On the morning following the most recent Israeli elections, Amir Haskel, the founder and public face of the 2019-2020 anti-Netanyahu ‘Balfour Street’ protest movement, published a post announcing the end of his public activities and calling on the younger generation to continue the cause. Haskel is a worthy man, but one can only hope his call will go unanswered.
If there is one positive lesson that the Zionist left can take from these elections, it is that the ‘Anyone But Bibi’ political project, which was the sole uniting factor in the outgoing ‘change’ government, has failed. This project is not the sole reason for the left’s failure, and simply parting with it will not provide a real solution. But leaving it behind is a necessary condition for getting out of this impasse.
Even Victory Was A Loss
Labor and Meretz, the only parties which identify as the Zionist left, each took a huge hit in this election cycle. Labor, the party that once dominated the Israeli political landscape, barely mustered the 3.25% of votes required to enter the Knesset, while Meretz fell below the electoral threshold for the first time in its history. But even if both parties had managed to win seats in the Knesset, the mere role of heckling as bit players in the opposition is no place for parties that claim to offer a vision of social reform with mass appeal.
Many tactical and strategic explanations can be provided for their failure. But the question of whether Meretz and Labor could have scraped together another Knesset seat had they merged together is dwarfed by a much more important question: what future do these parties offer? What kind of victory could the parties of the left have expected? A transitional government under neoliberal Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and another round of elections? A new government with the support of the anti-Zionist Arab ‘Balad’ party? Do they have hidden reserves of political partners or possibilities for expansion? Will they forever slump from misfortune to misfortune?
The political project of 'Anyone But Bibi' is largely responsible for the collapse of the leftist bloc. The project’s characteristics are simple: a complete refusal to cooperate with the chairman of the Likud party who is currently under criminal indictment for corruption. A total boycott.
How The Boycott Became A Categorical Imperative
The question of whether it is appropriate for a person accused of criminal acts to serve as prime minister is a basis for a legitimate public debate. From a democratic point of view, it is reasonable to argue that the possibility of Netanyahu influencing the legal system which will discuss and judge his case is a dangerous one. On the other hand, every person enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Netanyahu has the support of two million Israelis, and the law states that only the court, and not the police or the prosecutor's office, has the authority to remove him from office.
Members of the public have every right to deem Netanyahu an unsuitable candidate for public office, but the main characteristic of the ‘Anyone But Bibi’ movement is the lack of proportionality. The ban on association with Netanyahu has become a categorical imperative for members of this movement. Even a political crisis in the middle of a pandemic could not override this stance, as Benny Gantz learned the hard way. No political goal justifies cooperation with the enemy: not economic or social concessions, not raising the minimum wage and not world peace.
An Unbearable Price
The ‘Anyone But Bibi’ movement did not begin with the investigations into Netanyahu’s potentially criminal behavior. From the quartet of rebels in the Labor Party who refused to accept Ehud Barak's entry into the Netanyahu government in 2009, to then-Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich who refused the finance portfolio in the government he formed in 2013, and the harsh criticism of later Labor Chairman Avi Gabay who almost formed a government with him in 2019, cooperation with Netanyahu has been seen as taboo.
It can be said that Netanyahu earned the hatred towards him. Throughout his years in politics, he has not hesitated to incite hatred, attack institutions and symbols, divide populations against each other, and break political promises in order to maintain his rule.
But the truth behind the criticism of Netanyahu does not change the fact that the price of maintaining the boycott against him is unbearable. It creates a toxic sectoral division within Israeli society and turns politics into internal warfare. It wipes out any ability of leftist members of Knesset to accomplish anything and instead leaves them captive to their own immovable positions. The boycott led them to cooperate with the neoliberal right, which emptied their words of meaning.
Canceling the boycott could have distanced right wing extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, who may well get his wish and be appointed Minister of Public Security, from a leadership position, and could have moderated the government's infringement on the independence of the legal system. It could have allowed alliances around other issues that trouble Israelis, such as food and housing prices. It is possible that Netanyahu is not serious about the social platform he presented, and that he will try to change the legal system in order to protect himself. But while maintaining sterility in politics might be good for preserving one’s own sense of justice, it is certainly not good for justice itself.
A Matter of Priorities
An example of the political courage needed from the left can be seen in Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, who was willing to break the taboo within Arab society against sitting in the government in order to offer real achievements to his voters. He took a public risk, was criticized and even received threats on his life. But a leader who is truly committed to social reform cannot afford to remain without political influence.
In the end it’s a matter of priorities. The left is stuck. It can continue to talk about reaching new audiences, strengthening public services and expanding the economy. But if, in the end, the ‘Anyone But Bibi’ principle prevails over all of these, they are probably not that important. If Lieberman's government of tax-cuts is preferable to free preschool education with Netanyahu, then the true order of priorities is revealed: optics before pragmatics, and a sense of self-righteous victimhood before true national responsibility.
This article was translated from Hebrew by Hannah Blount.