Making the Left relevant

For the Left to succeed politically, it must convince Israelis that an unshakable commitment to Zionism can inspire human rights activism and battles for equality.

haim oron 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haim oron 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Meretz chairman Haim Oron will be stepping down on Wednesday after 23 years of Knesset political activity. Oron, whose Knesset salary is transferred each month directly to Kibbutz Lahav, where he has lived for the past five decades, has distinguished himself as an informed, committed and idealistic legislator.
However, he leaves politics at a time when the Left is facing its most acute crisis ever.
In its first electoral test in 1992, Meretz – a coalition of Mapam, Ratz and Shinui – managed to garner 12 Knesset seats. The party was a central partner in Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo process. But Meretz has suffered since from a drastic fall in popularity – notwithstanding a temporary comeback in 1999 – and managed to win just three seats in the 2009 elections.
Labor, one step closer to the center of the political spectrum, fell to an all-time low of just 13 seats in the 2009 election, and in January suffered a traumatic split when former party chairman Ehud Barak and four other MKs broke away to form Independence.
MERETZ SET up an inquiry committee after the 2009 election debacle, but it offered few explanations. The rightwing predilection of most of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union was noted. Skyrocketing natural growth among haredim and religious Zionists, combined with a much slower growth among the secular populace, was another demographic handicap. Meretz’s “branding” was blamed, as was the lack of charisma of the party chairman (Oron). In fact, he almost stepped down under pressure from within his party. Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin had all previously given up the leadership of Meretz out a concern that their personal lack of popularity might hurt the success of the movement.
Such selflessness in politics is rare and commendable.
But the deepening failure of the Left plainly cannot be attributed to the lack of popularity of a particular politician.
The ailment is more fundamental and, therefore, harder to cure.
In the years leading up to the Oslo Accords, the Left made a major contribution to Israeli politics by popularizing the idea that only a two-state solution would keep Israel both Jewish and democratic. However, amid the collapse of those accords, and particularly during the second intifada, it became increasingly out of touch with the vast majority of society.
The Palestinian public might have been disappointed that Oslo had not led to rapid independence and that settlement building in the West Bank had continued. But there could be no ignoring, or justifying, the inclination of wide swaths of the Palestinian population to identify with death-worshipping Islamofascists rather than adopting role models such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.
An almost messianic faith in the viability of “the peace process” in the face of Palestinian intransigence and terrorism induced at least some on the Left to blame the “occupation” for indefensible Palestinian atrocities. Hence the alienation and growing marginalization. It was simply not reasonable in the eyes of the vast majority of Israelis for a Meretz MK to protest targeted killings of terrorists – a tactic found to be legal by the Supreme Court – at a time when there were real ticking bombs wandering around.
Though Meretz is a Zionist party that defends the moral right of the Jewish people to political autonomy and selfdetermination in its historical homeland, values Zionist ethos such as Jewish agriculture, and opposes the right of return for all Palestinians because it endangers the Jewish majority, the party too often emphasizes the negative.
The assertion of Sderot residents’ right to live peaceful, productive lives, for instance, has not been voiced as strongly by Meretz members as was the call to set up an independent committee of inquiry into alleged war crimes perpetrated by the IDF after Operation Cast Lead.
FOR THE Left to succeed politically, it must convince Israelis that an unshakable commitment to Zionism can inspire human rights activism and battles for equality.
The Left internalized early on the potential moral implications and demographic consequences of Israeli rule over the Palestinians, but shied away from internalizing the disinclination of Palestinians to accept Israel’s fundamental Jewish legitimacy. The push for a two-state solution must be advanced without losing sight of basic national interests, such as the security of our citizens, and without willfully ignoring the failings, betrayals and inadequacies of partners and potential partners.
The Zionist Left in general, and Meretz in particular, has an essential role to play in this country’s democracy as defenders of the rights of women, minorities and the poor. Oron’s retirement well ahead of our next planned national elections provides an opportunity for the Left to take the necessary steps to make itself relevant again.