Dr. Josef Olmert
Last updated: 9 November, 2012

What is right and what is left in Israel

Party divisions in Israel are difficult to understand for an outsider as they do not follow the traditional class lines of most Western democratic countries. Josef Olmert guides us through the particulars ahead of the upcoming elections.

The impending Knesset elections in Israel, scheduled for 22 January 2013, shed light on the complexities of the Israeli political system, as reflected among other things by the fact that while the term of the Knesset is four years, these will be the 19th elections in the 64 year history of the state.

More importantly, however, is the irrelevance of comparisons between Israel and other Western democracies in so far as basic definitions are concerned. A guide to the perplexed is in dire need here and it should focus on the definitions of right and left wing politics in Israel as compared with Western Europe.

In Western Europe, the main factor dividing left and right is class. The working class and blue-collar people are by and large the left, whereas the right is mainly composed of the financially better off social groups. And Israel? Well, social class is of significance, but the socio-political pyramid is upside down, compared with Western Europe.

The Jewish working class is the electoral backbone of the Likud party, which for many in Europe is considered the Right-wing party of Israel. Traditionally, the Likud party, and its parent party Herut (Freedom, and before, the Revisionist party) had a very strong populist wing, starting with the historic leader of ’’Right-wing’’ Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinski (1880-1940), who advocated the creation of a welfare state. According to him, the state should provide the basic needs of the population, including subsidized housing and state-run health services. Henceforth there was no need for a class struggle as a means of achieving that goal. For him and his successors, such as the first Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, class struggle weakened the national resolve of the people, which they considered extremely vital for a state like Israel, whose very existence is under constant threat.

So, after the 1977 victory, Begin coined the phrase ‘’to be good with the people”, which translated into a policy of substantial state intervention in the economy in support of the less financially fortunate groups. This was a traditional Likud policy, but it also reflected political necessity to reward those in Israel who supported Likud and brought it to power after so many years in the political wilderness. I refer mainly to Jews of Sephardic origin (people from Muslim and Arab countries) who by a vast plurality voted Likud into power in 1977, and ever since then.

With that, we come to a division of Israeli society that much better explains the political cleavage between left and right than the European class division.

This is a cultural and communal division, rather than an economic and financial one.

The attraction of so many Sephardic voters to Likud and other parties, mainly religious ones, is having much to do with a sense that they understand better than European Jews the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict as they came to Israel from Arab and Muslim-dominated countries, where they were subjected to a second-class existence.

Most of these people are deeply traditionalist, if not outright religious, and they see parties like Likud as their natural political home, as opposed to the historic labor movement which is considered too secular, if not openly hostile to Jewish traditions.

And then comes another significant element; a strong sense of disenfranchisement felt by many Sepharadic Jews relating to the fact that the Israeli labor movement roots are in Eastern Europe and it never had real, popular traction among Sepharadic Jews.

Menachem Begin, with his genius political acumen, started already in the distant 1950’s, when Labor dominated Israeli politics, to cement an electoral alliance between him, the outsider of Israeli politics, and the Sepharadic community, as the outsiders of Israeli society. This alliance has been paying dividends to Likud until this very day.

After 1977, the national-religious community was co-opted to this coalition because of Likud’s support of the ideology of ‘’Greater Israel’’ and the settlements movement.

As of the 1990’s, another important constituent group joined this coalition and these are Jews from the former Soviet Union who are represented by the Israel Beitenu (Israel is our home) party of Avigdor Lieberman, who rides high on the Nationalist bandwagon, something which is appealing to many of these new immigrants who view strong nationalist positions as a good entry ticket to Israeli society.

At the same time, many of them feel somewhat rejected by this very society, hence their sense of being outside the mainstream, a sense prevalent among many Likudniks. For Lieberman and Netanyahu to form a joint electoral bloc as is the case, is simply to create an alliance of outsiders. The fact that they are holding political power while drumming up the anti-establishment card is definitely one of the peculiarities of Israeli politics.

So much about the right wing, but is there any left wing in Israel along the lines of the traditional European definitions. Yes it exists, for example the Meretz party, a green, pro-peace, anti-clerical, social-democratic party, but without a working class electorate, and more significantly, the reemerging Labor party. The latter is now under Shelly Yechimovitz’s leadership, who proudly calls herself a socialist, a definition, that some of her predecessors shied away from.

Yechimovitz is doing well in the polls, not posing a danger yet to Netanyahu-Lieberman, but the novelty of her campaign is her determined effort to invoke a political division between left and right that has much more in common with the one existing in Europe than any other time in recent memory.

In less than 90 days, the Israeli electorate will decide whether this is the political division that it prefers, or whether it still sticks to the pattern of Israeli politics that has been so dominant since 1977.