Labor lost and is not likely to win any time soon.

This is the article I wanted to write one week before the recent Israeli elections but I chickened out.  Who wanted to predict inevitable defeat for the strangely named Zionist Camp, or is that Union, when the polls and the pundits were already celebrating victory?  The dust has settled but not the issues that kept and will keep Labor out of power.

Now that it’s over (it’s not completely over until the positions have been doled out between the Likud and coaltion partners) the same pundits who failed to predict it are telling us why Binyamin Netanyahu (boo, hiss & grind teeth) cheated his way to victory.  Not so much why the Israel Labor Party lost and nothing about why they are unlikely to win next time — perhaps never again.

Why people don't understand Israel's elections

Forgive me if I write LEFT, RIGHT and CENTRE to describe the groupings of the parties.  Even though I believe these terms to be deceptive and inappropriate for Israeli conditions the parties use them to describe themselves. Or some of those parties.  The religious parties don’t fall into any such category and the new Arab list arguably spans them all.  I explained my opposition to these anachronistic labels in more than two years ago in Compass points. Definitely worth rereading.

Here’s a list of reasons, mostly ignored by the media, why the Israel Labor Party lost. Excuse long-windedness.  Each point could be expanded into an independent article.

Please note I write Israeli Labor Party and not Zionist Camp nor Herzog/Livni and will try to continue with that form throughout this essay.


1. Why the Zionist Camp, isn’t

Traditionally the National Camp refers to the Right in Israeli politics and the Peace Camp to the Left.  One could argue about these labels but rightist Jewish camps are seen by the public as the intellectual descendants of the pioneer, generally Leftist Zionists!  Most Israelis are content to let the Arabs remain the anti Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox non Zionist. The Left are post Zionist (Zionists for the 21st century?) while somewhat inconsistently and unconvincingly claiming the historic Labour Zionism of their founders.

Was I the only one to find it hilarious that the Likud appropriated Ben Gurion and the Zionist Camp, Begin for their television ads?  The ground shaking isn’t the after shocks of Nepal but both leaders who despised each other rolling in their graves.

No one accepted that the Herzog/Livni group had any sort of exclusive right to the term Zionist and it was far from clear, even to supporters what they meant by it.  Give them the benefit of the doubt that dubious non Zionist–post Zionist statements from list members* were misunderstood or taken out of context but add that to opposition to settlement building and a policy of handing over traditional Jewish land. Would Ben Gurion have accepted them as Zionist?  I strongly doubt it.

Perhaps the Left will one day succeed in redefining Zionism in a J-Street direction but this election they spent more time explaining away Bahul, Shaffir, Michaeli and Yona  than discussing why their Zionism is somehow purer than the Right’s version.

The movement were clearly hedging their bets by keeping to the traditional EMET (אמת) election symbol of the Israel Labor Party.  It was apparently broad enough to include Zippi Livni, who started as a nationalist Likud princess and then migrated through the centre had never had anything to do with the socialist pretensions of the Labor Party apart from a naive belief in the good intentions of the Palestinians.

Does anyone really believe the Livni team will stay with Labor till the next election?


2.  Losing Demographics

It’s not just that the Jews who came from North Africa, and their descendants, don’t vote for the Left.  If you believe analysts, particularly those from outside Israel the Mizrahim, olim from North Africa and the Middle East but mostly their descendants, (who used to be called Sephardim or Oriental Jews) voted Likud and the Ashkenazi (European olim but mostly their descendants) voted Labor.  Not true!  About half the Likud’s votes came from the Ashkenazis — Netanyahu, as were Likud leaders before him Sharon, Shamir and Begin before him, is as stereotypically Ashkenazi as they come.  Together with the Likud other parties such as Shas, Kulanu and Yachad took the Mizrahi vote. Relatively few, however, voted Left.

Yair Garboz at V15 demo
Yair Garboz at V15 demo

One must wonder if artist and frequent Haaretz contributor, Yair Garboz’s talisman-kissers† rant really drove the Mizrahis to the Likud as the late Dudu Topaz’s chahchahim‡ joke allegedly drove them to Begin in 1977? My feeling is that the Mizrahim realised the Left’s arrogant superiority towards them was intrinsic. The same group whose reaction to a Rabin-in-SS-uniform poster at a Netanyahu approached hysteria couldn’t bring themselves to boo Garboz at an anyone-but-Bibi rally.

The frequently expressed puzzlement by disappointed Left voters that workers facing retrenchment still vote Likud translates in so many Mizrahi eyes as

“You primitives are too stupid to know what’s good for you unless we the educated sophisticates tell you”.

Perhaps equally as important none of the oleh groups vote Left to any significant degree.  Not the Russians, nor the Ethiopians (significantly the sole Ethiopian representative to be elected this year was on the Likud list), nor, at least by observation, the French/Western Europeans who seem to be next immigrant wave.

Let’s not forget the Arabs, who as a general rule, didn’t vote for the Jewish Left or were even willing to enter into a vote sharing agreement with them.

3.  1,000 Shades of Grey

Take a look at the white hair at any Labor Party branch meeting. Nuff said.

4.  Beware the Ides of March

If you were to pay attention to most commentators Netanyahu personally pulled a surprise victory from certain defeat with an cynical appeal to racism and fear.  There is a a huge assumption in that claim that mostly has been ignored.

Looking back at previous elections the pollsters have always somehow managed to miss something crucial about Israeli elections, generally the emergence of new parties.  The only way the Likud was in a losing position is if the polls had it right.  As we have seen the pollsters couldn’t even manage to nail the exit polls!

The Left did nothing, because perhaps they have nothing, to persuade voters that their fears were unreasonable. The we-are-smarter-than-you approach doesn’t cut it.  If the people voted against the Zionist Camp because of fear of a Palestinian State and an invigorated Arab presence they were simply being rational.  What part of kill-the-Jews don’t the Left understand?

Am I the only one who feels Bibi’s cynicism was not in pointing out the dangers to Israel of the two state solution and the credible possibility of the formal opposition (briefed weekly by the heads of the IDF and intelligence services) including members dedicated to the destruction of the state.  If anything his cynicism was apologising for it later.

5MFI does not endorse the sentiment of this cartoon but it is a good example of how little many understand about Israel


5.  The Oslo Farce

As far as I know no one has investigated how many voters had placed their ballots for the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and have never even considered voting Labor since.

I confess I am one of them.  My vote, at least in part, in an election strongly focusing on the popularity of the leaders came because of the belief that no former Chief of the General Staff could risk something as dangerous as the Oslo Accords.  Certainly not without cabinet discussions or informing the police, military and intelligence who would have to administer it.

Let’s speculate that that at least two seats were permanently lost to Labor and none were gained.  Given that two of the seats that allowed Labor to establish government were from members of Rafael Eitan’s party ‘persuaded’ to change sides.  Doesn’t that mean that the Left will enter every election with a four seat deficit?

Ironically the only Left politician with the gravitas to call failure on Oslo was Rabin.  He cancelled the Lavi project so there was precedent.  His assassination meant we would never know.

Throughout this post I have been hinting at it. Perhaps I should have started with it.  There are far too many in the Left whose sole achievement was forcing the Oslo accords on Israel and won’t let go.  Twenty years of failure should be a good reason for a reassessment both as distinguishing policy and an election tactic.

This seems a good place to start although this was campaign mistake isn’t structural and won’t repeat itself next election it is a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Extra credit

5 tips for (not) understanding Israeli elections  The Cartoon Kronicles  17 
Bibi’s Winning Strategy cartoon by Steve Sack, The Minneappolis Star Tribune – 18 March 2015

They told us that the man who killed the [former] prime minister [Rabin] was part of a delusional, tiny handful of individuals,” he said. “They told us he was under the influence of rabbis detached from reality, part of the crazy margins. They said those of yellow shirts with black badges, who shout “death to Arabs”, are a tiny handful. They told us the thieves and the bribe-takers are only a handful. That the corrupt are no more than a handful…. the talisman-kissers, the idol-worshippers and those bowing and prostrating themselves on holy tombs  – only a handful… then how is that this handful rules over us? How did this handful quietly become a majority?

‡ It’s a pleasure to see the crowd here, and it’s a pleasure to see that there are no chahchahim (derogatory slang word alluding to Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern background) who ruin election gatherings. The Likud’s chachchahim are at Metzudat Ze’ev.” (Likud party headquarters)

* Zuheir Bahloul, “Our Palestinian identity is stronger than the Israeli one”.
MK Stav Shaffir, “Hatikvah is a racist song”.
MK Merav Michaeli, “Mothers should not send their sons to the army as long as the “occupation” continues”.
Yossi Yona, “I don’t connect to this word, Zionism. It doesn’t express who I am” and “Yom Hashoa and Nakba Day should be on the same day”

Originally posted at 5 Minutes for Israel as “The structural and pragmatic reasons why Labor lost and is not likely to win any time soon”

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