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elections 2009

War in Gaza: The Real Test for Meretz and the Israeli Left

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fter the first and second Intifadas, and the first and second Lebanon wars, one would expect the Israeli left to come out unequivocally against the war on Gaza and denounce Israel’s brutal use of military force to dictate political processes. However, despite the horrendous images of death and destruction from the Gaza Strip, the response from Meretz and Peace Now was evasive. As usual, they supported the military operation at the start, and after a few days changed their position and called for an end to the war in order to avoid getting bogged down in the “Gazan mud.”

At the founding conference of the New Left Movement (14 Nov. 08), celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz declared that Ehud Barak cannot be considered leftwing because he prevented the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank during the year and half he served as Defense Minister. Unfortunately, Oz was one of a long list of Israeli authors and intellectuals who, just before the Gaza campaign, stridently called upon Israel to stop showing “restraint” and to attack the Strip (Yedioth Ahronoth 26 Dec. 08).
Nitzan Horowitz, a young, fresh voice from the New Left Movement and now occupying the third slot on the Meretz list, was not much different in his response to the war. In an article he published a week into the fighting, he waxed lyrical about the suffering of Israelis in the south of the country without even mentioning the mass killing of Palestinian civilians by the IDF. “The fire in the region will eventually be extinguished, or else the violence will continue to smolder for many days, sending sparks onto the southern parts of the country. In either case, Israeli residents in areas near Gaza, like all Israelis, have a right to lead their lives in safety, not under the terrible conditions we have got to know so well during these days” (Haaretz 2 Jan. 09).

Horowitz’s worry about what will happen to the southern region of Israel after the war expresses more clearly than anything Israel’s blindness and numbed senses. He who refuses to protest against unprecedented killing and destruction just because it is being perpetrated by his own country; he who expresses concern about ordinary working people in the south while turning his back on his neighbors just because they belong to a different race or religion – such a person is merely a nationalist in disguise.

The numbed senses and selective hearing of Israel’s left is not just a moral problem but a question of class: the Ashkenazi middle class, which has traditionally made up the bulk of the Israeli left, has got used to a hedonistic lifestyle in recent years thanks to Israel’s complete integration into the global economy.

The same changes that affected the middle classes have also eaten away at the old political parties that based themselves on ideology – Labor and Likud – and led to a new centrist party: Kadima. This party succeeded in combining an important Likud faction led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert with the historic Labor leader Shimon Peres and some of the Labor leadership under Haim Oron and Dalia Itzik. The momentum upon which Kadima was founded came from the Gaza “disengagement” plan, led by Sharon in August 2005. More than anything, Kadima reflected the ostensibly anti-ideological and “pragmatic” spirit of Israel’s middle classes, who wanted only to rid themselves of responsibility for the Palestinians and push them out of sight behind the separation fence.

More than ten years passed between the signing of the Oslo Accords and the unilateral Gaza disengagement. During this period, two trends were discernable in Israel: in the political sphere, the Israeli left withdrew into itself and stopped believing that any kind of settlement was possible with the Palestinians; in the economic and social sphere, the middle class became estranged from the working class, which includes not just Arabs and migrant workers but hundreds of thousands of Jewish workers.

The indifference towards Palestinian suffering is closely connected to the gulf between the classes in Israeli society, which has the largest gap between rich and poor in the western world. This is the background to the political crisis caused by the second Lebanon war, and the harsh public criticism of the political and military leadership. Israeli society was unprepared – politically, militarily and psychologically – for war, and this was reflected in the poor performance of the army and the home front.

Israel’s military weakness, well recognized by Nasrallah during the war, has undergone intensive treatment during the last two and a half years. The Winograd Committee investigated the war’s failings and sketched out the path that Israel must take: the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff must be replaced, and the army must be intensively trained in preparation for the next campaign. The war in Gaza, therefore, was not just against Hamas, but was also meant to rehabilitate the army’s preparedness and address the failures identified in the second Lebanon war. Meanwhile the social gaps yawned ever wider and nobody has any intention of addressing this issue.

In the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal elections last November, MK Dov Chenin (Hadash) received 46,000 votes – 34% of the voters. Ir Lekulanu, led by Chenin, became the city council’s largest list. For the New Meretz (Meretz united with the New Movement) and its leader Haim Oron this achievement was proof of the electoral potential of a green and “social democratic” agenda which ignores the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and downplays the existence of Arabs.

In an attempt to parrot Ir Lekulanu’s success, Nitzan Horowitz – former Channel 10 journalist from the heart of Jewish Tel Aviv’s cool modernity – was catapulted into the third slot on the Meretz list. There is no doubt why Horowitz was placed high on the list: Chenin, listed no. 3 in Hadash, a party led by Mohammad Barakeh, will struggle to gain the confidence of Ir Lekulanu voters in the general elections. These voters can now be courted by Meretz.

However, the Gaza war disrupted Meretz’s short-sighted electoral calculations. In an attempt not to alienate its main support base among the kibbutzim and the indifferent middle classes, Meretz toed the line with the consensus that supported the war. True, after a week or so the voices in favor lost their strength, and some Meretz members began – softly and hesitantly at first – to voice their opposition, more due to concern about its results than from concern for the people of Gaza. However, not a single one made a principled stand against the use of force and against the killing of civilians as means to achieving political goals.

Thus Meretz and Peace Now have once again proved that at the moment of truth they side with the Israeli establishment, from which they draw their strength. As a result, thousands of members of the Israeli left, who in the past would have voted Meretz, are now seeking a new political movement which will reflect their hopes for peace and their need to renounce Israel’s brutal policies. Such a movement, truly socialist in the universally accepted sense of the word, cannot base itself only on the Jewish electorate. By continuing to uphold the illusion that it can, Meretz forfeits its right to be considered truly leftwing.

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