The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu’s legal woes should be a boon for Israel’s left, but it’s busy imploding

Members of Israel's Labor Party try to disrupt the speech of party chairman Avi Gabbay during a gathering in Tel Aviv last month. (Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — The corruption scandal bedeviling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be a gift to his election opponents on the center left, but instead they are plagued by infighting and, in the case of Israel’s Labor Party, near mutiny.

It is a familiar story in democracies around the world: the collapse of left-of-center alternatives amid the rise of right-wing populism and increasing political polarization.

But in Israel, the left has a particularly thorny problem. It is unable to dissociate itself from the failure of the peace process that began under Labor with the signing of the Oslo accords 25 years ago. 

Labor has been shedding voters ever since. And now, Israel’s founding party — and the political home of national behemoths such as Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir — is reaching a crisis point less than three months before elections, with polls projecting it will win a paltry eight or nine of the 120 seats in parliament, down from the 19 it currently holds.

The left-of-center voters simply are not there. As few as 20 percent of Israelis now identify themselves as left or center left, according to some surveys. Netanyahu is quick to deride critics as “leftists,” and political analysts say his years of messaging have paid off, with the word now often implying someone who puts the interests of Palestinians before those of Israelis.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for the past decade, has gone so far as to brand the legal cases being brought against him as part of a conspiracy cooked up by left-wing Israelis because they cannot beat him at the ballot box. Police have recommended that he be indicted in three corruption cases, and Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is weighing whether to announce a possible indictment before Israel goes to the polls.

Political analysts attribute Labor’s latest troubles in part to its leadership. In an attempt to stanch the loss of supporters and appeal to the center, Labor in 2017 named as its leader Avi Gabbay, a millionaire who made his money at the helm of Israel’s largest telecom provider.

Just a year earlier, Gabbay had been a minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet for a small centrist party he had helped found. Gabbay’s appointment as Labor’s leader has turned off many in that party, who are now calling for his removal.

The fractures in the opposition ranks erupted into public view recently when Gabbay — live on television — abruptly ditched his coalition partner Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister whose party was allied with Labor. Without an alliance, her party may struggle to pass the threshold to win any seats.

At the Labor Party’s recent campaign launch in Tel Aviv, the atmosphere was one of insurrection. “He’s a CEO of a big firm who created a conservative party and then became the head of Labor,” complained party activist Tomer Pines as he smoked outside the hall. “It’s absurd.” 

He said attracting young people is “more than hard.” As the head of Young Labor, that is a particular problem for Pines. ­Labor has lost touch with its base — Zionist socialist immigrants who founded Israel’s kibbutzim and other cooperative communities — and tried to pander to more right-wing voters, he said. The leadership is “without a doubt the worst ever,” he added.

On the stage, Gabbay spoke over jeers. “I would like to congratulate you on all the different opinions and voices in our party, even with all the criticism and the shouting,” he said. He promised to “change” and to strive for negotiations with the Palestinians, add the word “equality” to Israel’s controversial nation state law and lower the cost of living. 

“We are going to work hard and be a big surprise,” he said. 

But other speakers did not appear convinced. 

“We are all extras in a one-man show whose lead apparently wants a ‘Gabbay Party’ instead of the Labor Party,” said Ayelet ­Nahmias-Verbin, a Labor Knesset member.  

Since the outbreak of violence in the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, starting in 2000, Israel has steadily moved right. Netanyahu, who once said he supported a two-state solution, now avoids engaging on the question. 

“In America, the left wing is defined by many things. In Britain it’s defined by many things. Here, right and left are defined by the Palestinian issue,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. “The intifada after the peace process and the rockets that fell on Tel Aviv went a long way to shift Israeli centrists and leftists rightward.” 

To Israelis, the Palestinian question is no longer the pressing political issue it once was. For the first time in 16 years, the Israel Democracy Index, a survey carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute, found last summer that Jewish Israelis no longer thought the biggest conflict in Israeli society was between Jews and Arabs, but said it was between the right and the left. 

Today in Israel, to call someone a “lefty” can carry treasonous connotations.

“Today the word ‘leftist’ is almost a dirty word or a curse word in Hebrew,” said Gilad Hirschberger, a researcher in political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.  “There’s been a very effective process of demonization.”

Netanyahu’s oldest son, Yair, who is managing the campaign for his father’s right-wing Likud party and is known for his often controversial social media posts, has been especially forthright in his criticism of the left. 

“I’ll say what everyone else in the nation thinks,” he posted on Facebook in December. “Left-wing associations funded by foreign and hostile governments, left-wing politicians and the media who always side with the enemy and against the Jewish interest — who care nothing for terror victims, settlers or victims of infiltrators while showing such compassion for every Palestinian rioter hurt on the Gaza border — are traitors!” 

But Hirschberger said more Israelis hold left-wing values than are willing to vote for the left. 

He pointed to a survey commissioned by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. While only 16 to 18 percent self-identified as left or center left, when asked about their preference for a deal with the Palestinians, 45 percent said they preferred a two-state solution. Thirty percent more said they’d support a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank that involved territorial compromise. 

“These results reflect the Israeli political paradox — people think left but are adverse to the left-wing parties and politicians,” he said. 

If there is any challenge to Netanyahu, it will come from the center, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political opinions expert who has worked on five Israeli election campaigns.

Israel’s most prominent political newcomer, Benny Gantz, appears to be left of center, analysts said, and Netanyahu has been quick to brand him as left wing and in a video released by his campaign recently declared “Gantz is left” before highlighting left-wing affiliations of some of his advisers.

While his candidacy has created a buzz, for anyone to come close to Netanyahu will be an “uphill battle,” said Scheindlin. “Key for any challenger will be peeling off voters from the center right,” she said.

Gantz is trying to do that. One of the few releases from his new party, the Israel Resilience Party, has been a campaign video in which he boasts of his prowess as military chief of staff during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which killed 2,200 Palestinians. 

It shows drone footage of destroyed buildings, set to dramatic music. “6,231 targets destroyed. 1,364 terrorists killed. 3.5 years of quiet,” it reads. “Only the strong wins. Gantz, Israel before everything.” 

“For someone on the left side of the spectrum to succeed, you have to show you have blood on your hands, show you’ve fought for Israel and no one else,” Hirschberger said. 

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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