On June 18 and 19, the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA) held its sixth convention. As preparation for these two days, the members of the Central Committee wrote papers that were presented and discussed in the party’s branches. The papers discuss major questions concerning the changes that have occurred in the global and local arenas as a result of three major events: the outbreak of the current Intifada, the attacks of September 11, and the war in Iraq. They also explore the alternatives that are open to us today. In scope and energy, the convention resembled that of 1999, which produced a book-length document that may be found on the ODA website.
The central document of the sixth ODA convention dealt with the economic and political crisis afflicting the United States. It focused on two decisive moments in modern American history: the erection of the welfare state in response to the Great Depression and the retreat from it during Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution, which continues today under the neo-cons. The ODA Convention also studied the current Intifada from the perspective of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It discussed the condition of Israel’s economy and the waning of the Histadrut. Other papers dealt with the war in Iraq, the anti-globalization movement, and the Arab population in Israel. We shall publish abridged versions of some of these studies in the course of the year.
For the present issue we have selected Hadas Lahav’s paper on the rise and fall of the Zionist Left during the last fifteen years.
The Formation of Meretz
One was Mapam (the United Workers Party), which years before had moved from Marxism to moderate social democracy. It favored a strong defense (many of its members were former officers) while advocating withdrawal from most of the Occupied Territories and peace overtures to the Arabs.
Another was Shinui (“Change”); while seeking electoral reform and freedom from religious coercion, it represented a contrary approach in the socio-economic sphere, promoting private initiative and the free entrepreneurial spirit.
The third and largest party, with five Knesset mandates, was Ratz (the Civil Rights Movement), which advocated separation of religion and state. In its attitude toward the Occupation, this party underwent a radical change of policy after the start of the first Intifada in December 1987. Before that date, Ratz had favored the notion that the Territories should join a confederation with Jordan. Responding to the Intifada, Ratz adopted instead the idea that Israel and Palestine should exist side by side, two states for two peoples. In a move unprecedented for a Zionist party at that time, it even backed recognition of the PLO. Two years into the Intifada, its members established the human-rights institute B’tselem (“in the image”), which was to play a major role in exposing torture and other abuses.
The “energy”, then, was indeed with Ratz. Its founder, Shulamit Aloni, was elected to lead the new Meretz. For the first time in its history, the Zionist Left had become a political factor to be reckoned with, a real force in the fight against the Occupation. With the Intifada on one side and Meretz on the other, there was, for a brief time, hope.
Today Meretz is in crisis. It has lost its political agenda and its identity. Having dissolved itself into a new party, Yahad, it showed its sorry state, on May 29, 2004, by taking part in a large demonstration supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza. Sharon has rightly dubbed this plan “the worst catastrophe to befall the Palestinians since 1948”. Yet Yahad (Meretz) was out on the streets, waving its banners in favor.
In 1992, Meretz won 12 Knesset mandates, which made it the third largest party. In the dozen years since then, it has become a mere satellite to the Labor Party – not just ideologically, but also in elections, where it serves as a kind of safety valve for Laborites who are fed up with their party’s turn to the right. The combined electoral power of Labor and Meretz has declined from 56 mandates in 1992 to a mere 25 today.
In 1992, Meretz formed a coalition with Labor, telling its supporters, “Never fear! We shall meretz (energize) Rabin!” Instead, Meretz was de-energized. Why?
Meretz staked its political life on the Oslo Agreement. The collapse of the latter brought Meretz down too. Yet the failure has occasioned no soul-searching. The party has never confessed its mistake.
Numbers tell the story. In 1992, one year before Oslo, Meretz won 12 seats. In 1996, the number had fallen to 10. In 1999 it managed to keep these (despite the fact that half of Shinui broke away), but in the elections of 2003 – after the collapse of Oslo was clear to all – Meretz won only 6.
In order to form the coalition with Labor in 1992, Meretz had to swallow frogs, which were destined to undermine its position as chief voice of the Zionist Left.
The first frog: Labor and Meretz were then 5 seats short of the 61 needed for a Knesset majority. The Arab parties had 5 seats, but there was no way that Rabin would let them into his government: such a thing was (and still is) out of the question. In order to get a stable majority, the choice would have to be between the ultra-orthodox Shas and the right-wing Likud. Meretz preferred Shas. It preferred, that is, to postpone its confrontation with religion in order to make progress on the Palestinian front. At first glance, this might seem reasonable. Yet there was another alternative: not to coalesce with Labor at all.
The second frog was Rabin’s decision to expel 400 Hamas members to Lebanon in December 1992. To the dismay of its supporters, Meretz concurred. Shulamit Aloni would later express her remorse for having done so.
Aloni then headed the Ministry of Education. Her barbs against the religious parties and the settlers led Shas to demand her resignation. Rabin yielded, shifting her to the Ministry of Communication. In this he had the tacit accord, if not the help, of two Meretz members: Amnon Rubinstein and Yossi Sarid. The former took her place as Minister of Education. The next stage was a coup within the party against the independent, anti-establishment line of Aloni, who expressed support for refusal to serve in the Territories, favored the division of Jerusalem, and opposed the use of torture. In 1996 Sarid challenged her for the Ratz leadership. Disappointed with the party’s “pragmatism” and “compromises,” she retired, and he took over.
Sarid, a close confidant of Rabin, received a central role in negotiations with the Palestinians. He was a senior member of the ministerial committee that supervised the General Security Services (Shin Bet), which used torture. He opposed the division of Jerusalem, and he fought against conscientious objection in any form.
Sarid drew Meretz to the right. Those who resisted were marginalized. An outstanding example was Dedi Zucker, founder of B’tselem. Quite against the party line, Zucker publicly favored the division of Jerusalem. He lost his place in the Meretz list for the 1999 elections. (Zucker, it turned out, was ahead of his time. In the Meretz platform of 2003, the party called for the division of Jerusalem.)
Its support for the Oslo Accords led Meretz to forfeit, in effect, its earlier vision of a Palestinian state beside Israel. The Labor Party platform was far from that of Meretz. Labor recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, but it did not recognize a Palestinian right to self-determination. Meretz chose, however, to hide its head in the sand. It gave its blessing to Oslo, which avoided the question of the settlements and foisted on the Palestinians a life of dependence under a corrupt regime, established as a subcontractor of Occupation. Meretz provided a left-wing fig leaf to a process that was destined to bring on the bloodbath in which we now live.
Meretz and the Consensus
After Yossi Sarid became the unchallenged leader of Meretz in 1996, he sought to bring the party into the national consensus. His pull to the right determined the Meretz response to two significant events: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 and the outbreak of the second Intifada five years later.
The assassination. After Shas left Rabin’s coalition in protest against the Oslo agreement (September 1993), the government was left with only 56 Knesset seats: Labor’s 44 plus Meretz’s 12. The Arab parties (5 seats), although outside the government, provided a safety net. Under these constraints, in October 1995, the Knesset barely managed to pass the second, interim stage of the Oslo agreement. The parties on the right complained that Israel’s future was being determined by the 5 Arab Knesset votes. Amid the incitement, a right-winger murdered Rabin.
Labor responded by trying to appease the Right. This move caught Meretz off guard. Far from “energizing” Labor, it had become a liability, encumbering Labor’s drive toward the heart of the consensus.
The attempt to join the consensus also determined the Meretz response to another event, the uprising of Israel’s Arab population, which briefly joined the new Intifada in October 2000. Let us recall the background:
After three years of a Netanyahu government, the 1999 elections had ended with victory for Labor’s Ehud Barak. He believed that Rabin’s reliance on the Arab parties had led to his murder. To depend on the Left alone, he thought, would split the nation. Having won 95% of the Arab vote, Barak turned his back on the Arab parties. In forming his government, he first approached the Mafdal (the settlers’ National Religious Party or NRP). Only then did he turn to Meretz. A government with the Mafdal would mean a political stalemate. Yet Meretz joined the coalition.
We shall not enter here into the sorry story of the Barak government: how he lost his Knesset majority, and how he went in desperation to Clinton’s Camp David, dragging Arafat with him. When he returned empty-handed in July 2000, Meretz did not dispute his claim that “there’s no one to talk with.” On the contrary, Yossi Sarid washed his hands of all contact with Palestinians.
On September 28, 2000, opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the area of the al-Aqsa Mosque, sparking a new Palestinian Intifada. A few days later, the Arabs of Israel joined in, closing vital roads in Galilee. Israel’s police killed 13 of them, Israeli citizens all. These murders seared themselves on the consciousness of the nation’s Arabs. They boycotted the elections of February 2001, helping to cause Barak’s downfall.
During this election campaign, Meretz supported Barak – against the Arab population and despite the 13 deaths. Meretz lost any chance of serving as an alternative for the Arab street.
In its few demonstrations against the Occupation since October 2000, Meretz has downplayed its earlier call for recognizing Palestinian rights and for a two-state solution. The dominant slogans, instead, have been such as these: “Out of the Territories, back to ourselves!” “The Occupation is killing us!” Such is the spirit of the Zionist Left today.
Shinui up, Meretz down
Meretz has opposed any form of national-unity government that would include the Likud. It has preferred to sit in a coalition with its sworn enemies, the ultra-orthodox parties, or even the NRP. This accounts for the meteoric rise of Shinui at its expense.
About half of the Shinui faction, led by MK Avraham Poraz, broke away from Meretz in 1998. Advocates of capitalism, these rebels had long chafed at the socialist ideals of Mapam and Ratz. Poraz, a colorless politician, found an ally in journalist Tomy Lapid, a jingoist champion of the bourgeoisie. Unlike Meretz, this new Shinui preferred the Likud over the ultra-orthodox. It attracted the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie, who had earlier supported Meretz because of its anti-religious platform (unfulfilled). After the debacle at Camp David, this social stratum lost faith in the prospect of a “new Middle East”. It cared little now about an independent Palestine or the dismantling of the settlements. It disliked the Meretz concept of a welfare state. Shinui expressed its aspirations better. In 1999 Shinui got 6 mandates. In 2003, when the Meretz seats dwindled to 6, Shinui got a whopping 15.
From Meretz to Yahad
Meretz had reached the 2003 elections weak and exhausted. As soon as the results came in, Yossi Sarid publicly resigned as leader. Into the resultant vacuum stepped Yossi Beilin. An Oslo architect and Justice Minister under Barak, Beilin had been a member of the Labor Party until 2003. He had objected to Labor’s participation in the Sharon coalition of 2001, following the downfall of Barak. In 2003 he presented his candidacy in the Labor primaries but received an unrealistic place on the list. Only after this rude jolt did he decide to leave Labor. Forming a social-democratic movement called Shahar, he joined the Meretz list. When Meretz became Yahad, Beilin ran for the party’s top post and won.
“The formation of Yahad wasn’t a response to any demands on my part,” said Beilin. “The idea of building a new social democratic organization came from [Meretz Knesset member] Haim Oron and Yossi Sarid. They turned to me. I wouldn’t have had any problem in joining Meretz as it was, but it seems that some inside the party concluded that the Meretz ‘brand’ had exhausted itself.” (Kol-Bo February 13, 2004)
The Geneva Accord – Spin or Political Program?
Before joining Yahad, Beilin was the principal Israeli designer of the Geneva Accord. It is worth exploring what lay behind this initiative.
In 2001, Beilin and his Palestinian partner, Yasser Abed Rabo (formerly a minister in Arafat’s regime), decided to negotiate a virtual peace agreement. For two years, the Swiss government financed the process. To draft the final document in October 2003, the initiators gathered a group of Knesset doves from Labor, Meretz and Shinui to meet with the Palestinian representatives at the Moevenpick Hotel in Jordan. All knew that there was no chance of implementing the accord, but Beilin and his Meretz colleagues emphasized the “momentum”. One component of this “momentum” was Beilin’s need for a new agreement that would bear his name. The Geneva Accord was the political dowry that he brought to the union with Meretz. It was supposed to build him an electoral base by drawing potential voters from the Labor Party.
Not by chance, the initiators kept Arab Israelis away from the signing ceremony at Geneva in December 2003. They were concerned, they said, not to alienate the Israeli consensus.
The Achilles’ heel of the Zionist Left: its attitude toward the Arabs
The Israeli Left has always counted on support from part of the Jewish middle class. Most of this class is right-wing, dividing itself between the Labor Party mainstream and the Likud. Its left-wing minority is spread between Labor’s left-wing branch, Shinui and Meretz.
Some remain faithful to Meretz’s social platform. These include intellectuals, kibbutzniks, young people and students. Most are Ashkenazi. They remain in the Israeli Zionist ghetto, far from a proletarian perspective. Disconnected from the weaker strata of Israeli society, lacking a class-conscious socialist perspective, the Zionist Left is under constant pressure from the rest of Israeli society, which is chauvinistic and self-enclosed. This Left finds it hard, therefore, to adopt an independent social agenda.
The abnormality of the Zionist Left is evident in its attitude toward the Arabs. It has always been a Left without Arabs. Not that there were never Arabs in the left-wing parties, but they had to settle for being the “Arab minority.” The attitude of the Jewish leftists was paternalistic. They attempted to “tame” the Arabs, who were supposed to accept the values of the Zionist movement as axiomatic. Few, for example, speak Arabic. Throughout its history, the Zionist Left has remained disconnected from the Arab world, its culture and progressive political movements in the Arab states.
The Zionist Left remained a stranger to the Palestinian Left that helped found the PLO. It has always judged the Arab movements through the prism of “who favors making peace with the State of Israel and who does not.” That is why it rushed into the trap of supporting the pro-American branch of the PLO. Led by Yasser Arafat, this branch has weakened the Palestinian movement, bringing it to its present low.
The Zionist Left hastens to support any political program, from Oslo to the “Road Map” to unilateral disengagement, as long as it wins US approval. We wrote of it one year ago: “Israel’s Left shows a shortsighted eagerness to hurl itself into any procedure, so long as America stands behind it. At this very hour, the US is setting up its unique brand of occupation in Iraq… They [the members of the Zionist Left] do not ask the obvious question: how can we trust the initiators of one occupation to bring about the end of another?” (Challenge No. 79, May-June 2003)
The fact that the PLO signed the Oslo Accords does not remove the Zionist Left’s responsibility for the damage these Accords have done. Meretz foresaw the damage, but it did not press for greater Israeli concessions. Why be “more Catholic than the Pope”? Thus Meretz took part in a government that expropriated land, failed to evacuate a single settlement, and covered the West Bank with bypass roads that strengthened the Jewish grip on the Territories.
It is no surprise, then, to see the Zionist Left today supporting Sharon’s disengagement plan, which will transform Gaza into a prison. This support is consistent with its backing of the separation fence. It was Amram Mitzna of the Geneva group who put that fence, as well as withdrawal from Gaza (unilateral “if necessary”), at the head of Labor’s promises in the election campaign of January 2003.
We may only imagine how different Arab perceptions would be today if, during the Oslo years, an organized Israeli Left had stood shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians, demanding an independent Palestinian state. Arab public opinion would have no reason, in that case, to view Israeli Jews as a single, obdurate bloc. Arabs would understand that it is possible to persuade some Jews. In the hope of doing so, they would have a positive reason to rein in the extremists.
No Class Consciousness
The Zionist Left is ideologically a split personality. On the one hand, it talks of a just society and equality between the nations. On the other, it supports the American strategy in the Middle East. Unlike its counterparts around the world, it has no ideology. It finds no problem in US imperialism.
Meretz sees itself as part of the “new world order” and the global economy. Its platform mentions the “special relationship” with the US and the advantages of globalization. “The global economy and globalization led to significant economic growth, especially towards the end of the 1990s – both in Israel and around the world.” (Meretz Platform, 2003).
This prostration before the Pax Americana is born of the Zionist Left’s unwillingness to confront the Israeli establishment, which is dependent on the US. In many ways this Left resembles American “liberalism” more than its European counterpart, which features unions and a socialist tradition. Another reason behind the Left’s eagerness to support every American program, including the imperialist attack on Iraq, is its hope that, shocked and awed by American power, the Palestinians will accede to what Israel is willing to give.
Given this position, the Zionist Left has no connection with any other left-wing or proletarian movement. It has ignored the anti-globalizers, as well as international demonstrations against the war in Iraq. It has no connection to struggles for social justice elsewhere, because these do not fit the narrow interests of Israel and the US.
The confusion in the Zionist Left cannot be separated from the crisis of capitalism in general. This crisis encourages the growth of a new alternative, around the world and in Israel. The decline of the Zionist Left enables the right wing to grow stronger, but its shrinkage also makes room for the rise of new left-wing tendencies, such as conscientious objection. The refusal to serve in the Territories, condemned by Meretz, has continued to win support. Refusal is probably the most authentic action that an Israeli leftist can take. Lacking an alternative framework, however, the refusal movement remains marginal and disorganized. Its success will depend on the rise of local political groups that do not take Israel’s regional supremacy as axiomatic.