Is Israel’s ‘Left’ Dead?
When Benjamin Netanyahu squeaked out his fifth victory in April, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, eclipsing even legendary leader David Ben-Gurion, the election results revealed more than the winner. It demonstrated that Israel’s left-leaning parties may be dead in the water.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Last year I participated in an Israeli government-sponsored outreach to Christian media. For a few days I sat in the epicenter of Israeli politics in Jerusalem, along with members of the Christian media from around the world. We heard from Netanyahu; Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren; as well as other politicians, journalists, and influencers in Israel. The days were packed full, but one discussion stood out from the rest.
Five Israeli women, all Knesset (parliament) members at the time, who varied in political affiliation from religious conservative to socialist Left, got into a heated argument during a panel discussion. One of the women from a left-leaning party made a comment I won’t soon forget. Today, she said, most Israelis consider left a nasty word. The recent election cycle proved her correct.
Israel’s Labor Party received a paltry 5 percent of the vote. If it loses two more percentage points, it will forfeit its seat at the political table. Each party (there are more than 30) must garner a minimum of 3.25 percent of the vote to win seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Other left-leaning parties were barely able to pull together 3.3 percent of the vote.
Center-left parties weren’t always the minority in Israeli politics. The Labor Party dominated the political landscape for nearly 30 years. Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak all were leaders of the Labor Party. Yet after the failed attempt to achieve peace with the Palestinians in 2000 and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the center-left movement became ineffective.
How does Netanyahu keep winning?
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s campaign may give us an answer. In an attempt to keep the campaign focused on what he felt would win Clinton the election, Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase The economy, stupid. If the economy is doing well and people are working, they’re more likely to be satisfied.
Over the past 10 years, Israel has experienced uninterrupted economic growth, with record-low unemployment. Israel moved from being a socialist-structured economy to a highly competitive, capitalist one that encourages the lucrative, high-tech start-up environment. As a result, when Fortune 500 companies look to invest in new, advanced technology, they often turn to Israel.
Israel also has made new friends and deepened relationships with old ones. The Jewish state has established relations with India, China, the Gulf States, and even countries in Africa. Netanyahu made it a priority to deepen ties to the East in order to open new doors of economic opportunity and establish peace with countries once considered enemies. And let’s not forget about the strong bond between Israel and the United States.
But when all is said and done, what Israelis want most is security; and security remains a top priority with the Netanyahu government. When the Western leaders were kowtowing to Iran, Netanyahu diligently exposed the dangers of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, reminding the world that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and the Middle East.
Netanyahu wasn’t alone in his thinking. Many Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, agreed with him, which opened a dialogue that previously didn’t exist.
Netanyahu, of course, won’t be prime minister forever. He has his share of detractors and domestic problems, but he has been influential in promoting a conservative agenda to Israel’s citizens; and Israelis know you don’t fix what isn’t broken.