There has been an unprecedented shift of the Israeli public toward the center-right that was perfectly exemplified by the recent elections: The Labor Party, the founding party of the state of Israel and the party that controlled the government for the country’s first 30 years, won a grand total of six seats in April’s vote. Altogether, the Zionist-left bloc received 10 out of a total 120-seat Knesset. For comparison, in 1992 the same bloc received 56 seats, a high-water mark. So why this near complete collapse?
The political divide in Israel has, since 1967, centered mainly on the conflict with the Arabs and Palestinians and about security issues. All left-wing parties support the land-for-peace formula with the goal of establishing a Palestinian state on some or all of the territories gained by Israel after the Six Day War. As well, the three main working assumptions of the Israeli left were: 1. “Land for peace,” meaning territorial concessions and evacuation of settlements, would bring peace. 2. Even unilateral withdrawals will help Israel in the international arena. 3. Palestinians will give up the right of return to Israel, and will be willing to settle on a newly formed Palestinian state.
The decline of the Israeli left tracks almost exactly with the 25-year period of the Oslo accords (signed in 1993 by then-Labor-led government), which was meant to be the political implementation of the land-for-peace theory and the first step in ending the Israeli Palestinian conflict. However, in the four years following the Oslo accords, 256 Israelis were killed in terror attacks compared with 97 in the four prior years. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor party, offered the Palestinians 94 percent of the disputed territories and the dismantling of 63 settlements. Yasser Arafat, leader of Palestinian Authority and the man who signed the Oslo accords, refused. Two months later, Arafat initiated the second intifada, which cost the lives of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians.
The political left in Israel suffered further collapse with the failure of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was undertaken by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud. Sharon was no leftist, but his move was universally applauded by the left and condemned by many on the right, including Benjamin Netanyahu. Since left-wingers believed the Palestinians were after territory to build their country and stop the bloodshed with Israel, unilateral withdrawal therefore had the best chance of success. Israel evacuated 8,600 people from their homes, farms and businesses.
Instead of quiet, almost immediately, missiles from Gaza were fired into cities that were never bombarded before — including Jerusalem. Small towns close to Gaza were attacked with sniper-fire and mortar shells. In the years following the evacuation of Gaza, Israel was forced to initiate four military operations and the territory was taken over by Hamas. The aftermath has resulted in a complete shift in Israeli public opinion: If before the Gaza withdrawal 60 percent of Israelis supported it, two years after most of the population thought it was a mistake.
There have been other subsequent events in the greater Middle East that reinforced for most Israelis the importance of a more sober outlook. The failed Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the war in Yemen, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, the ISIS caliphate and the aggression of Iran come to mind. Israelis realize how dangerous it could be if a future Palestinian State were to be formed or be taken over by extremists like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, who are most responsible for the recent barrage of hundreds of missiles from Gaza that killed four Israelis.
There is a perfect Israeli expression that epitomizes this political shift: ha-metziut tafha al paneinu. In English we would say that the Israeli left was mugged by reality.
In the past 25 years, left-wing ideas were tried and failed disastrously to deliver the expected results. Most Israelis therefore, have decided to ditch the failing left since its traditional parties have been unable to adjust in any meaningful way to these realities. This is why newer parties like Yesh Atid were formed — to reflect the move to the center, especially on security issues. The one original assumption that has remained is that Israelis wish to live peacefully with their neighbors. The way to achieve it, however, voters in Israel have declared, is not with old and disproven ideas.
Liberal and progressive American Jews, meanwhile, are stuck in the past believing in the same old peace formula, and that they know best what will bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Except, few if any have had to pay the price for Israeli sacrifices in the name of peace. Those sacrifices have been paid and paid and paid by Israelis and the result is a public’s reasonable turning away from failed ideas. pjc
Abby W. Schachter, a writer and editor, and Anat Talmy, a software engineer, are both citizens of the United States and Israel.