In the end, both the left-wing Democratic Union and centre-left Labor-Gesher won just enough votes to sit in the next Israeli parliament, but for a moment it was touch and go. Some polls had them failing to meet the 3.25 percent threshold.
Whatever happened? Under Golda Meir 50 years ago, Labor dominated Israeli politics, and even though Likud tipped the scales from 1977, Yitzchak Rabin regained Labor’s dominance in 1992, governing with the left-wing Meretz party (which forms the bulk of Democratic Union) and the strictly Orthodox party Shas.
For the left, 1992-95 were glory years, with laws to reduce poverty and income inequality, maintenance grants for single parents and the disabled, unemployment allowance, universal access to healthcare initiated through a national insurance policy, affirmative action to get Palestinians into the public sector, increased budgets for Arab councils and schools, and peace talks making real progress in Oslo.
Then Rabin was assassinated. Shimon Peres took over, called an election, and lost to Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Peres would “divide Jerusalem” for peace. Vast numbers of Israeli Arabs boycotted that election in protest at Israeli military action in Lebanon, and Netanyahu won by less than 30,000 votes. He’s rarely looked back.
In the seven elections since, Labor has averaged 16.5 seats, but that plummeted to just six seats in April. Some Labor stars, such as Stav Shaffir, upped sticks. Others publicly harangued hapless leader Avi Gabbay, who was later ditched. This time around, Labor joined forces with Gesher, which won 70,000 seats in April, but still only won six seats. Democratic Union won five, just as Meretz did in April, before it embraced Shaffir and former PM Ehud Barak.
What next? Both parties will help Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid form a government if asked, and if there is no ‘national unity government’ comprising Gantz, Lapid and the Likud party, but long-term many suspect the decline is terminal.
Netanyahu and others have been so successful at turning “left” into an insult or slur suggesting disloyalty and weakness that Gantz and Lapid have been at pains to paint themselves as anything but. Unless the left finds an enigmatic leader who cuts through generations, issues and personalities, it may not make the threshold next time.