The Israeli Elections: Changing Patterns on the Left



A new pattern emerged in the recent Israeli elections for prime minister. Many on the Israeli Left called for the casting of blank ballots to register opposition to the policies and practices of the supposedly “pro-peace” incumbent Ehud Barak, rather than vote for him. Although in the end some wavered, it appears that a large number simply avoided the polls. Overall voter participation dropped from 75 percent in 1999 to 59 percent. The Palestinian citizens of Israel boycotted the election, accounting for half this drop: only 18 percent voted, compared with 76 percent last time. Thus, Sharon received 13 percent more votes than former Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did when defeated two years ago. Yet even more significantly, Barak’s support fell by 46 percent. For the first time, the Palestinians and the Jewish Left in Israel cut their ties to the Labor-Meretz bloc-a significant step-thereby spurning the argument that one should vote for the “lesser evil.” As long as this argument prevailed, it impeded the creation of an alternative.

The Palestinians in Israel: 

In 1999, the Jewish Left and the Palestinian parties gave Barak automatic support. For this, they paid a heavy price. Having hauled in 95 percent of the Palestinian vote, Barak turned his back on these voters and set up a rightwing government. He did not even meet with the Palestinian parties, much less carry through on budgetary promises or attack double-digit unemployment in their sector.

When the Palestinian citizens of Israel poured into the streets this past October, they were protesting not only Israel’s killing of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but also the discrimination they themselves suffered from the very party they had lifted to power. Barak’s response to their demonstrations was to approve the use of live ammunition, resulting in the death of 13 Palestinian citizens. This gunfire ended any final Palestinian illusions about a bond with the Labor Party.

The movement to boycott the polls began on the street, imposing its will on Palestinian party officials. Yet at the last moment, Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, and oppositionists like Na’if Hawatmeh called on Palestinian voters not to lend a hand to the rise of Sharon, but the people ignored them. The Palestinian street united behind a new consensus: To these Palestinians, Barak and Sharon amount to the same thing.

The Labor-Meretz circle responded with anger, some arguing that the Palestinians in Israel betrayed them. The liberal camp in Israel refuses to see itself through Palestinian eyes. It will not understand that for a Palestinian worker-unemployed, futureless, shorn of civil rights-there is really no difference between Labor and Likud.

The Jewish Left: 

Since blank ballots are not counted, merely lumped with disqualified votes, many people saw no point in going to the polls to cast one when they could achieve the same result by staying home. Nonetheless, an important and lively exchange developed on e-mail discussion lists and through other Internet forums. In the elections of 1996 and 1999, this writer and her colleagues in the Organization for Democratic Action were denounced by the Left for calling on Israelis to cast blank ballots. Yet now this issue was openly addressed, no longer a taboo.

In an article published at , peace activist Irit Katriel urged the Left to listen to the Palestinians who planned to boycott the elections. “As for us Jews, . . . we held our discussion, each took a decision, all without listening to them-without remembering that the future we are trying to create here is a future we’ll share with them. This revolution, this struggle against institutionalized, public, everyday racism is one they are leading-let whoever wants join in.”

The discussions focused on the question of the lesser evil: Is it permissible to aid, even indirectly, the election of Sharon? The balance of the exchange tipped toward casting blank ballots. Among the proponents was Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc). On December 10, he posted his views on the Gush Shalom Website: “I don’t like to be blackmailed” into voting for Barak, he wrote. He chastised Barak for assuming that “he has my vote in his pocket. My vote and the votes of all the members of the peace camp, both Jewish and Arab.” He said he had always opposed blank ballots in the past, and in fact still did, yet “if the only choice is between the man who went to the Haram al-Sharif causing hundreds of fatalities, and the man who sent him there accompanied by 2,000 policemen, a white [i.e. blank] ballot seems the only way out.”

Blank Ballot Controversy: 

The question of casting blank ballots was an academic discussion within the Jewish Left, yet the boycott in the Palestinian sector was a spontaneous, street-based movement. Neither group presumed to put forth a long range alternative, but the movement arose in order to punish Barak and demonstrate that they no longer could be taken for granted. Although the Palestinian street followed through, the Jewish Left fell into confusion, when key figures who had started out by taking principled positions got cold feet as Sharon rose in the polls.

As election day neared, people on the radical Left and key journalists began softening their criticisms of Barak and decided to support him “in spite of everything.” They opened the files on Sharon’s bloody history, from the 1953 Kibya massacre to the 1982 slaughter at Sabra and Shatila, and spread this information via the newspapers. Among them was Avnery, who reversed his earlier position. In addition, Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy-among the most consistent chroniclers of abuse in the Occupied Territories during the Barak term-promised on television that he would “never vote ‘Barak’.” As election day neared, however, Levy was swayed by the noises coming from the PA and Hawatmeh. If Barak was good enough for them, he asked, who are we to argue?

Once election day passed, it was clear that Sharon’s only hope for longevity required him to form a coalition with Labor. With only 19 Likud members of Knesset, Sharon might barely achieve a majority, but would be subject to constant extortion from the religious parties. If Sharon succeeds in forming a coalition with Labor-which seems very likely-those leftists who rallied around Barak may regret their decision. Having supported the Labor candidate, they will be responsible for the deeds of the government that Labor preserves in power: a government under a man commonly viewed as a war criminal.

Outside the Establishment: 

The Palestinians, being outside of the Israeli establishment, were able to hold fast while the Jewish Left faltered. They did not punish themselves by not voting for Barak, because they could not expect to gain anything from Labor. The Israeli Jewish Left, on the other hand, gets plenty from Labor in the form of jobs and support for its institutions. It cannot afford, therefore, to let Labor fail in an election-not even once.

In this election, the Palestinian population was able to realize its electoral clout at last-although its preoccupation with Barak as an individual, rather than with Labor in general as a Zionist party, may later undermine their achievement. Next time, Labor will likely present a more palatable candidate, and the argument for the “lesser evil” will again be bruited in the land.

Still, Katriel was correct in calling on the Left to heed the new Palestinian voice. This voice promises an alternative not because it is Palestinian per se, but because of its unique independence from the Zionist establishment. This is true even though it has taken shape as a result of familial solidarity with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and those in the wider Arab world. Yet to push further and establish a new alternative will require a wider, class-based solidarity with other oppressed peoples. Only a long term view of the forces at work in the world will equip the opposition to resist the “less-ness” of evil on election day.

Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.