Amir Peretz, the chairman of the Labor party, in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2020. Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
After consenting to join with the centrist Blue and White alliance, Israel’s Labor party entered the country’s governing coalition this summer after nearly a decade in the opposition. In previous times that might have been cause for the party’s members to celebrate; now it was not. Its entire parliamentary delegation comprises exactly three members (out of 120), a pitiful presence for the party that founded Israel and ruled it for three decades without interruption, and whose byzantine institutions were once the scene of colossal rivalries and fateful debates. Even to say that Labor’s election result is a “historic low” is a cliché now: Labor’s result has been an all-time low in each election for six of the last eight general elections.
Over that time, and especially since the last election, there have been many explanations floated for Labor’s demise. They tend not to explain much; in fact, that these explanations are so widely accepted reveals more about the party’s demise than do the explanations themselves. And the intensely held desire to ignore the real reasons behind Labor’s misfortune speaks volumes about why the party’s attempts to recover have been so difficult and so ineffective.
The explanations for Labor’s downfall tend to coalesce around two narratives. Let’s call them “Israel has moved” and “the revolution has ended.”
According to the “moved” narrative, Israeli society has moved inexorably to the right, and this has left its left-of-center parties, and Labor specifically, without an electoral base. The more deterministic version of this view blames changing demographics—an increase in the Russian and Mizraḥi populations, who are thought to be more naturally conservative—while the less deterministic version holds that the Rabin assassination crippled the Israeli left (even though contemporary polls reveal that it in fact strengthened it). Brent Sasley wrote one of the most thorough recitations of this narrative in the Washington Post back in 2017. Labor struggled as “demographic, economic, and social changes dented its allure,” he said, and the murder of Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin in 1995 left it without a “leader strong enough to maintain party discipline and appeal to voters.”
Self-styled critical friends of Israel in the West are particularly enamored of the demographic explanation. They lament that center-left coalitions in Israel have won only three elections in the last 30 years (1992, 1999, 2006) and see that as proof of Israeli society’s hard-right turn. Indeed, bewailing Israel’s supposed rightward shift is a particularly popular pastime among British and American Jewish liberals struggling to articulate misgivings about political shifts in their own countries. Jonathan Freedland has identified a new “shift to the right” in Israel about once every two years for the past decade, and recently even “Orbanisation and Iranification.” Yet somehow it never occurs to the Freedlands of the world to apply a similar analysis to say, Britain, where the center-left has the same number of wins in the same period (1997, 2001, 2005), or Germany, where the record is even poorer (1998, 2002). If a similar failure is the case in nations without similar demographic trends, then how much do those trends really explain?
Meanwhile, demographics aside, it’s not even clear that Israel has become more right wing. On many issues, one could argue that public-opinion data show exactly the opposite. Not only on major social matters (religion and state, gender and sexuality, Arab-Jewish relations) are Israeli views today more liberal than they were a decade or two ago, even on the issues directly relating to the Israel-Palestinian conflict there has been a titanic shift in attitudes. A Palestinian state was a radical concept in the Israel of the 1980s and 1990s (Rabin never spoke in favor of one), and even the possibility of making concessions on Jerusalem was beyond the pale until 2000. Today these are mainstream opinions, even if not matters of wall-to-wall consensus.
Moreover, if demographic determinism were behind Labor’s declining fortunes, we would expect to see its decline happen gradually and in line with demographic trends. But Labor was consistently the largest or second-largest party in every single Israeli election in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, right up until 2003 when it garnered what was at the time a record low of 19 seats. Since then it has been more or less out of the running entirely. And of course Israel didn’t go through a major demographic change in the late 1990s and early 2000s. So something else must be at work.
It’s important here not just to emphasize how wrong the demographic explanation is, but how destructive it is. This wrong assessment sticks around despite all empirical evidence because it is so psychologically comforting to those who cling to it. If Israelis are just a people naturally becoming less liberal, then there’s no need to engage with them or take their concerns seriously. If demographic pressures explain the electoral failures of Labor and the Israeli left, there is no need to look deeply at what Labor and the Israeli left got wrong. Such explanations turn losing into something noble: if the people are stupid, why would you want their votes anyway?
So much for the first common explanation of Labor’s decline. The second, the “revolution” explanation, is equally determinist and equally flawed, even if it’s not equally self-serving. It holds, more or less, that Labor fulfilled its life function as a revolutionary party, and once the revolution of 1948 and the early state was completed, it lost its will to existence and has, again naturally, died off, subsisting in reduced form on “rusted party bureaucracy or kibbutz nostalgia,” to borrow the words of Matti Friedman in a recent New York Times op-ed.
The revolutionary explanation has a ring of plausibility to it, to be sure. Revolutionary political parties do often run out of steam after successfully upending things. But Israel’s Labor managed to pass all the tests other revolutionary parties failed. It didn’t just bring the state into being, it also governed it successfully. And it didn’t just govern successfully, it managed to lose power gracefully, and nonviolently. And it didn’t just manage to lose power, it managed to function well as an opposition party, even returning to power occasionally. Labor’s story is, in other words, not the story of South Africa’s ANC or India’s Congress, to mention two other left-wing founding parties.
The notion that in recent decades Labor’s political appeal was based on nothing more than compound interest and nostalgia ignores the role the party actually played in Israeli public life long after the events of 1948 and from pre- and early-state institutions, such as the Histadrut labor federation, that once formed the source of its power. It is simply not true that Labor never managed to reinvent itself after failure (or success). It was a new party after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, and a new party again after the economic crisis of the 1980s and the wave of privatizations which ensued. In fact, the successes of post-revolutionary Labor are forgettable precisely because of how successfully the party pulled off the difficult task of transitioning into a normal governing party. It successfully negotiated disengagement-of-forces agreements with Egypt and Syria in 1974-75, arguably Israel’s most important diplomatic breakthroughs. It managed the giant economic reform in 1985 that ended Israel’s hyperinflation and set the stage for the rapid growth of the last three decades. And it oversaw the enormously successful overhaul of Israel’s healthcare system in 1994-95.
In all three of those successful policy endeavors, however, Labor politicians made decisions that were far outside the boundaries of the earlier ideological rigidity of the party of 1948 and 1967. Indeed, the imagery of those two formative years barely featured in Labor’s campaigns in 1990’s and 2000’s. It had long since become yet another center-left democratic party of the aspirational middle class: socially liberal, cautiously internationalist, and even more cautiously accepting of the role of markets. There was, in other words, nothing about its earlier revolutionary pedigree preventing it from maintaining its dominant position into the present. Again, something else must be at work.
What both the “moved” and “revolution” narratives minimize is that Labor, as a party and also as a movement, staked everything in the 1990s on a bold gamble: that handing over parts of the West Bank and Gaza to Yasir Arafat’s PLO as a first step to an eventual Israeli withdrawal from most of those territories would lead Israel into peace, international acceptance, and accelerated prosperity. This was more than just a policy reorientation. It was an audacious endeavor, with the emotional backdrop of post-cold-war end-of-history euphoria, that could potentially grant Israel final, recognized, and defensible borders. And it was a step in reconciling Israelis to the presence of another nation with a legitimate presence and legitimate aspirations, with the full expectation that that reconciliation was two-way.
Implicit in the initiative to bring Arafat into the West Bank and Gaza and embark on such significant territorial withdrawals were four promises to the Israeli public. First, everyday personal security from Palestinian terrorism was supposed to increase. Second (and related), the security burden imposed on Israelis by the absence of peace, and in particular by the occupation, was supposed to lessen. Third, the peace process with the Palestinians was supposed to open into genuine peace and reconciliation with the Arab world at large, leading to full regional integration and normalization. And fourth, if the process failed, Israel’s concessions and its adherence to signed agreements were supposed to guarantee international backing and sympathy, especially from the voices in the West that had been so critical of Israel in the decade leading up to Oslo.
All four of these promises failed to materialize.
The first failure, on security from terrorism, was probably the most damaging. It’s hard to remember that Israelis in the early 1990s saw themselves as living under a wave of terrorist attacks. The spate of stabbings in Israel in 1990-92 featured prominently in Labor’s successful campaign to unseat the Likud government in the 1992 election. But the advent of Oslo didn’t herald any improvement in Israelis’ personal security. The first Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel took place in Afula in April 1994, only months after the signing of the agreement; the second came just a week after that, in Hadera; the third arrived a few months after that, on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. From there bombings remained a constant feature of Israeli life for a full decade, reaching their murderous peak in the second intifada, which followed Israel’s historic offer of a Palestinian state with a capital in eastern Jerusalem in the failed final-status talks in 2000.
On the second promise, of a reduced security burden, the record is more mixed but ultimately poor. In the worst months of the second intifada the security burden of the occupation was higher than ever. Reserve call-ups, including emergency mobilizations, were common, and the IDF was entering Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank more frequently than any time since the 1967 war. Excepting that short period, many of the most hated tasks of maintaining the occupation have been lifted from the army and from the everyday service of Israel’s young conscripts. Patrolling refugee camps, putting down violent demonstrations, and providing basic social services to a hostile population are no longer an assumed part of every eighteen-year-old Israeli’s life. But most of the other hopes in this domain never materialized. Military service was not shortened, and the need for constant vigilance and security for any public event in Israel or any communal gathering of Jews abroad never went away.
The third promise of genuine reconciliation with the Palestinians and the Arabs at large was an even bigger dud. Oslo was followed by a peace treaty with Jordan, but that peace remained a cold peace just like the one with Egypt, with intense popular hostility to Israelis and Jews remaining as an almost immutable fact of nature. No other Arab country signed a peace treaty with Israel and nothing approaching normalization ever happened. Israel did successfully expand its diplomatic presence worldwide in the 1990s, but that was a process that was mostly complete before Oslo and was entirely the result of the end of the cold war (contrary to the later left-wing reimagining that it was thanks to Oslo). Similarly, all the indirect aspects of the Arab boycott fell apart rapidly in the early 1990s following the Gulf War. Though some partisans in Israel also remember this as being the effect of Oslo, it too largely preceded the agreements. In any case, the most dramatic opening to the Arab world—still far short of anything that might resemble peace, reconciliation, and normalization—has occurred in the past decade, ironically in a period of stasis and stagnation on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and, even more ironically, under right-wing government.
The failure of the fourth promise, regarding Israel’s international reputation, is the quietest failure of the bunch, though in many ways the most insidious. No one in the Israeli leadership promised that peace after Oslo was guaranteed. They did, however, take it as given that if the peace gamble failed, Israel could count on a restored line of moral credit, something it had lost in the years of the Lebanon invasion and first intifada. As long as Israel adhered to the commitments it had agreed upon, it could expect reciprocity on Palestinian commitments (on curbing violence, extraditing terrorists, stopping incitement, and abrogating the PLO charter calling for Israel’s destruction), as well as sympathy and understanding from the outside world.
Nothing of the sort happened. Terror attacks were excused as being carried out by “opponents” of Arafat’s putative peace efforts. When PA forces opened fire on Israeli troops in three days of violence in 1996, it was Israel that was universally condemned, and the verifiably false claim that Israel was harming the al-Aqsa mosque—a lie used to incite violence roughly once a decade since the 1920s—treated as a matter of mere dispute. Israeli withdrawals as stipulated by agreements throughout 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997 earned it no credit for ending or scaling back the occupation. And when an Israeli final-status offer for a Palestinian state comprising all of the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank was met in 2000 with rejection and a years-long suicide-bombing campaign, it was Israel that was universally condemned by global civil society in tones that were increasingly anti-Semitic.
For the mainstream left—those establishment figures who sought a liberal, enlightened Israel at peace with its neighbors, free of the occupation, and with genuine civil equality for all inside Israel’s borders, represented most faithfully by the Labor party and some of its satellites—this has turned out to be a mortal blow.
Political parties across the world have been responsible for gigantic policy failures in the past without withering away. Was there anything about Oslo that made recovery here so difficult? Was it necessarily an unrecoverable blow? The answer is yes: the intellectual and moral investment of an entire political class was at stake in Oslo in a way that it hadn’t been before.
The only comparably sized strategic folly in Israel’s history happened eleven years before Oslo, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government invaded Lebanon in a cockamamie plan to intervene in an Arab civil war, install a friendly government in Beirut, evict the PLO from its base of operations, destabilize the Jordanian regime, and scuttle the autonomy talks in the West Bank and Gaza that had been called for in the Camp David Accords signed with Egypt four years earlier. But what stands out about 1982 was its intellectual amateurishness and the brazen dishonesty involved—from the army to the government, from the government to the people and its allies in Washington, from ministers to each other, and, perhaps most depressingly, from the prime minister to himself.
Oslo was an entirely different sort of failure. While Rabin might have tactically misrepresented Oslo to his public, assuring Israelis that the deal would not lead to a Palestinian state and not bring about the division of Jerusalem, the intellectual foundations of the opening to Arafat were openly and proudly laid out over fifteen years. The principles behind the dramatic diplomatic breakthrough had become central to the entire self-image and ideological moment of Israel’s center-left in the years before it returned to power in 1992 and even more so in the years after Oslo became policy. Where 1982 was predicated on magical thinking and bellicose ineptness, 1993 was the culmination of an emergent consensus of Israel’s best minds, in and out of politics. Invading Lebanon was a criminal folly to anyone who thought it through for more than fifteen minutes, but according to the most thoughtful people in Israeli public life—and among Israel’s friends abroad—giving the Palestinians “something to lose” was the only way to extricate the country from the ticking time bomb of the semi-permanent occupation. When things didn’t turn out as planned—something that was apparent years before the second intifada broke out—the responsibility to Israelis not on the left was clear, while the cognitive dissonance to ones on the left was unbearable
Timing was also a factor. The crucial moment in this story isn’t 2000 or 2001. It’s the ten months between November 1995 and September 1996, which saw three further blows to the Labor vision. While the Rabin assassination didn’t affect the diplomatic process, it did make any kind of critical evaluation in the party of the martyred prime minister extremely unlikely. That is to say, it functioned as a kind of mental defense mechanism, obscuring from the minds of the Oslo believers the fact that their hopes had failed. And if that event wasn’t traumatic enough for Israel’s center-left in general and its Labor party in particular, it was followed by two additional traumas. May 1996 saw the defeat of Rabin’s successor at the polls by the tiniest of margins, following a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and a soon-to-be-forgotten sixteen-day mini-war in southern Lebanon (during which Israel was condemned internationally in the most hyperbolic of terms). Four months later, following the controversial opening of a tunnel exit for tourists in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Palestinian Authority incited three days of violent riots under the pretext of a verifiably false claim that Israel was undermining the foundations of Islamic holy sites (the tunnel ran under no mosques) in which uniformed forces of the PA shot and killed Israeli soldiers.
To climb out from under a failed ideological vision was always going to be difficult. To have it fail so spectacularly after being the product of years of work and an enormous intellectual and moral commitment meant that reconstituting an ideological vision for a governing, electable center-left was always going to be daunting. The party, and the entire ecosystem of liberal establishment intellectuals and civil society, had succeeded in reinventing itself before in the face of failure and defeat. But those traumatic months of 1995-96 were different than the Yom Kippur War or the electoral defeat of 1977 or even the massive economic restructuring and privatizations of 1980s. To face all that under the rapid-fire triple traumas of the Rabin assassination, the electoral loss to the despised Netanyahu, and the armed insurrection of the very force which had been introduced into Israeli-held territory to bring peace made escaping Oslo for Israeli liberals impossible.
Labor has been stuck in that rut ever since, unable to explain why its hallmark policy failed, unable to conjure up a new, attractive alternative, and full of barely concealed contempt for the public which its leaders believe failed them rather than the other way around. Without a story to tell and to sell, it has lurched from one barely credible rebranding to another, parachuting in party leaders from media and business without any ideological program to advance. Meanwhile, Israel needs a coherent center-left party that, having learned the lessons of Labor’s previous failures, can responsibly guide those who wish to liberate Israel from the strategic threat of semi-permanent occupation. Such a party could actually challenge the government with fresh ideas when out of power, and could maybe even, one day, earn back the voters’ trust enough to win an election and govern. For now, no one seems up to the task.