BICOM Focus: Left outside the centre: the declining power of the Israeli left-wing


Key points

  • Interestingly, the decline in support for the Israeli Left partly results from the fact that ideas traditionally associated with the left-wing bloc are becoming part of mainstream political thought in Israel.
  • The notion of land for peace was adopted as the basis for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by Likud leader Menachem Begin in 1979. Several centre-right governments since then, including Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 government and Ariel Sharon’s in 2002, proved once more that negotiations and concessions were not the sole property of the Israeli Left.
  • It has been suggested that unlike governments led by the centre-left, Likud governments have been able to carry out territorial concessions with greater ease, mostly because their actions have received wider public support and created less antagonism.
  • The shifting of attention to security and military issues during Operation Cast Lead marginalised election campaigning agendas that may have been able to challenge the right-wing command, from Livni’s ‘clean politics’ campaign to Meretz’s attempt to formalise a new social-democratic movement.



The upcoming Israeli general elections are likely to see a further decline in the power of the Israeli Left, both in terms of its parliamentary presence and in terms of its ability to maintain a leading position in shaping the political agenda of the country. Paradoxically, this decline partly results from the fact that ideas traditionally associated with the left-wing bloc are gradually becoming part of mainstream political thought in Israel. In addition, the traditional Israeli left-wing parties no longer present a serious leadership force in Israel. The Israeli Labour party’s participation in all the coalitions led by Likud or Kadima since 2000 means that the party is no longer perceived as a viable contender to lead the country. The following brief will contextualise this process and highlight the main dilemmas currently faced by the country’s left-wing parties amidst complex security and diplomatic challenges.


The historical context: from hegemony to opposition

During almost three decades since it declared its independence in 1948, Israel’s political system was dominated by the Israeli Labour Movement (‘Mapai’). The party shared the centre-left tradition of similar movements in Britain, France and Germany, and incorporated traditional social-democratic values into the Zionist mission of establishing and securing a Jewish homeland in Israel. The country’s leading political figures throughout that era – from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin – were all affiliated with the Labour party and led governing coalitions that were predominantly comprised of centre-left and national-religious parties.

However, under the unique circumstances of the time, the Israeli Left was often required to balance ideals and reality. The Israeli Labour party did not hesitate to react forcefully when faced by a largely unstable security reality and constant threat from its neighbours. The Israeli leadership was required to adapt to the uncertainties of the time and ensure the security of its citizens at the same time as it promoted more traditional left-wing policies on social and economic matters.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War marked a turning point in the attitude of the Israeli public to the decades-long hegemony of the Israeli Labour Movement. Although the war ended with an Israeli victory in the battlefield, the lives of thousands were lost and the confidence of the public in its leaders, all of whom were affiliated with the Labour party, was fractured. Then-prime minister Golda Meir and defence minister Moshe Dayan were accused of failing to adequately prepare Israel for the war, but despite this, Labour was still able to win the elections held immediately after the war. Resentment towards the leadership and the party for the mismanagement of the war grew and forced Meir and Dayan to resign.

In addition to the dramatic changes in Labour’s leadership, the Yom Kippur War also brought some in the party to consider more favourably the principle of ‘land for peace’ as a viable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Social and economic factors also played a crucial role in the decline of the Israeli Left in the 1970s. Growing sectors of the public were increasingly alienated from Labour’s rule, which often benefited party bureaucrats while discriminating against Jews of North African and Arab decent. Several corruption scandals only aggravated the sense that the country’s leadership had failed and the centre-left hegemony had reached a dead end.

Menachem Begin led the Likud party to a groundbreaking victory in the 1977 elections, marking the end of 29 consecutive years of Labour leadership. This event was a political and cultural milestone in Israel’s history. The blow suffered by the Israel Labour party and the centre-left bloc was long-lasting: Likud went on to lead seven of the following ten governments, with only two governments since then – Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1992 and Ehud Barak’s in 1999 – led by Labour. Until today, centre-left parties have not been able to shake off their association with voters from higher socioeconomic status and are rarely able to challenge the popular appeal of Likud among the Israeli electorate.

Despite recurring defeats, Labour seldom remained in opposition. Only from 1977 to 1984, and then during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office (1996-1999), did Labour remain outside the government. Gradually, the party’s appeal as a leading governing force began to erode, and for many voters, it no longer presented a viable alternative to Likud or to Kadima’s more recent third-way centrist agenda. Labour’s diminished power since the 2000 elections owes much to the party’s failure to convince voters of its ability do more than support the leadership of others.


Israel’s two Lefts

It is important to note that while traditional perceptions identify the Israeli political system as divided into left and right-wing blocs, the Left is in fact comprised of two sections. On the one hand it is possible to place parties such as Israeli Labour and the social-democratic Meretz party. Further to the left are several parties, such as the Arab parties Ra’am and Balad, and the communist Hadash party. The former are often referred to as the Zionist Left and are strongly supportive of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The Arab parties have repeatedly challenged the Jewish character of the state and explicitly call for a change in Israel’s Basic Laws that would acknowledge the binational composition of Israeli society.

The rift between the two is substantial. The non-Zionist parties have never participated in governing coalitions, even when these were formed by Labour. Their absolute opposition to the Zionist foundation of the state makes the split within the Left almost unbridgeable. This has, of course, political repercussions: any calculation of the division between the left and right-wing blocs must take into account the fact that approximately ten mandates associated with the Left are held by these parties and will not count for the actual mission of forming a ruling coalition.

However, it is important to note that non-Zionist left-wing parties have, in some cases, supported government resolutions that are in accordance with their stated policies. This was the case during Rabin’s 1992 government, which relied on the support of these parties for the approval of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian leadership. Similarly, these parties supported the unilateral disengagement from Gaza led by Ariel Sharon’s Likud government in 2005.


The two-state solution: from margins to mainstream

Since the 1980s, the Israeli Left has been mostly associated with its support for peace between Israel and the Arab world and the realisation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the land for peace idea was advocated by small groups in the Israeli Left from the early 1970s, the idea gained growing support only during the First Lebanon War (1982-1985). Non-governmental groups like Peace Now and left-wing parties like Mapam (United Workers Party) and Ratz (Movement for Civil Rights and Peace) gradually adopted the two-state scheme and received growing public attention with the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. Following the escalation of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip it became clear that many in Israel would be willing to support a diplomatic route that would bring about the resolution of the conflict based on some form of Palestinian sovereignty. This was the foundation for the election of a Labour government under Rabin in 1992 and the launching of peace negotiations with the PLO leadership.

However, the notion of land for peace was earlier adopted as a basis for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by Likud leader Menachem Begin in 1979. The implementation of the agreement included the full withdrawal of Israeli military forces and civilian communities from the Sinai Peninsula in 1981. By doing so, Begin proved that the Israeli centre-right bloc was able to pragmatically carry out territorial concessions despite its affiliation with right-leaning conservative circles. In fact, it has been suggested that unlike governments led by the centre-left, Likud governments have been able to carry out territorial concessions with greater ease, mostly because their actions received wider public support and created less antagonism.

Rabin’s 1992 government was pivotal in pushing forward diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, but it also encountered some of the fiercest opposition by settler movements and right-wing groups. After Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu, partly because of the vocal right-wing campaign against the government’s peace policy. This was an irony of the Israeli Left: while it was the leading advocate of the peace agenda, it became clear that it was not able to overcome the resentment of many sectors in the Israeli public and was unable therefore to fully carry out this agenda.

Several centre-right governments since then, including Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 government and Ariel Sharon’s in 2002, proved once more that negotiations and concessions were not the sole property of the Israeli Left. Sharon’s bold decision to unilaterally withdraw all Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, including large and established settlements, was a decisive moment in this regard, illustrating clearly that the notion of territorial separation between Israelis and Palestinians was part of the mainstream of Israel’s political map. The Israeli Left, which for many years deemed Sharon a political enemy, provided the Likud leader with the political umbrella that made the implementation of the 2005 Disengagement Plan possible.

The establishment of the Kadima party that year was another step in the realignment of the Israeli political map. The party attracted many leading figures who formed the backbone of Israeli Labour, such as Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon, and presented a viable alternative to the traditional divisions between left and right. Similarly, the party attracted many centre-left voters who were convinced that only a centrist force would be able to lead to a final resolution with the Palestinian leadership. Almost overnight, figures like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a long-time supporter of the greater Israel vision and the unity of Jerusalem, and one of the leading figures of the Israeli Right, became associated with the effort to reach a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Olmert adopted the two-state solution, the land for peace formula and the hope to end Israel’s occupation even at the price of mass settlement removal and compromise on Jerusalem. Indirect negotiations with Syria clarified that Kadima was now leading the two-state agenda, not from the margins of the left-wing, but from the epicentre of the Israeli political system.

This new political realignment exposed another paradox of the Israeli Left: while its traditional messages found increasing acceptance, its parliamentary support declined. For over two decades, advocating the peace process became the central agenda for left-wing parties like Labour and Meretz. Other issues, like social and economic policies, were marginalised by the dominance of security and diplomatic issues. To date, when the two-state message commands the support of the majority of the public, the Left seem to have little to offer Israeli voters.


The security imperative

The gradual acceptance of the two-state formula among Israel’s political mainstream has been nevertheless overshadowed by recurring periods of violent conflict and regional instability. The eruption of the second intifada in 2000 after the breakdown of the Camp David peace summit undermined the belief of many Israelis in the ability to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. In a way, the eruption of the second intifada was used by right-wing parties as proof that there was no credible partner for negotiations. The outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the recent IDF Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip also translated into growth in the popularity of right-wing parties and weakened the support for the Left.

The recent escalation of violence in Gaza exposed another dilemma often faced by politicians from the Jewish left-wing parties. Israel launched the operation with overwhelming public support that exceeded 80%. Similarly, there was a consensus in the first days of the operation about its necessity and the justification for action. However, the shifting of attention to security and military issues marginalised other agendas that may have been able to challenge the right-wing command, from Livni’s ‘clean politics’ campaign to Meretz’s attempt to formalise a new social-democratic movement.

In comparison, Israeli Labour showed a dramatic recovery in the polls since the escalation in Gaza, mostly thanks to the respect Defence Minister Ehud Barak received for the preparation and handling of the campaign. However, it is important to remember that Labour showed unprecedentedly low results in November and December, with polls giving the party between 9 and 11 mandates, which would have placed it in no serious position of influence.

Tense periods of security uncertainty often drive voters away from centre-left parties. Despite having led some of the most successful military campaigns in the country’s history, there is a traditional tendency to support the more conservative and tough agenda promoted by the Right. Recent polls suggest that this trend remains as relevant today as it was in the past: while many people would agree that Labour leader Barak is the best suited candidate to lead Israel’s defence establishment in the coming years, they would rather see him serve under Netanyahu than take the helm in the prime minister’s office.



The current weakness of the Israeli left-wing can be attributed to several factors. First, over a period of several decades, many working-class Israelis, residents of the periphery and large sectors of religious Jews have been alienated by the affiliation of the Left with wealthier and educated sectors. Second, centre-right parties like Likud have proven their ability at bringing peace even at the price of heavy territorial concessions. Third, the political realignment of the Israeli political map and the emergence of new third-way political movements like Kadima have drawn centre-left supporters from the more traditional Left. Fourth, Labour appears to be no longer considered a serious contender to lead the country, and is perceived instead as a junior partner of any future Likud or Kadima government. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Left’s support for diplomatic agreements to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict has now become part of the political mainstream. However, with negotiations in the consensus and as Israel faces significant security challenges, voters tend to shift their support to more conservative, right-wing parties.

If Labour and Meretz perform as poorly as some of the polls are suggesting, they will need to return to the drawing board to rethink their future in the changed Israeli political landscape. At present, it does not seem that with their current agendas and leaderships, Israel’s left-wing bloc will be able to challenge the centrist and right-wing parties.