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The Decline of the Israeli Left

Big political movements that once mobilized support for a two state solution are now falling into decline.

Naomi Chazan leaned forward in the arched lobby of Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel. "If we want to chart the decline of the Israeli left, we should take 1992 as the starting point," she said. In the years since, the Labor Party has lost 31 of its 44 seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset, and the historically pro-peace Meretz is down from twelve seats to three.

Chazan should know. One of the founders of Meretz, and later one of its leading Knesset members--from 1996 to 2003 she was a deputy speaker of the Knesset--she still serves as the chair of Meretz's party congress. Wearing another hat as president of the New Israel Fund, she has watched the decline of Israel's progressive and pro-peace movement from close at hand.

I spoke with Chazan in early March. At the time, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was in the middle of the inter-party negotiations usually needed to form a governing coalition in Israel. Later that month he convinced Labor leader Ehud Barak to serve as defense minister, despite the fact that the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which had won fifteen seats by campaigning for mandated loyalty oaths from Israel's 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, was already firmly inside Netanyahu's coalition. Barak's decision caused further tensions inside Labor, pounding yet another nail into the coffin of the party that until 1977 dominated the country's political scene. But even before he joined Netanyahu's conservative government, Barak stood accused by leaders of Israel's peace movement of bearing considerable responsibility for the movement's decline. In their telling, the betrayal started in early October 2000, when Barak emerged from the ruins of the last-minute peace talks at Camp David and announced that Yasser Arafat had quite gratuitously turned down Israel's "generous offer." Israel, he reported, had "no partner for peace."

Barak had been elected prime minister just over a year earlier, on a strong pro-peace platform. In that election he accused the incumbent--the same Netanyahu--of having wasted Israel's chances of reaching a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, and he promised, if elected, that he would conclude one "within six to nine months." He carried into office the hopes of large numbers of Israelis, who then as now appeared to trust his judgment. His October 2000 statement expressed the frustrations of many of them, and thus was devastating to the movement for peace.

Within weeks of those Camp David negotiations, other participants pointed out that the take-it-or-leave-it offer Barak had made to Arafat was far from generous--and that Arafat's response was far from a flat-out rejection. But the damage had been done. The broadly anti-peace trends that Barak unleashed with his October declaration have dominated Israeli politics ever since.

After Barak lost to Ariel Sharon in a February 2001 election for prime minister, he left the Labor leadership and went off to make a fortune in Israel's booming arms industry. Six years later, in the wake of the disastrous 2006 war on Lebanon, Labor forgave Barak his past political failures and petulence, reanointed him party head, and catapulted him straight into the post of defense minister in Ehud Olmert's government.

In that post he worked hard with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to plan and wage last December's brutal war on Gaza. As for Chazan, when we talked in March she said there had been

a tremendous amount of infighting and head-rolling inside Labor and Meretz since the election. Labor can't even be considered 'left' any more, and Meretz is ambiguous. . . . We will have to rebuild the whole [progressive] movement from the bottom up. We will have to redefine the vision--no, actually, to define it, well, for the first time.

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