How Zionist Left May Revive

This article is translated by Efrat Levy from the weekend edition of Makor Rishon, a broadsheet publication that she describes as “strongly identified with the right and with settlers.”  Dr. Levy is a professor of educational studies at Empire State College in Albany, NY.  The article is mainly an interview with Yaniv Sagee, the CEO of the Givat Haviva educational center, historically associated with Hashomer Hatzair, the former National Kibbutz Federation (Kibbutz Artzi), and the Mapam party (which merged with others to form Meretz in the 1990s).  The following is entitled, “The Left is Stuck without a Strategy and Without any Vision,” by Yishai Friedman and dated 5/23/2019; it begins with an introduction by Friedman:

Yaniv Sagee

The rout of the left in the elections leaves it to restructure its systems, believes the chair of the directorate of Meretz, Yaniv Sagee, and he calls for the establishment of a broad Jewish-Arab framework, from the Labor Party to Hadash and Tibi. He voices criticism of the “just not Bibi” strategy and is convinced that the Arab public is interested in being integrated. 

Since the brutal defeat of the Zionist left in the April 2019 elections, in its midst there have been many discussions about the causes for the pummeling, and calls can be heard for introspection and calculation of a new route. The two left wing parties – Labor and Meretz – currently have only ten mandates together in the Knesset, an unprecedented number in Israel’s political history. To compare, in the 1992 elections these two parties received 56 Knesset seats, but in the April 2019 election they were almost wiped off the map.

In Meretz, the pronounced left-wing veteran party, we understand more and more that the party in its current format has reached the end of its road, and that if it wants to continue existing in the coming electoral tests – it must carry out a systematic restructuring and generate significant change. Among other things there is talk in Meretz of connection between parties and to political entities in Arab society, or alternately about unification in the Zionist left and establishment of a new party to include Meretz and the Labor Party – an idea that was also raised before the last election cycle. And there are also those who combine these two directions and call for the establishment of a broad Jewish-Arab political framework.

One of the loud and prominent voices is the chair of the Meretz directorate, Yaniv Sagee, among the veterans of the party. In the past Sagee served as the CEO of Hashomer Hatzair and as the chair of the Council of Youth Movements, and he is currently the CEO of the Givat Haviva Center for a Shared Society – bringing together a group of bodies and projects engaged in Jewish-Arab activity and in coexistence. In the spirt of the body he has led for the past six years, Sagee is calling for and acting to establish a new political body, one that is Jewish and Arab, to include under one canopy representatives or parties from the Jewish left and from the Arab factions – from the Labor Party and Meretz and up through Hadash, the Islamic Movement (Raam) and Taal of Ahmed Tibi. He leaves out the nationalist Balad party.

In Sagee’s vision, the said list will have two chairs – a Jew and an Arab. The primary aspiration is for one party, with representation through the “zipper system” (vertical parity) for Jews and Arabs. A different model, perhaps more realistic, is a left-wing bloc of Jewish and Arab parties that will run together, in similar fashion to the four Arab parties in the framework of the Joint List in the 2015 elections.

What is certain, states Sagee, is that Meretz will cease existing if it continues to run alone as it has done up until now. “Meretz and others on the Israeli left will need to understand that the State of Israel is on a razor-thin edge and it obligates us to change,” he says. According to the chair of the Meretz directorate, the future of the Zionist left is therefore in the hands of the Arab public. Actually, he reminds us, those who saved Meretz from extinction in the most recent elections were Arab voters. This fact proves his claim that the only way to bring down the right-wing government means joining up with Arab parties.

Did you have a feeling that the left would lose in these elections?
“Yes, absolutely. The worry in Meretz was that we would not pass the election threshold. Actually we came out of these elections exactly as we entered them. And why should something change? It was clear that this would be the result. But in these elections it became completely clear that without a Jewish-Arab partnership there is no rebirth for the left in Israel. Meretz would almost not have existed if the Arabs had not saved it, and it is impossible that this pass by us without serious introspection.”

Sagee has been marching forward with this position as far back as the 2015 elections. But then, despite the loss to the right, Meretz had not yet internalized the necessity of carrying out a significant change, and his plan met with powerful internal resistance. Today, after the defeat of the camp in the last elections, these ideas fall on ears that are more prepared to listen.

“I came out of the 2015 elections with this insight, but in the last four years it had no political base,” says Sagee. The Zionist left still felt strong enough, because the Labor Party had 24 mandates and Meretz had five, and the Arabs had 13 seats. A huge success from their perspective. In my view this was hollow. This time we find ourselves after an election cycle in which more than 50 percent of Arab society did not want to vote. And among those who did vote, 28.7 percent gave their votes to secular Zionist parties.”

Almost 30 percent of Arab voters gave their votes to Zionist parties? A shocking fact
“It is crazy. A minority of the Arab public supported the Arab parties. That is to say, the Arab public is already saying now to representatives in Arab parties: You do not represent us. The question is if they and we, the Zionist left who received ten mandates, can learn the lesson. In my view the picture is clear. The separated politics of the Zionist left and the Arab parties is done.”

In your opinion, what actually happened to the Zionist left?
“The left is stuck without a strategy and without any vision, and all that it offers over and over again is ‘just not Bibi.’ This method has met with failure time after time. The reality is that among the Jewish majority in Israel the left is a minority. However, in civil society there is a majority for left-wing positions. That is to say, with the Arabs and with a center-left bloc, there is victory for the left. But this does not happen, because we find ourselves in the politics of separation between Jewish and Arab parties. The Arab voice gets lost. The Jewish left pursues a strategy of ‘just-not-Bibi,’ which has led to disappointment. Some of these people also refrain from voting. There is also a significant emigration from Israel, and there is a narrative of it doesn’t matter what happens, it is impossible to change things, and we have lost Israel to the riotous right, which leads to annexation and obliteration of the two-state vision.”

Why in your opinion did the left become a minority in Jewish society?
“Firstly, the left does not know how to speak to the Jewish majority. It is connected to language, to a sense of condescension and that the left does not care about Israel. There is a large part of the public that supports Meretz except during elections, when all they care about is defeating Bibi. The hatred of Bibi motivates them more than anything else. This has no political hope. In my view this is political stupidity and misunderstanding of how to replace the government.

“Secondly, Meretz does not present any hope or new vision, nothing that creates a spark in the eyes. Thirdly, some of the public were not lost by us but rather they were never with us, and we need to do some reflection about this. Even at the peak of our activism for the benefit of development towns, we never received votes there. When Yossi Sarid decided to resign from his position as Education Minister, twenty heads of local authorities came to him from development towns and demanded that he not resign. They said, ‘you were the best Education Minister in the nation.’ But none of them voted for him. On the other hand, there is a large segment of the population that if we would connect them and connect to them we could be their bridge to democracy and Israeli society. We would change voting in Israel.”

You don’t think that maybe the path is mistaken, that the ideology of the left has simply failed in the test of reality?
“I don’t think so. Research and numbers that I am familiar with show that most of the population supports social-democratic positions. The public is socialist in its stances. The same thing with the issue of two states for two people. Now too there is a majority of Israelis who support this, after a decade of Netanyahu rule explaining that there is no hope for this. There is support in the public for the idea of two states, only they say that ‘there is no partner,’ ‘there is no chance,’ ‘the Arabs are such and such.’ And I say that there is a partner, there is a chance, there is a plan and we need to reconnect everything again.”

But before he finds Palestinian partners beyond the Green Line, Sagee aspires to locate Arab Israelis who will be partners with the Zionist left. In the meantime this too is not really succeeding. In the previous term Sagee presented his plan to the then chair of Meretz Zahava Galon and the chair of the Joint List Ayman Odeh. They objected to this, out of a fear that this would chase away the main public (the “base”) of both parties.

“Zahava said that this plan threatens the left in Israel, and that we would not get the support of Jews and not of Arabs,” relates Sagee. “Ayman told me the same thing. In my view, these past elections proved that I was right. The Arab public looked at the Joint List and asked, what are you actually giving us? You argue with one another and promote the visibility of the Palestinians struggle, but what about our citizenship, issues of land, construction, civil equality and violence? Surveys we carried out at Givat Haviva showed that the support in the Arab public for a party that expresses Jewish-Arab partnership reaches 40 percent. Among Jews such a party reaches five percent, which is more than Meretz receives now. That is, Jewish voters will not run away.”

From a practical perspective, how exactly will Meretz people, who promote the rights of the gay community, sit together with people of the Islamic movement, whose representative in the previous Knesset was married to two women?
“Right, so then we need to create a mechanism where there is freedom of action. I cannot be a partner in something that will tell me ‘you cannot represent your Zionist world outlook during the next four years.’ On the other hand, I do not want to silence the voice of someone who represents a Palestinian world view of an Israeli citizen who sees his or her nationality as Palestinian. It is impossible to silence Meretz people on the topic of LGBTQ rights, because that is a meaningful part of who we are. But we need to be capable of being in partnership with someone who is not one hundred percent like us. If we are not partners with them, we will not be anything at all.”

Could you live in peace with people from Hadash, some of whom declare their support for Bashar al Assad?
“I think that the support for Assad is madness, and this will be an opportunity for Hadash to undergo a change. When you and I entered under the wedding canopy with our spouses – we decided to change, right? We understood that we would not remain the same. I think that the support for Assad is crazy, but it is not because of this that I will say that I cannot act together with anyone from Hadash. I think that within Hadash there is a lively, complex conversation, and this is a story with marginal significance with Hadash. The mission of Hadash is much more important than Assad not Assad. This is excess baggage from all the historical connections to the Soviet Union.”

In every Arab party, from Hadash to Balad, there are Knesset members who meet with the families of terrorists. How will you be able to cooperate with such an agenda?
“We will need to emphasize red lines, and this will be the real task. To define what the red lines are, and what are the principles of cooperation. I believe this is possible. Issues of terror or support for terror will be a red line. I do not see a possibility of cooperating with anyone who encourages terror.”

Yaniv Sagee, 55, grew up and lives on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet with his wife Galia, an educational counselor at the bilingual school in Kfar Kara, and they have three children. He is a Hashomer Hatzair man from his father’s home. His father Yankele Sagee of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, was a musician and composer who among other things composed “Shuv Yotse HaZemer” (Our Caravan) to the words of Natan Yonatan and “Od Nashuv Machar” of Eli Netzer. Sagee served as the secretary general of his kibbutz, and as its representative in the Mapam party. He has been in Meretz since the day it was founded, and in the April 2019 elections even ran for the Knesset list, among other things as the kibbutz representative, but was not successful.

In the previous elections the Joint List was not prepared to sign an excess votes agreement with Meretz. In such a reality, the route for a joint path seems distant to impossible.
“This was a one-time dynamic,” Sagee believes. “When the Joint List was established they decided that they were going to make decisions ‘by consensus only,’ and Balad announced that the agreement with Meretz would be signed over their dead bodies. Ayman said that at that stage he could not object to this, and this was a fatal error. This dictated that the voice of the Joint List was that of Balad. So we arrived at the boycott of Peres’ funeral, and to messages that Jewish society has no partners. This was absolute madness. Odeh and Hadash found themselves serving the agenda of Balad, who are not my partners and not partners of Hadash.”

It is clear that Balad and entities in Arab society will try to thwart the connection with Zionist parties.
“Of course, but look at the reality: Balad, including Raam, barely managed to pass the threshold for the Knesset. So the power of Balad needs to be understood in proportion. What is Balad, two mandates? And even this barely so.”

And even so, it will be very difficult for Arab members of the Knesset to connect with parties like Meretz and the Labor Party.
“If they don’t have the courage to do this, they will not be relevant for their public. The Arab public expects to be a partner in the coalition. All the polls show that there is support in this direction among the Arab public, of more than 67 percent. Support for terrorists is not a strategy that will lead to any kind of coalition. Sixty percent expect Jewish-Arab political partnership. If the Arab members of Knesset are not capable of working in partnership both with Meretz and with themselves – they will be expelled. I hope that we succeed in creating something new in the next elections. If not, the next generation of leadership is already knocking at the doors. We too on the Jewish left and they need to understand that if we continue and remain purist camps, where only those who think exactly like us can be in them – we will not have any influence and we will no longer exist. We will disappear.”

Gidon Levy wrote after the April 2019 elections that moving forward jointly with the Arabs will mandate surrender of “the Zionist defects.” That is waiver of the national symbols and full equality.
“I think that Gidon Levy is guaranteeing the existing status, which he objects to. He is not bringing any cure to Israel. We will never change Israel on the basis of issues that are impenetrable and not changeable, and the truth is that Arab society understands this. Civil equality concerns them more than an argument about the flag.”