the Palestinians, which is and will continue to be a non-starter as long as the Gaza Strip is ruled by the extremist Hamas organization and probably even after Hamas’s demise (if this ever occurs), the leftists should change their orientation and focus on the overall Israeli population’s needs. One of their highest priorities should be improvement of the Arab population’s standard of living and a campaign for an end to ethnic and religious discrimination in the employment sector, especially regarding the Israeli Arabs’ right to a fair share of government jobs at all levels.
There is no moral or ethical justification for the Left’s obsession about territorial concessions or compromise in the West Bank. Nor should the Right give unlimited support for Jewish settlements there regardless of the local Palestinians’ legal rights, especially to land ownership, while ignoring the demographic tensions this tactic generates.
An Israeli shift to the international definition of Left and Right might transform the unsuccessful quest for social justice on a national scale into a feasible and universally accepted objective.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.