Imagine if every season was election season.
Millions of Israelis felt a sense of deja vu this past November when they cast their ballots for the fifth time in just over two years. Many things were left up in the air, but when results came pouring in on the first night of the month, one thing was set in stone: the death of the Israeli political left as we knew it.
To understand how monumental the Israeli left’s devastating loss in the recent election is, it is crucial to understand their place in Israel’s complex history.
The political left was the driving force behind the birth of Israel and its early years of statehood. Through the establishment of socialist-style kibbutzim and cities by halutzim, or pioneers, the early organization of the nation was heavily work and community-oriented. With its inception and first Knesset elected in 1948, Israel’s parliament was mainly inhabited by members of three main left-wing parties: the Labor Party, Mapai, and Mapam. Mapai, which would later morph into the left-wing party known today as Meretz, held a majority of the votes and control in the country’s 120-seat parliament. The aforementioned three main parties eventually merged into an alliance aptly called “The Alliance” or HaMa’arach in the late 1960s. This alliance dominated Israeli politics for much of the country’s early history. In fact, the first five prime ministers of Israel belonged to this left-wing alliance and headed the government from its inception in 1948 up until 1977 in accordance with the political bloc’s ideologies.
The Left’s smooth reign as majority in the Knesset ended on one dramatic night in 1977, known in Israel as the mahapach, or reversal, when the Likud led by Menachem Begin carried out a shocking victory over Mapai. This was the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics, one in which a right-wing majority was achieved for the first time in the country’s history and one which would have a lasting impact on the nation’s future.
During the next four decades, Israel’s political stage flipped back and forth a few times between left/centre-left parties and right-wing parties. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was a defining moment in the country’s political landscape that set into motion a pattern of right-leaning national opinion and culminated in Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2021. During this period, the Israeli general public shifted to the right, both fiscally and socially, but the political left was still a player in the game. In Israel’s 2019–2022 political crisis, in which the government and nation were at a standstill in repeated cycles, many saw an opportunity to end Netanyahu’s (and his degradation of the left) long period in office and bring the Left back into the forefront of the political conversation.
Some saw the resurgence of the Israeli political left in 2021 with the 24th Knesset cabinet, headed by Naftali Bennet of right-wing Yamina and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid of the liberal Yesh Atid party. This government, though still led by a right-wing leader, restored a sense of hope in the Israeli Left that the movement could make a real impact in the unconventional political climate.
However, this all changed in the November 2022 elections after the earlier collapse of the Bennet-Lapid coalition, when the Labor Party, led by Merav Michaeli, and Meretz, headed by Zehava Gal-On, miserably failed to establish itself in the Knesset. The Labor Party found itself with only four seats in the 120-member parliament, while Meretz was shut out completely with not even a single seat. When the coalition, headed by returning Prime Minister Netanyahu, was officially formed on December 29th, the left-wing movement was left to pick up the pieces far away from the limelight.
This devastating loss was made more bitter by the success that far-right politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich saw in November’s elections. Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party has been attached to the Kahanist movement, a former far-right group accused of inciting violence and holding harsh anti-Arab sentiments that was never associated with mainstream Israeli opinion. Similarly, Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party has embraced its ultranationalist roots. The two ran together in a joint campaign along with the traditionalist, anti-LGBTQ Noam party, but split again soon after election night after winning six and seven seats, respectively. Once figures on the outskirts of Israeli society and politics, Ben-Gvir and Smotrrich confirmed what no one before quite could: The Israeli political right was alive and well like it had never been before– and the left was bleeding out.
Some have blamed the destruction of the Israeli left in today’s political sphere on the left’s leaders themselves. Many claim that Michaeli and Gal-On led weak campaigns leading up to the November 2022 election. In their eyes, the two party heads should have formed stronger strategies, or even a political alliance.
While the Israeli Left’s future seems bleak, the nation’s politics has always been a fast-paced and ever changing game. The political arena, once heavily dominated by leftist ideals and leaders, has seen shifts to the right–and back–in the country’s 75 year existence. While multiple unique factors such as religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ethnic relations will continue to influence the nation’s political leanings to the right, there is no certainty that Meretz or the Labor Party will never see a seat in a winning coalition again. What is undoubtedly a devastating blow to the Left may have left a deep scar on its leaders, but it may also very well teach them the lesson they so desperately needed in order to fight for the Left’s revival.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”