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The failure of the Israeli Left

Guest post by John de Frece

“They care– we don’t– they win”

–Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The history of the Israel Left since the Six Day War is a catalogue of failure– a failure founded on a combination of tactical blunders, abandonment of the working class, a fair degree of prejudice and a dose of pure bad luck. It was finally crushed by the sheer duplicity of Yasser Arafat.

The fact that the Right has ruled Israel (in various guises) since 1977 (with the exception of the Rabin government, which was brought down by a coup d’etat)– supported by an ardent, solid and loyal base of support from a very large section of the Jewish working class– speaks volumes as to the inability of the labour parties to successfully penetrate that support, even to the relatively small number which would be required to tip the balance in favour of the so-called Left.

The question which has been asked for so long, and which remains unanswered, is: How is it been possible that a class which has been ruthlessly exploited for so long by the Likud (which professes openly neo-liberal economics) can vote time after time for that party and its satellites. Is there a rational explanation for a situation which on the face of it is totally irrational?

For 30 odd years there has been no real answer to this question. It remains the ultimate enigma of Israeli politics. Can it be explained by simply affirming that the Likud is just a gang of super efficient con merchants who manage to conceal their real intentions by successful appeals to tribal loyalty?

Or is the product which the Right offers the product which the Jewish proletariat actually want?

I think that the success of the Likud is really founded on its ability to convince a very large part of Israeli society that domestic/economic matters are not really “politics” at all– that these are issues which should be kept out of the decision-making process of whom to vote for.

The surprising corollary to the basic “ground rule” of which the Likud are the principal benefactors is the “agreement” by the leaders of the social protests which emerged last year. They have insisted that under no circumstances should the protests be construed as “political.”

This is of course infantile nonsense. It is precisely this mistaken strategy which resulted in the protests’ abject failure. It was a suicidal position to take. And it happened because there was no serious Left party to manipulate it into toppling the government. So having emasculated the protests by appointing a committee, the Likud will fight the next election yet again on ground which it will choose– ground which they would expect to win on. You really have to hand it to them! They know exactly how to play the game: “It’s NOT the economy, stupid!”

But that is only half the story – and perhaps not even half.

The real story behind the results for the last three elections is the abstention of some 35 percent of the electorate– that’s 2 million Israelis. Now it’s true that a goodly proportion of that number are not even living in Israel, but even so it is a massive deterioration in voter participation compared to previous years, when turnout was never less than 78 percent. These days it is 63 percent. Stunningly– and it really beggars belief– this means that Netanyahu and his rotten party were elected to leadership of the country while receiving the votes of only 14 percent of the electorate.

What this means– or should mean– is that if half a million abstainers were to turn out at the next election they could change the whole political makeup of Israel at a stroke. The key to ousting Netanyahu is convincing the abstainers to vote – and vote for the goodies!

So who are these people who couldn’t be arsed to trundle along to a local polling station, giving up half an hour of a day which is always a public holiday, and trouble themselves to put a voting slip in a ballot box (they don’t even have to make the effort to put an X next to their chosen list)?

According to the Israel Institute for Democracy a large proportion of abstainers are young, secular, middle class and “centrist,” lacking in any ideology and believing that they can’t change anything. In a word: apolitical . They didn’t care what the rightist fanatics and the religious loonies did. The Right cared, we didn’t, they won. Which is why this wretched government can always find a spare 56 million shekels to build a road to an illegal settlement but never seem to have the cash for, say, subsidising bus fares a bit.

The above is a precise description of the overwhelming majority of people who came out onto the streets last year! (Did I say half a million by any chance?)

Furthermore it turns out that the biggest abstainers of the lot are Arab Israelis– some 20 percent of the population who can’t stop moaning (with frequent justification) about discrimination, when it is their power to change their status at a stroke.

So there you have it. A simple analysis of Israeli voting structures . All it needs now is for Labour party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On to do two things:

1) Convince the secular middle class to actually come out and vote.

2) Convince them not to waste their vote on another useless “star” centrist party (which invariable collapse after an election or two).

This is the challenge before Labour and Meretz. They have a year or so to get across their message. Otherwise Yair Lapid and his yet-to-be-born vapid nonentities will scoop the pool– and in so doing keep the Likud in power.

But wouldn’t it be pure ecstasy for an election result to come in showing that those who didn’t give a monkey’s finally made it to a polling station and did the right thing? Who knows– maybe afterwards there might actually be some serious peace negotiations.

John de Frece has been living in Israel for over 30 years. He was general secretary of Mapam in the UK. He is a lawyer in private practice in Ramat Gan.