The Israeli Opposition – from Politics to Protest

I had the opportunity last weekend to do something I’d rarely done during the years that I lived in Israel. I got to speak directly to leaders of the Israel Labour Party and Meretz. The occasion was a one-day conference in London organised by the Jewish Labour Movement. One session featured a live Zoom call with Merav Michaeli, the Labour Party leader. The other was with Mossi Raz, a former Meretz member of Knesset.

Michaeli spoke about the results of the recent elections in which her party was reduced to a historic low. In the elections to the first Knesset in 1949, Labour’s predecessor won nearly 46 seats (out of 120). With less than 4% of the vote this time, Labour barely managed to enter the Knesset, winning just four seats.

Labour’s traditional partner, Meretz, did even worse, winning just over 3% and thereby falling below the threshold — thus earning no seats in the Knesset.

The two parties had won 13 seats in the previous election. It was a catastrophic result and can be blamed on many things. One of them was Labour’s persistent fear that people might mistake it for being a left-wing party — which drove the party to say nothing at all about the Occupation. Another was Michaeli’s refusal to consider forming an electoral bloc with Meretz, which it too considered to be too left-wing.

When she finished her speech, we were offered the chance to ask questions. I used the opportunity to point out that had she agreed to Meretz’s proposal for an electoral bloc, she would be speaking to us today as a government minister — and not as the leader of a small opposition faction. The audience applauded my question. Michaeli responded angrily, saying that her job was to lead the Labour Party, not the entire Israeli Left. It’s not her problem if Meretz struggled to get votes.

That surprised me. Surely all the parties currently in opposition to the far-right Netanyahu government should welcome ways to work together and bring that government down. But for the Israel Labour Party leader, that was a secondary concern. The important thing was that her party had — just barely — survived.

Meretz’s Mossi Raz also proved a disappointment. Though he spoke about the Occupation, and repeatedly contrasted Meretz’s social democratic vision with that of the Labour Party, he seemed to have no ideas about how things might be turned around. He told the British audience that the Israeli left needed unity. He wanted Labour, Meretz and Hadash (the Communist-led party) to unite. But he was convinced that this was unlikely to happen. That being the case, he didn’t see any reason for Meretz to compete again in Knesset elections.

That, too, surprised me. Meretz won over 150,000 votes, getting within a few thousand of entering the Knesset with four seats. Meretz may not have won any seats, but it still has a constituency of 150,000. One would think it should be laser-focused on learning the lessons of its defeat and making the extra push required to get those votes next time.

One party which had challenged the mainstream left parties and focused attention on the Palestinians was Da’am. But it chose not to run in these elections after winning barely 500 votes the last time it competed.

The far Right did not make these mistakes. On Netanyahu’s orders, three parties united in a single bloc and won 14 Knesset seats. The Left could learn a lesson from this.

Meanwhile, sections of the Israeli public are taking a different approach. While the Labour Party seems content to have squeaked into the Knesset and Meretz seems racked with despair, this weekend, some 80,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv against the new government.

I am reminded of the reaction of many Americans to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. While the establishment Democrats led by Hillary Clinton licked their wounds and blamed Bernie Sanders, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest. The Women’s March and, later, the Black Lives Matter protests were the correct answer to Trump. Without them, the Democrats would never have recovered, gone on to win elections two years later, and then recaptured the presidency.

The smugness I heard from Merav Michaeli and the hopelessness Mossi Raz projected are dead ends for the Israeli Left and Israeli democracy. The right place for progressives and democrats to be is in the streets.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.