Israel's once-mighty left now endangered species

Claire Gounon and Stephen Weizman
1 / 3

In Israel's March 2 vote, Labor, Meretz and the centrist Gesher party are running together, but latest polls see them garnering a combined nine seats

In Israel's March 2 vote, Labor, Meretz and the centrist Gesher party are running together, but latest polls see them garnering a combined nine seats (AFP Photo/JACK GUEZ)

Jerusalem (AFP) - The Israeli left, once the country's dominant political force, has become an endangered species, with the mainstream Labour party severely weakened and the social-democrat Meretz fighting to stay in parliament.

Next week's election, Israel's third in less than a year, is expected to be another tight race between right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the Centrist Blue and White party -- with the left again confined to the sidelines.

That is a far fall from Labour's heydey in 1969, when it led an alliance with Meretz's predecessor Mapam that took 56 of the parliament's 120 seats, a score that remains unequalled to this day.

When Israelis last voted in September, Labour shrunk to five seats, while Meretz mustered only three.

Meretz's peak was in 1992 when it held 12 seats and several cabinet posts in Yitzhak Rabin's Labour-led coalition and was influential in bringing about the Oslo accords on peace with the Palestinians.

For the March 2 vote, Labour, Meretz and the centrist Gesher party are running together, but latest polls see them garnering a combined nine seats.

Meretz MP Ilan Gilon, however, believes the alliance can beat those forecasts.

"I hope we shall get 15 seats and that we shall continue to grow," he told AFP at an election rally in the northern port city of Haifa.

Also at the meeting was Labour party member Alex Yaniv, 72, who said the left's message is drowned out by the right's loud and repeated warnings about security threats, particularly from archfoe Iran.

"The right knows that to win elections it must talk about Iran," he said.

"The left parties, which talk more about economic and social issues, find themselves in the background."

- Disillusioned and angry -

Left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz reported this month that frustration is pushing some Jewish leftists to switch their support from Labour or Meretz to the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties and the communist Hadash.

Citing internal polls it obtained, the paper reported the Joint List could claim "two seats thanks to disillusioned and angry left-wing Jewish voters".

The history of the left's decline has many chapters, starting with Likud's initial rise to power in 1977 under Menachem Begin.

Another milestone was Rabin's assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist opposed to the peace deal with the Palestinians.

The Oslo accords, meant as an interim step to Palestinian statehood, were never fully implemented and fell into disrepute -- along with Labour itself.

The bloody second Palestinian intifada that erupted in 2000 was seen by many as proof that the Oslo process was flawed and Labour mistaken in giving weapons to the fledgling Palestinian Authority's security forces.

Labour has also faced outright stigmatisation under today's Likud leader, Netanyahu, said Julia Elad-Strenger, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University.

Netanyahu first served as premier between 1996-1999, returning to office in 2009.

"Netanyahu delegitimised the left so extremely that it became a non-legitimate identity," Elad-Strenger told AFP.

She said the premier and his allies used terminology where "being a leftist means being a traitor".

"We see that there is a steady decrease in the extent to which people define themselves as left-wing -- now it's between 12 and 15 percent of the population, the right-wingers are 60 percent," she added.

- 'Too elitist' -

The left's fall was also driven by the migration of around a million Soviet Jews in the 1990s, which redrew the Israeli political map and bolstered the hardline right.

At the Haifa rally, 27-year-old student Alon Pearlman was one of the few young people in the 250-strong audience.

A Meretz member, he said the left had caused its own downfall by being "too passive, too elitist and no longer inspiring".

He said he is considering voting for the Joint List for the first time, as it is "more idealistic and inclusive" than the alternatives.

Fellow-student Iaara Assaf, 23, said the left's main challenge now is simply "not to disappear".

"But it could end up happening," she added with a sigh.