Mellman: The death of Israel’s left
For 41 of its 71-year history, prime ministers of the social democratic left presided over Israel. For the last decade, and at least until the next election, a prime minister of the right rules.
The same year Bill Clinton was elected to the White House, Israeli voters gave the social democratic Labor Party, the farther-left Meretz and the Communists nearly half the vote.
Last month, the successors to those parties mustered only 13 percent.
Why did the Israeli left collapse?
First, one must understand that left and right mean very different things in America and Israel.
Most of the issues over which Democrats and Republicans do battle are matters of consensus in Israel.
Israel has had some form of socialized medicine since its founding and universal national health care for nearly a quarter century. No one is talking about dismantling it.
Outside the ultra-orthodox community, there is also a broad consensus on other issues that divide Americans, like gay rights, abortion and social welfare.
Marijuana has already been decriminalized and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently suggested he might support full legalization.
In contemporary Israel, the fulcrum of ideological conflict has been matters of security and relations with the Palestinians living in the territories captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war.
Israel’s left collapsed as a direct result of national disappointment and, indeed, anger at Palestinian responses to what Israelis regarded as major concessions.
Some may bemoan or bewail these attitudes, but there is no grasping Israeli politics today without understanding the power the intifada and the Gaza disengagement exert over the public mind.
As the promise implicit in the handshakes on the White House lawn among Palestine Liberation Organization Chief Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Ariel Shimon Peres was evaporating, President Clinton brought the parties together and delivered his own parameters for a settlement.
Clinton later wrote that while both sides accepted his approach with reservations, the Israeli reservations were consistent with the parameters, while the Palestinian reservations were not.
As he later said, “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state … I had a deal they turned down.”
Much worse, Arafat did not content himself with rejecting a Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, the uprooting of most Israeli settlements and Palestinian sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem.
Instead of just saying “yes,” the Palestinian leader unleashed a wave of terror. Israelis were blown to bits by suicide bombers at discos, pizza parlors and bus stops.
Five years later, unable to envision real progress from negotiations, Sharon, then the prime minister and long known as a rightist, took an unprecedented step, announcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
In a move that produced national trauma, Israeli troops forcibly removed thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza and dismantled 21 settlements.
Within days of the Israeli evacuation, when not a single Israeli settlement, not a single Israeli settler, nor a single soldier remained in Gaza, rockets and missiles began raining down on Israel from the just recently unoccupied territory.
Those attacks continue to this day, with over 12,000 missiles and rockets fired at Israel from Gaza since Sharon’s withdrawal.
The Israeli left asked the country to trust in the willingness and ability of the Palestinian leadership to negotiate a settlement to the conflict.
Right or wrong, fair of unfair, the terrorist response to the Clinton parameters and missile attacks from Gaza after ending the occupation there taught Israelis that the left inhabited a naïve fantasy world. From the Israeli perspective, the ideas advocated by the left were not just wrong, but dangerously wrong.
In the public’s view, Arafat’s refusal to accept the Clinton parameters and the ensuing intifada proved there was no partner for peace, while Gaza demonstrated that ending the occupation meant not peace, but rather endless war.
Neither whispers from Israel’s American friends, nor exhortations from those preferring an even-handed policy, nor condemnation by its enemies, will change those Israeli attitudes.
Until Israelis come to believe that the Palestinian leadership has fundamentally changed, the dry bones of the Israeli left will not come back to life.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.