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Left Behind: Why A New Party Won’t Save Social Democracy in Israel

Ha’aretz has been going ga-ga over the impending new left-wing party that will incorporate Meretz, a few old Labor hands, and some literary figures who have long acted as the collective conscience of the Israeli left. The newspaper also devoted several pages of its Friday opinion supplement to the age-old question of whither the Israeli left.

While I admire most of the people involved in the new initiative, I’m skeptical. In fact, it’s counterproductive, both for practical and ideological reasons.

The practical reason has to do with the rules of human political behavior, as borne out by Israeli political history. As in other modern Western democracies, most voters here do not want to see themselves as radicals of either the left or the right. Whatever their positions on the issues, generally want to see themselves as part of a broad consensus. Therefore, they have a natural aversion to voting for parties that place themselves at the far reaches of the left or right.

Conversely, those voters who place a value on the purity of their ideology lose interest in any party that contains a range of viewpoints and accepts the need to reach compromise and consensus on matters of principle.

Every attempt to unite either the left or the right in Israel has resulted in the creation of a radical splinter party of purists who do not want to make the ideological compromises required by being part of a large political movement. The most recent examples are typical: when, after Ehud Barak’s failure at Camp David, Labor moved away from a strong commitment to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan walked out to merge with Meretz. After Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement with the Palestinians, Benny Begin walked out and eventually helped form the National Union list.

In neither case did the fundamental political balance change; the radical parties gained no new strength.

But there’s also an ideological case against the current attempt to create a new left-wing party. The Israeli left is indeed in crisis, as Ha’aretz bemoans. But one of the reasons is that the left is not proposing any new and original ideas. On both the foreign and domestic policy fronts, large parts of the left retain their allegiance to the slogans and solutions of yesterday, offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. 

As vital as I think it is to cut a deal with the Palestinians, I’m struck by how simplistic many leftists are on this issue. A peace agreement will be worthless if it is not robust; to be robust it must take into account the political power relationships in the field. Signing a piece of paper with a weak Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is no guarantee of peace; the provisions and conditions of the agreement must address the practical issues of controlling militias and of Hamas’s political strength.

On the economic and domestic front, many Israeli leftists, retain all too much nostalgia for the socialist state of the 1950s and 1960s. But the world has learned something since then. Left-wing economics must be based on a social democratic model in which the market is free but regulated in the interests of the citizenry. Privatization, welfare reform, and budgetary restraint should not be dirty words for the left. If accomplished properly and with sufficient oversight, such reforms are essential to creating an economy and a society that can both grow and provide for an equitable distribution of resources.

As of yet, no group on the Israeli left—neither Labor, nor Meretz, nor the members of the new initiative—have offered Israelis a compelling, realistic, up-to-date program of accommodation with the Palestinians and Arab world, nor with a convincing economic-domestic program based on both growth and equity.

Producing such a vision should be the task of the Labor Party. The current turbulence on the left is the direct result of the failure of that party and its leader, Ehud Barak, to assume that role.

Until that happens, little will be accomplished by moving a few politicians and writers from one square to another on the political checkerboard. And more and more voters who believe in social democracy will look at Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and wonder whether, realistically, it isn’t, with all its flaws, the best existing political framework to promote peace with our neighbors and a better society at home.

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