Lessons from the Collapse of the Israeli Labor Party

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For years, Middle East watchers have proclaimed the death of the Israeli Political Left. But perhaps it wasn’t officially dead until  the New Year. Avi Gabbay, the head of the Labor Party, announced unexpectedly that he was breaking the Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni, the esteemed head of the Hatnua Party. Livni hadn’t been informed of the move ahead of time, and later declared Gabbay to be a “chauvinist.” Gabbay and his supporters derided Livni as part of an “Ashkenazi elite” that has long marginalized Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews on the center-left.

It’s true that most Israelis side with Ha’Avoda (the Hebrew word for “labor”) on socio-economic issues, and agree to the idea of a Palestinian state being established. Support for gay marriage, a more secular and/or pluralistic society, a weaker rabbinate, and a solution to economic inequality have continued to rise. Yet Israel’s Labor Party–which dominated modern Israel in its first decades–has failed to win an election in 18 years.

The Israeli Left has suffered from egotistical, corrupt, naive, and incompetent leadership who are unable to unite. But the reason that Israel’s left-wing parties fail to unite or win an election is because they have hitched themselves to irrelevant policies. This is not just the case in Israel, or with the Political Left. Throughout much of the world, the “political establishment,” and particularly the center-left, have clung to a politics of “wishful-thinking” rather than adapting to new realities. If this trend continues, they will be relegated to the margins of a new political world order that is emerging.

What Went Wrong with Ha’Avoda

It was the Left that brought Israel the Oslo Accords, the ideas of peace with the Palestinians and the broader region, and economic opportunity. Yet regional realities and unforeseen consequences have transformed the political landscape of the Middle East and Israeli society more particularly. The Second Intifada is blamed on the Left for embracing negotiations with Yasser Arafat. The “leftist” idea of “land for peace” is what led to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and subsequently, war with Hamas terrorists ever since. No matter that it was a right-wing government that unilaterally left Gaza–the Oslo Accords and peace talks set the precedent.

The left-wing government of Ehud Barak also withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon. Now, Iran’s crown jewel, Hezbollah, controls the region and fought a bloody war with the Jewish state in 2006. The Labor Party once entertained the idea of surrendering the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. The idea seems absurd now, considering its infestation with jihadists and the brutal Assad dictatorship.

Seeing these failures, Israeli society at large doesn’t believe in the idea of “land for peace” anymore. Rather than bringing peace, withdrawal has led to terrorism. In Sinai, which Israel gave up to Egypt for peace, ISIS now reigns. The collapse of once-powerful Arab countries like Syria, Iraq, and Libya means two, seemingly-contradictory ideas. One is that Israel faces less military pressure for its control over disputed land. Another is that these areas are now lawless and controlled by terror organizations, increasing the danger of the region. The logic goes like this: if Judea & Samaria (the West Bank) were handed to the Palestinians, it could turn into lawless, ISIS-controlled land like Libya, or it could be an Iranian stronghold.

Yet rather than see the writing on the wall, the Labor Party (and smaller leftist groups) have continued on with their “land for peace” strategy. As such, they appear to be either dangerously naive; needlessly gambling Israel’s security; unwilling to stand up to international pressure; or some combination of the three. The constant squabbling among left-wing and center-left politicians is a problem, but it is not the core reason that left-wing parties in Israel continue to lose. It’s merely the icing on the cake. The true reason that Likud, and other right-wing parties, continue to dominate in Israeli elections is because they have adapted to the realities on the ground.

A New World Order

Left-wing and establishment parties around the world are in a state of free-fall for similar reasons. In Europe and Latin America, far-left political movements and parties have failed to understand that their brand of socialism simply isn’t realistic or desirable anymore. The “revolution” in Venezuela has brought massive poverty, oppression, emigration, starvation, and societal disorder. Radical left-wing ideology is often even more distasteful to the general public than populist conservative campaigns that have been dished out in recent years. The “Denmark model” that is admired by “Bernie Bros” could never work in as large and diverse a country as the United States.

On the other hand, the center-left in countries like the USA, Japan, India, France, Italy, and Germany put all of their eggs in the “neoliberal” and “triangulation” basket. By adopting globalization and emphasizing economic growth rather than income equality, they have both alienated the radical left-wing “base” of their parties while also exacerbating the effects of the Great Recession on the general populace. The other problem is that they are either not seeing the new reality on the ground, or they are choosing to ignore the long-term failures of their model. As such, center-left politicians are parroting the same talking points they have promoted for decades. Other, more radical forces are crafting (supposedly) new solutions.

While the center-left proposes “ever closer union” in Europe or “maintaining our commitments” to a “liberal rules-based order” in the US, the far-left proposes tearing down the big banks that have maintained and deepened income inequality. It points out that the center-left’s “globalization” is merely a mask on a neocolonial face that exploits the Third World, profits from war, and destroys the environment. It proposes massive tax hikes on the wealthy to fund new projects that will benefit everyone and create a more just society. The far-right agrees that the current system is not working, and proposes eliminating multilateral frameworks and organizations altogether. It puts forth ideas for mass deportation, sealing borders shut, and huge immigration curbs in order to improve the economy.

The far-right also benefits from the ideological war between the far-left and the center-left by portraying both systems as a “clash of failures”–one of socialism, which brought down the Soviet Union and its colonies in eastern Europe; and one of the current system, which spreads disorder and refugee flows while gravely mismanaging the economy. This is why Bolsonaro could win but Bernie couldn’t. The left-wing is too divided and busy fighting amongst itself, and both the radicals and the moderates are promoting failed ideologies. It’s true, of course, that much of what the far-right has proposed is either unworkable and unrealistic (sealed borders, mass deportations) or also based on failed models (neo-fascism). The far-right is just more clever at sounding new while also exploiting divisions among its counterparts.

What We Must Learn

The fact of the matter is that none of these ideologies and parties has brought or could bring success and justice to the wider population. Political parties–in Israel, in the United States, and elsewhere–operate more like rival gangs. Nobody has put forward a sensible vision for society that appeals to the majority of the population. There is no campaign for hope. There is no Winstonian speech of “keep calm and carry on” or “we shall not flag or fail.” There is constant fear-mongering, demonization, and sentiment of “vote for me because I’m better than the other side.” Voters are not encouraged to think critically, or demand the best from their representatives. They are encouraged to settle for mediocrity and easy-button solutions.

It is not just socialism, free-market capitalism, or fascism that has failed–it’s political parties in general. All of them, in some form or another, have promoted either a continuation of the unsustainable status quo, or a return to failed policies and political systems. The collapse of the Israeli Labor Party and the political establishment throughout Europe is merely a symptom of the international situation. The “New World Order” that has existed since the USSR fell in 1991–or the postwar liberal international system since 1945–has come to its end.

In most societies, the majority is somewhere in the middle when it comes to politics. Unfortunately, nobody is serving this moderate-majority’s interests. Ideally, a centrist party could come together to unify the people and combine the best of both worlds–right-wing and left-wing alike–to do so. However, too many centrist parties have merely gone in one direction or the other, if they were even centrist to begin with. I propose a radical rethink of whether or not we should have political parties. Perhaps it would be less divisive to vote for people based on their merit, experiences, and ideas–not corrupt organizations beholden to special interests. I believe that humans are more sophisticated than most political parties and leaders give us credit for. These party systems are demanding loyalty to them rather than to each other and the goal of a just society.

How to Get There

The decline of Israel’s Labor Party needs to be seen as an example for center-left, establishment political parties and organizations everywhere, as well as the broader population. By ignoring societal changes and public opinion, the Israeli Left has let itself cascade into irrelevance. Instead of realizing that Palestinian society and political organizations are deeply divided–with no end in sight–they continue to promote a two-state solution and reminisce about the 1990s. Instead, it seems there will be a three-state solution: a Hamastan in Gaza; an emirates-style Palestinian Authority in some of the West Bank; and Israel, with expanded borders to include many Judea & Samaria settlements.

Similarly, newscasters, political analysts & pundits, and center-left parties (particularly in the Western World) have all been desperately clinging to a failed political system that few believe in, and that almost nobody today wants. Rather than prepare for a new era or propose solutions to emerging problems, they continue advocating for an archaic world order than has long outlived its usefulness. Unfortunately, the alternatives offered by fringes on the far-right and far-left have been tried and often end in misery. If the politicians will not lead, then we the people must. Let the parties and organizations that have failed us for generations fade away. We should be moving beyond these divisive, corrupt, greedy, and inefficient systems by embracing a creative alternative.

The answer to this crisis is to start evolving politically and accepting ideological sophistication. Fear-mongering, divisiveness, and disparagement never led to the reform or improvement of societies. It has only held us back from our true potential–as people, as countries, and as a species. If we start voting for people as candidates, rather than parties, it is more likely that the best of the Right and the best of the Left can be merged into a centrist model that works for most people, and moves our world forward–at the very least, just a little. Maybe it sounds crazy to some. Yet as Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”