In its early days, many people on the British left offered the young, embattled state of Israel their staunch support: Harold Wilson, Ian Mikado, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman and Eric Heffer were all early supporters of Labour Freiends of Israel. That support stemmed not simply from strongly held beliefs in the Jewish people’s right to their own homeland, but also from the character of the new country. The leaders of Israel – the Labor party dominated the nation’s politics in its first four decades – were seen by Wilson as ‘social democrats who made the desert bloom’.
That is not a description that anyone could easily apply to the government that Benjamin Netanyahu will assemble in the coming days and weeks after Tuesday’s depressing election results.
Some will now be tempted to deem Israel irredeemably rightwing, declare the Israeli left dead, and walk away. That would be inaccurate and a mistake.
The Zionist Union – the electoral alliance formed between the Israeli Labor party and Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnua party – fell short of the hopes that many of us had for it, particularly when opinion polls last week suggested the centre-left was opening up a lead over Likud.
However, we should not forget that this was an early election engineered by Netanyahu last December for a time he thought most politically advantageous. When the election was called Labor appeared likely to make only modest progress – polls suggested it might add two seats to the 15 it won in 2013. In alliance with Livni, it ended up winning 24, the highest number of seats and share of the vote won by Labor since Ehud Barak led the party to victory in 1999.
The Israeli left has been in the political doldrums ever since. The apparent failure of the Oslo Accords to deliver the hoped-for peace with the Palestinians, the onset of the second intifada and the resulting upsurge in terrorist attacks did lasting damage to the electoral prospects of the Labor party. Until the 1999 election, Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties never failed to win fewer than 48 seats. Since 2003, they have never managed to win more than 34. On Tuesday, they finally broke that spell, together winning 42 seats. It was not enough, and the party will need to do more to burnish its security credentials – the issue, more than any other, on which Israeli elections turn. But, under Isaac Herzog’s leadership, the party was, for the first time in 15 years, a serious contender for government. That is no small achievement.
There is though, no denying that by securing 30 seats Likud won – in the splintered, multi-party world of Israeli politics – an impressive victory. But, overall, the election does not represent some dramatic swing to the right. In truth, both Netanyahu and Herzog, squeezed the support of other parties, parties to the right and the religious parties: in the case of the former, parties to the left and to the centre in the case of the latter. Moreover, if we compare Tuesday’s elections with the last general election in 2013 we can see between left and right how little has shifted. In 2013, the right won 51 seats; religious parties 18; centre 19; and the left 33. In 2015, the right has won 54 seats; religious parties 13; centre 11; and the left 42. Within that right bloc, there is also the new party, Kulanu, which is very much on the centre-right.
Many of us were dismayed to hear Netanyahu, in a desperate move to shore up the rightwing vote, renege on his previous support for Palestinian statehood on Monday. It is worth remembering however, that parties which support a two-state solution – such as Kulanu – will have to be part of any government he forms and, perhaps more crucially, the prime minister’s new position is not one shared by the Israeli people as a whole. Polls have consistently shown support for a two-state solution is shared by nearly two-thirds of Israelis.
At this difficult and disappointing time for the Israeli left, it is vital that we do not abandon our comrades. There is a crucial role for the British left to play as a bridge between progressives – including the trade unions – in Israel and Palestine. It is, after all, these two groups that will provide the energy and support that will be required from both peoples to reach and sustain a lasting peace.
Last December, together with a group of Labour members of parliament and parliamentary candidates, I visited kibbutz Nir Oz. It is just 400 metres from the border with Gaza. Each of its homes has a bomb shelter. The kindergarten, school and communal dining room are covered with cement to reinforce them against the Hamas rockets and mortars which are periodically fired at them. The people who live at Nir Oz were on the sharp end of the attacks Hamas launched last summer: they feared for their lives and today they fear for the future of their children. But, they told us, they never forget that Israelis are not the only victims of Hamas. The Palestinian people of Gaza are too. They wanted nothing more than to be able to live in peace with their neighbours.
Yesterday morning I checked the election results for Nir Oz. The people there – as did the string of kibbutzim which dot the border with Gaza – voted overwhelmingly for the left. Indeed, 80 per cent of Nir Oz residents voted Labor and Meretz: 45.15 per cent for the Zionist Union and 34.70 per cent for Meretz.
This Sunday, together with our colleagues in Trade Union Friends of Israel, LFI will once again be participating in the We Believe In Israel conference in London. We will be doing so to show support for our fellow progressives in Israel, not least the people of the kibbutzim of southern Israel who want and voted for something better for people of Israel and Palestine.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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