Lessons for the Left

The best solution is for politicians to recognize the damage created by a splintered political map and work to remedy the situation by pursuing unity.

Liberman and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
MK Amir Peretz’s dramatic announcement Thursday that he was leaving the Labor Party for Tzipi Livni’s new list underscores the malaise of the splintered and embattled left-of-center camp.
Whereas Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman managed to overcome their differences and come together to form a joint list, the Left is splintered. And this is bad not only for the Left, it is bad for Israeli politics.
It is bad for the Left because a united Center-Left list would undoubtedly have had a better chance of challenging Netanyahu’s dominance. Indeed, a Smith Research survey carried out exclusively for The Jerusalem Post in October found that a party led by former prime minister Ehud Olmert that would include former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, current Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid would win the January 22 election.
Since that poll was published, however, not only has the Left failed to unite, it has become even further fractured. Negotiations to include Livni in the Labor candidates list failed and Livni has established her own party.
By failing to overcome their differences, center-ofleft parties gave up on the thesis – backed up by the Post poll – that unity has the potential to change the psychology of the race and draw support greater than the sum of the Left’s disparate parts.
The splintering of the Left will undoubtedly lead to particularly dirty and aggressive election campaigns.
Political adversaries who were once allies tend to carry a grudge. Peretz and former Labor chairman Amram Mitzna – who also joined Livni’s list – have already launched personal attacks on current Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, while Yacimovich and MK Isaac Herzog, No. 2 on the Labor list, has attacked Peretz. And we will probably see similar mudslinging from former Kadima MKs such as Meir Sheetrit, now with Livni, against his old party. The principal benefactors from all this in-fighting on the Left will likely be the right-wing bloc and, perhaps, Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
But a fractured Left is bad not only for the Left. A political culture in which public figures with a strong following opt to create their own political parties instead of joining a larger, established party results in an unstable political system. Smaller parties – particularly the national-religious and haredi ones – take advantage of a splintered political system to exert influence that far exceeds their electoral size. Government coalitions made up of many small parties tend to survive for less time.
In an ideal situation, two mainstream parties – one right-of-center and one left-of-center – should represent two mainstream positions on cardinal issues such as security and socioeconomics. There are, after all, no major ideological differences between Livni’s list and Labor or, for that matter, the platform of these two parties and that of Yesh Atid. Ego and personality differences have more to do with the splintering on the Left than substantive differences on policy.
Perhaps our political system is a reflection of our increasingly individualistic and polarized society, perhaps it is the result of what has been called “the end of ideology.” But whatever the reason, the fact is that over the past few decades the size of the two largest political parties – traditionally Labor and the Likud – has steadily decreased.
Until 1996, the two largest political parties together consistently had more than 70 Knesset seats. Since 1999, the two largest parties have garnered fewer than half the 120 Knesset seats. And this state of affairs has hurt what political scientists call governance or governability – the ability of governments to make decisions and to follow through on them.
Election reforms such as raising the threshold for a party to get elected to the Knesset from just 2 percent of the vote might help.
But the best solution is for politicians to recognize the damage created by a splintered political map and work to remedy the situation by pursuing unity.
The Likud-Yisrael Beytenu merger could have been emulated by the Left and Center. It would have been a boon not just for them but for our political culture.