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The Tragedy of the Israeli Left

This is a guest post by Daniel

Between 1948 and 1977 left-wing Zionists ran the State of Israel, a country for which I have great fondness. In the early 1950s, Herut, the right-wing party run by Menachem Begin, and a forerunner of today’s Likud, could only muster eight seats in the Knesset. Dominating the Israeli political scene in those early years was David Ben-Gurion, a socialist.
Israeli political history boasts a succession of prime ministers including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Yigal Allon, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, all hailing from socialist parties. None of them was committed to the destruction of Israel, and each of them cared for the safety of the people. Indeed, it was they, not the right-wing Zionists who defended Israel through its major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973; and they did it admirably.

The last Labour prime minister of Israel was Ehud Barak, a former commando in the Israeli army and highly decorated for his part in numerous dangerous operations.

How things have changed.

The election this week in Israel was a rout for the left. Labour and the socialist Meretz parties only managed to obtain sixteen seats between them, out of the 120 available. Winning a paltry thirteen seats, Labour was relegated to fourth position.

The two major parties that now dominate the Israeli political scene are Likud and Kadima. And Kadima was formed out of Likud itself just a few years ago. Combined, these two parties now control 55 seats in the Knesset. The third party is Yisrael Beiteinu, a far-right party that managed to obtain 15 seats. It is a sad state of affairs that Yisrael Beiteinu could well be king maker in the next coalition government. As Gideon Levy noted in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz,, Avigdor Lieberman, who heads this party was a former member of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned for inciting racism:

The differences between Kach and Yisrael Beiteinu are minuscule, not fundamental and certainly not a matter of morality. The differences are in tactical nuances: Lieberman calls for a fascist “test of loyalty” as a condition for granting citizenship to Israel’s Arabs, while Kahane called for the unconditional annulment of their citizenship. One racist (Lieberman) calls for their transfer to the Palestinian state, the other (Kahane) called for their deportation.

Whereas an election in the UK or the USA will be fought on taxation, healthcare and education, the issue of national security, the terrorist threat and the peace process were the battlegrounds of the Israeli election. It was not so long ago that a real ideological battle was fought across the Knesset floor: Labour’s “Land for Peace” was met with by the Likud party (always more reluctant to give up land) and its “Peace for Peace” doctrine. In the recent election it seemed that the leading parties were merely vying to see who could be the ‘toughest’ on security.

It is true that Palestinian terrorist group Hamas have no interest in negotiations for peace. One only need read its Charter to see. But that is the Palestinian side of the equation, one that Israeli citizens are not responsible for. It is no excuse to argue that because the Palestinians are not ready for peace, Israel should not be. When I look at the makeup of the Knesset, I can but conclude that it is a tragedy not just for the left but for Israeli society that the votes went the way they did. How would I, a citizen of the United Kingdom, feel if 12.5% of Members of Parliament were from the British National Party? That’s approximately how many Israelis have voted for Yisrael Beiteinu.

Israel is a democracy and it can be rightly proud of the fact. But I wonder what David Ben-Gurion would have made of the fact that just over 60 years after he declared his country independent, the three major political parties in the Knesset are the right, the further-right and the far-right?