Where have Israel’s leftists gone? The changing face of Labor

The Labor party is convinced that it can somehow disassociate itself with the Left, call itself the ‘center’ and sneak its way back into power with semantic tricks. It will take the entire left-wing camp down with it.

By Tom Cohen

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Last year, a delegation of Knesset members went to visit PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Among the MKs who participated were Hilik Bar of Labor and Tamar Zandberg of Meretz. There had been a terror attack a few days earlier and there was some pressure to cancel the visit. But MK Bar, who was the head of the Knesset’s Two-State Caucus, wasn’t deterred. A bona fide Zionist, an IDF captain in the reserves, he thought he would be immune from the accusations that would be hurled at him.

The delegation members went to Ramallah, were photographed meeting with the PLO chairman and put out press releases. But MK Bar didn’t foresee the might of the Right’s propaganda machine. A few hours after the delegation returned to Jerusalem, the settler organizations got to work: they bought up ad space in newspapers and accused MK Bar of encouraging terrorism. His Facebook page was flooded with insults, op-eds turned him into Haneen Zoabi and even some members of his own Labor party began attack him.

MK Bar still bears the scars of that visit to Ramallah to this day. He learned his lesson. Ever since, he prefers to stand with the attackers and not those under attack. In the year since, he has joined the Right in its campaign against symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood, and just last week led a public censure of MK Zandberg in the Knesset. A complete 180. Nobody today would dare say Bar and Meretz are part of the same political camp.

Once a year, more or less, the Labor Party undergoes a shift of this sort. Today the party is identified with past social protests, tomorrow it will be with the institution’s economic reformers. Today it wants to end the occupation, tomorrow it will join the Right in its attempts to strengthen the WZO’s Settlement Division, or in its slew of legislative attempts aimed at strengthening the occupation.

The public doesn’t buy it, of course. Does anybody actually believe that Isaac Herzog — who was ready to sacrifice his top spot to Tzipi Livni, all while chasing Meretz voters — has really become the guy who is trying to outflank Netanyahu from the right on the Iran deal? The downpour of ‘Likes’ showered upon Labor MKs whenever they attack the Left is having its effect. Their appetite has been awakened, and the Labor party is suddenly sounding a lot like Avigdor Liberman: it attacks Meretz and the Joint List at every opportunity; its members call Meretz MKs “Haneen Zoabi,” and then join right-wing efforts to have the real Haneen Zoabi kicked out of the Knesset.

Do they not understand that by joining the attacks on the Left they are calling their own legitimacy into question? Do they not understand that they are demolishing the leftist brand that people associate first and foremost with Labor?

The Labor party is convinced that it can somehow disassociate itself with the Left. Instead of believing that the Left will be victorious, it wants to call itself the “center” and sneak its way back into power with semantic tricks. As if the Israeli public is so dense, that if only Labor changed its name the mobs would throng right back into its member rolls. The party has experimented a number of times in recent years with trying to distance itself from anything that smells like diplomatic compromise or peacemaking, including under the leadership of both Ehud Barak and Shelly Yacimovich. The results would be disastrous, not only for the Labor party but also for the whole Left. Dashing into the overcrowded and undefined “center” camp would also make Herzog irrelevant.

If MK Bar and the other Labor hawks aren’t happy with being associated with the Left, then they’re in the wrong party. Labor has indeed turned its back on the Left’s values in recent years, but the public nevertheless continues to view it as a leftist party. Also now, the result of its attacks on the Left will be weakening the entire camp, and nothing else.

Labor losing its way carries an important message for my party, Meretz. The last elections were difficult for Meretz, and it is clearly time for internal reforms and change. But the right-wing delirium consuming the Labor party (which is surely related to its upcoming primaries) proves that a true left-wing party is still necessary, one with consistent ideology, and which isn’t ashamed of its label and doesn’t hide its values.

It would be disastrous if the trauma of the most recent elections leads Meretz into a process that eliminates the party altogether by merging into Labor. The Labor party is an important partner. There are good people there. But it will never constitute a viable alternative to Meretz. The current efforts to court Labor, while it questions our very legitimacy, is especially disappointing.

Tom Cohen is a political activist and a member of the Meretz central committee. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.