Ehud Barak’s move to join Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and rub shoulders around the cabinet table with arch racist Avigdor Lieberman should not have surprised anybody, but was still met with shocked lamentations from the ranks of the decomposing remnants of the Zionist left. The fact that Tzipi Livni, leader of the opportunistic “central” Kadima party, demonstrated more courage and integrity (for which the long knives in her party have already been drawn against her), is hardly a breathtaking bombshell either for anybody who has been following the careers of the power-obsessed general and the goody-two-shoes girl scout. Many ask themselves what’s left of the Israeli left.
The answer to that, as it always has been, is simple. The Israeli left is combined of the following: the diminishing Meretz, a group of liberal Zionists who are torn by the realisation that they will soon have to decide whether they want a Jewish state or a democratic one – if they opt for the former they’ll have to waive the liberal tag, while if they choose the latter they’ll have to part with the Zionist one; Arab and Jewish Hadash voters who are struggling to hold on to their two-state solution while beginning to realise that it may well be too late for that; and the mainly Arab voters of Balad, whose plain call for a state for all its citizens is heard by most Jewish Israelis as a subversive “antisemitic” plan. Traditionally, the other Arab party, The United Arab List, is also counted with the left, though there’s nothing particularly lefty about it. However, since it represents a part of the constituency of the Palestinian-Arab deprived minority, it naturally aligns itself with the cause of Palestinians’ rights, both inside Israel proper, and in the context of the West Bank and Gaza.
This whole block, which has just been defined as “the left”, is represented now by 14 parliamentary seats out of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset. To them one may hesitantly add four out of the 13 representatives of the Labour party in the newly elected Knesset, who are close in their political stance to Meretz. Hence 18 out of 120 is what’s left of the Israeli left, and even that only if one is willing to engage in some intellectual gymnastics and expand the notion of “left” way beyond its traditional boundaries.
As for the Labour party, labelling it a traitor for joining a rightwing government involves a certain amount of wishful thinking regarding its true nature to start with. The answer to the question “when has the Labour party transformed?” is “never”, when it comes to its patterns of dealing with Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “in the mid 1980s, just like most Labour parties in the west” when addressing its stance on social and economic issues. On society and economy, it might suffice to say that it was none other than Ofer Eini, the leader of Israel’s huge workers union, the Histadrut, who instigated Barak’s move to join what will be, in all likelihood, Israel’s most radical neoconservative government ever. The Israeli Labour party has long ago abandoned any commitment to social issues; it has joined up with the ruthless new economy and the big money behind it. The few Labour MKs who still bother paying lip service to social equality are all among the four “rebels” mentioned previously. The rest do not even flinch at the idea of hooking up with Netanyahu, who branded himself as the enemy of the workers and the poor in his last tenure as finance minister.
The case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complicated. Internationally, the Labour party is viewed as a kosher stamp for any Israeli government, promising a less belligerent stance and a bigger willingness to reach a peaceful solution. This rather hollow belief is exactly what makes Barak such a desirable partner for Netanyahu, despite the pathetic size to which his party has just sunk in parliament (13 out of 120 MKs). Netanyahu is well aware that any type of intransigence and pig-headedness, not to mention actual acts of war, would be more digestible for the Obama administration when coming from a government that includes the Labour party.
The fact of the matter is that the Israeli Labour party has supported all the wars Israel has waged, and actually ran and instigated most of them. The two latest gory interventions, in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza this year, were both orchestrated by Labour ministers of defence, Amir Peretz and Barak. Paying lip service to the division of Palestine while planning and propagating territorial expansionism and land-grabbing has been the policy of the Labour party ever since the early days of the Zionist movement, sprinkled by sporadic attempts at giving up some of the territory in return for getting rid of as many Palestinian inhabitants as possible from under Israel’s control in the process. Labour might have invented this double-tongues policy, but it has now been adopted by all the main powers in Israeli politics, from Kadima to Likud and even the radical mark on the right – Lieberman’s Israel Beytenu.
Everybody is chanting the now popular two-state solution slogan, while in effect expanding the settlements, waging war on the Palestinians in Gaza and devising discriminatory policies aimed against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Considering the fact that the largest party in the emerging default opposition, Kadima, is holding to identical values and political programme to that of the parties in the government, there’s no choice but to recognise the painful truth. The intransigence, the expansionism, the racism and the warmongering are not the problem with only one of the big parties in the Israel’s politics; at the moment they seem to be the national consensus. The extent to which Barack Obama’s new administration will try to bend this consensus remains to be seen. The precedents, however, do not leave much space for hope.