Analysis: The left loses touch with the Israeli electorate
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Analysis: The left loses touch with the Israeli electorate

Ben Gurion University professor David Newman says the once great Israeli Labour Party is now all but extinct

Professor David Newman voting in March
Professor David Newman voting in March

There is no such thing as “left wing” in Israel any more. The famous Labour Party of Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, of Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, the party without which there would not have been a State of Israel, which ruled that state almost single-handedly for its first 30 years, is now all but extinct.

Together with what remains of the Meretz Party, the latest version of Labour, under the failed leadership of Amir Peretz (who only got four percent of the votes in his home town) won seven seats, just five percent of the national vote.

Even allowing for the many traditional Labour voters switched their allegiance to the main opposition party (Blue and White), some voted for the Joint Arab List –now the third largest party – while many decided not to vote at all. This just reflects the total disconnect between the ideology of these parties and the people they believe they represent.

The slogans and the arguments sound great within the ivory towers of university corridors and elitist think-tanks, but they have no relevant message for the “guy on the street” in the development towns of the Negev and the Galilee, or in the working class neighbourhoods of almost all Israeli cities. This is a common experience of many former socialist parties throughout the world.

Contrast that to the religious parties, which speak for tradition and religion, which they see as under attack by the secular-left and secular-right, or to the Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu, which speaks to the nationalist and patriotic feelings of this population. Meanwhile the Ashkenazi groups amongst the traditional Labour voters, who led the party and held it together, preferred – not for the first time – the more centrist, even moderately right-wing policies of Blue and White Party. This leaves almost nothing for Labour and Meretz.

The reason there is no significant “left” in Israel any more is because the Labour Party no longer represents their economic or welfare interests, is detached from their religious and traditionalist sentiments, and because the Alf Garnett/Archie Bunker gut nationalism of the working class finds it home in the parties of the right and the centre-right. Truth be told, they are simply out of touch.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss the significant gains made by two strongly sectoral parties – the Joint List (15 seats) led by Ayman Odeh and Shas (9 seats) under the sophisticated leadership of Aryeh Der’i. These two parties are now the third and fourth largest respectively in the Knesset.

While the Joint List will not sit in government, even one led by Blue and White, Der’i and Shas – still drawing on the messages of their late leader Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef on all the billboards and social media adverts – will be a senior partner, perhaps even the most senior, if and when their friend and ally Netanyahu manages to get a 61-seat coalition together.

The existing electoral system in Israel, a single national constituency with proportional representation, is and always has been a gift for sectoralism, as long as they manage to pass the lower electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. This threshold has gradually risen over time from no more than one percent (which explains why you had some extremely small parties in the past), but it is still low enough for any party which can gain just under 150,000 votes to enter the Knesset, and with a minimum of 3-4 seats.

The coalition of all the smaller Arab parties into a single bloc, and the ability of Shas to pick up on the disaffected Sephardi-traditional vote in development towns and poorer neighbourhoods, enabled them to successfully navigate their way through the social dynamics of contemporary Israeli society to achieve significant gains in this week’s election. In particular, Israeli Arabs understood that when faced with the choice of not voting at all or voting en masse for a single coalition, they had much to gain from the latter.

It would behove Israel’s new government, assuming it to be a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu, to recognise the electoral power of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority. It comprises about 20 percent of the population and, like the Orthodox Jewish population, has a rapidly growing birth-rate (unlike the secular elites in metropolitan centres). Any new government would be wise to involve them more closely in the economic and social development of Arab towns and communities, even if they are diametrically opposed on policies concerning Palestinian statehood and security.

Time will tell if Netanyahu can pull a coalition together. The chances seem good, not least because Israelis do not want a fourth election. In the meantime, those parties that once ruled the country must reformulate and get back in touch with the real voters on the ground, if they are not to disappear into oblivion altogether.

  • Professor David Newman, originally from the UK, is professor of Geopolitics, and former Dean of Social Sciences, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
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