Analysis: Understanding Israeli Elections, Part 3 – The Political Left

Summer of 2011 tent protests in Israel. Illustrative. By Joshua Spurlock.

The Israeli elections are quickly approaching and the latest Haaretz and Ynet polls are showing the political Left to be rising in popularity. For years, the Left dominated the Knesset (parliament) but in recent decades the Right and Left have basically alternated power. Though the current polls do not show the Left taking power without some help, the parties in the Left could find ways into a new government coalition—or just possibly lead the next one. Here they are:

1. Labor

The Labor party was once the leading leftwing party, before the Kadima party emerged and stole most of its voters. Under current-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was the party chairman at the time, Labor initially joined the coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu. This was an unusual place for the left-leaning Labor party, and

a party split saw Barak try to start his own party and Labor move into the opposition at its smallest and weakest position.

Today, Labor has had a tremendous revival as the leader of the Left. Under new chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, polls republished by Haaratz have shown Labor is expected to win around 17 seats in the next Knesset—good to be the second-largest party.

The key event that helped resurrect Labor was the social-economic protest-movement during the summer of 2011. Angered at rising prices in Israel, especially for housing, large crowds of people set up a tent-city in Tel Aviv. Tent-cities began emerging across the country and have set up the Left to focus on socio-economic issues.

Whereas the Right tends to want to use free-market capitalism as its main means to improve the economy, Labor’s website says they believe in the welfare state—alongside their own version of the free market. Socialism and a strong government system are key tenets of their economic approach.

As for the Palestinian situation, Labor has long pushed for and even attempted to reach a “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians. The Labor website says they do nonetheless plan to retain the “highly populated” blocs of settlement communities in Judea and Samaria (the Biblical name for the West Bank).

Labor keeps its plans for Jerusalem in a peace-plan somewhat vague, but does call it the “eternal capital” of Israel. Regarding the Old City of Jerusalem and the surrounding historical and Biblical areas, Labor suggests appointing a “special authority” to “be introduced to express the international importance of the place and its critical status” for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Despite that, they call for Jewish holy sites to stay under Israeli rule.

Labor is the most likely party besides Netanyahu’s Likud to end up leading the next government, should the Left manage to retake the Knesset.

2. Yesh Atid (“There is a Future” in Hebrew)

The new Yesh Atid party, led by former journalist Yair Lapid, promotes itself as pursuing its vision of social justice, including revamping the country’s education and governmental systems. According to Ynet, of significant importance is Yesh Atid’s desire to create an essentially universal army draft.

Lapid did briefly describe his vision of the Palestinian situation—although unlike most other parties, Yesh Atid does not actually present its plan on its English website. In a report by The Times of Israel, Lapid’s approach insists on renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians and wants to divide from them. Similar to Labor, Lapid does want to retain the large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

However, Lapid also wants to keep Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty—a goal more in line with Likud than Labor.

Of all the Left-leaning parties, Yesh Atid is probably the one most capable of joining a mixed government with the Right. However, it’s government reforms that aim to decrease the power of smaller political parties and its pursuit of a universal military draft would probably make it difficult—if not impossible—to serve in the same coalition as the ultra-orthodox parties.

See also:

Understanding Israeli Elections, Part 1 – The System

Understanding Israeli Elections, Part 2 – The Political Right

3. Hatnua (“The Movement” in Hebrew)

Another newcomer to the Left-leaning bloc—like Yesh Atid—Hatnua is led by former-Kadima Chairwoman and former-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The party teamed up with the Green party and makes environmental issues of notable significance to them. Ynet has reported that Livni has placed a large importance on the Palestinian situation and is pushing for a renewal of peace negotiations.

Livni, in her previous role as foreign minister for the Ehud Olmert government, was a major negotiator with the Palestinians. Assuming the direction of the peace talks of that time remain her current views, Livni’s perspective on the talks is similar to Labor’s.

Hatnua is also pushing the social justice angle.

4. Meretz (“Energy” in Hebrew)

One of the smaller left-leaning parties, Meretz is also one of the parties associated most with a classical liberal philosophy. The party’s website describes itself in part as a “left-wing Israeli party that promotes human and civil rights, [and] a social-democratic economic policy.”

The party’s website does not lay out as many of the specifics in a peace plan as does Labor, but does emphasize its belief in the urgency to reach a deal with the Palestinians soon and calls for Israel to impose a timeline on concluding the talks.

Of all the parties on the Left in Israel, Meretz seems to stake out the most intense approach to the Palestinian situation with an air of almost desperation, lest Israel suffer from worst-case scenarios in the absence of a deal.

5. Kadima (“Forward” in Hebrew)

Once the leader of the Left and currently the largest party in the Knesset, Kadima has been devastated by the political changes and the influx of new parties on the Left. Tzipi Livni’s initial departure from politics and the party, only to then return and form her own party, has clearly hurt Kadima—now led by Shaul Mofaz.

Labor’s resurgence has also likely hit the party hard, to the point where it is now likely to be the smallest Left-leaning party in the next Knesset, assuming Kadima even makes it (parties must acquire at lest 2 percent of the vote to land seats in the Knesset).

Kadima actually briefly joined the Likud-led government last summer before ending the relationship over unbridgeable disagreements.

Traditionally Kadima has made the peace process of some importance. The last long-term peace talks were held with the Palestinians under the Kadima-led government of Ehud Olmert. Mofaz, according to Haaretz, called for handing over 60 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state in a temporary, initial step towards a full deal. He even expressed a willingness to speak with Hamas if the terror group agrees to reform, according to the Haaretz report.

Overall, the Left in Israel are more socialist and tend to take a more urgent approach towards the Palestinian situation, along with a stronger desire to compromise in that arena. The Right sees such views as surrender and despite two extensive efforts by past center-left governments, the Left has been unable to reach a deal with the Palestinians thus far.

The reality is that a true “centrist” party does not really exist in Israel—because it’s hard to label what the political center really is in the country. However, the closest bloc to one that finds it really easy to swing between Right and Left-led governments are the ultra-orthodox parties, which will be the last group to be discussed as the countdown to election day continues.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, January 19, 2013)