Israeli election results of the past 30 years illustrate the dramatic decline of Israel’s formerly ruling left. In the 1992 elections, under the leadership of the late Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party won 44 seats (out of 120) in the Knesset, and his Meretz partner (led by its late leader, the sharp and acerbic Yossi Sarid) won 12; together, they were just short of an absolute majority. Thirty years later, they have between them in the recently elected Knesset just four seats. Labor barely passed the 3.25% threshold and Meretz did not. The Zionist left in Israel politics has been literally decimated, reduced to less than one-tenth of its former strength.
What happened? Many Israelis, if pressed for an answer, would offer a four-letter place name synonymous with a failed bid for reconciliation with the Palestinians: Oslo. There, authorized by Rabin (whose coalition, at the time, included the ultra-Orthodox Shas party), Israelis met with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and outlined what came to be the Declaration of Principles, which was signed in Washington in September 1993. This in turn was followed by two detailed agreements, which created the Palestinian Authority and its jurisdiction.
By 1995, even before Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist, mainstream opinion in Israel had begun to sour as Palestinian terror attacks persisted. In 1996, Likud came back to power under Netanyahu, but hopes for peace with the Palestinians were still strong enough in 1999 to bring back to power—for the last time—a Labor Party leader. Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff, was expected by the voters to balance the quest for peace with Israel’s security needs.
It all came to naught. In September 2000, the Camp David Summit between Barak and Arafat failed. Soon a wave of violence and terror—guided from above, yet mistakenly referred to as the “Second Intifada” or popular uprising—engulfed Israel and the Palestinians. The rise of Israel’s hard right can be traced back to this tragic junction.
A sharp decline in the fortunes of the traditional left and center-left parties became all but inevitable. Peace had become their byword, and peace had become nearly synonymous with an increase in terrorist attacks in Israel.
There was little else the left could latch on to. Old-style socialism was a thing of the past. Economically disadvantaged groups in Israeli society, especially the refugees from Arab countries who came in the 1950s, felt disenfranchised in the first thirty years of Israel’s establishment and saw Likud as their political home, as do their descendants today. Resentment of the elite refused to die, and both Labor and Meretz found it difficult to rid themselves of an association with the sybaritic Tel Aviv cosmopolitan “haves” as opposed to the “have nots” of Israel’s social and geographic periphery.
A wide space opened in the political center, filled not by Labor but by new parties, some of which arose and disappeared within a couple of election cycles. First came Ariel Sharon’s “Kadima” (Forward), which at its height was as powerful as Ben- Gurion’s Labor in its day. Later led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Kadima has now entirely vanished. The one last time in which a Labor leader still managed to win a sizable chunk of the vote—nearly 20%—was in 2015 when the current president of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog, teamed up with Livni and the remnants of Kadima. But this alliance, too, did not last.
Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future), centrist on the Palestinian issue, seems to have more staying power. He is now ending a brief stint as prime minister, having cobbled together an unwieldy coalition of several left, centrist, and right-wing (but “anti-Bibi”) parties, as well as one Arab party. As Lapid consolidated his position as the favored son of Israel’s elite, he, in effect, pushed the traditional left-wing Zionist parties further toward oblivion. So did the growing anger of many Israelis over the resumption of Palestinian terror activities and what came to be seen as the wrong order of priorities on the left.
Can the Zionist left regain its past position as the dominant force in Israeli life? Probably not, owing to demographic changes. It did not help their cause that Netanyahu did manage to make headway toward new relations with several Arab countries, even without securing Palestinian consent—which the left had repeatedly argued would be impossible. At the same time, voting results from the last four elections show center-left and left parties, including Israeli Arab parties, consistently garnering slightly under half the vote.
Parties on the left could find new pathways to a majority, particularly with the support of those who resent the rise of the radical right and seek to uphold the image of Israel as an open, tolerant society. These parties of the left will not merge but may run on a joint platform. They may yet dig themselves out of the rubble of the present collapse and build a center-left coalition—if tensions within the emerging governing coalition do bring it down, as some of its own proponents fear could happen within months.