Photo Credit: Beny Shlevich via Wikimedia
Rosh HaAyin's 2018 municipal election was a test case for the return of the far left.

Bar Gissin, national chairperson of Young Meretz, and Dr. Maya Haber, an Israeli living in the US who founded Israel Forward, an anti-Zionist consulting outfit, argue that the victories of progressive Democrats in US midterms and in several Israeli municipal elections were a test case that proved it would be possible to take back government from the right in both countries.

While it’s obvious that progressives have contributed to the flipping of the US House of Representatives—although many of them ran in Democratic strongholds such as NY City and Detroit—Gissin and Haber point to a few leftwing victories in Israel’s municipal elections to suggest a national takeover is possible as well.

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Many Israeli Jews are opposed to continued Israeli rule in Judea and Samaria, and support mixed prayer at the Western Wall and gay marriages, Gissin and Haber argue. So how come Israelis keep voting for more right-leaning governments? Because Prime Minister Netanyahu, like President Trump, use fear to channel voter anxieties.

“…for the past 20 years, Netanyahu has been stoking existential fears, warning of attacks by Iran and Hamas in Gaza,” they write, suggesting that “countering this hate has trapped liberals and progressives in a defensive, apprehensive posture, leaving little space to push a proactive agenda forward.”

The authors are probably correct in assessing that a slim majority of Israelis do not support Israeli settlements and would like to see a two-state solution. They probably over estimate just how much the same Israelis care about gay rights and mixed prayers at the Kotel. Those two are almost exclusively Jewish-American concerns.

Gissin/Haber fail miserably in estimating how important the Gaza border crisis of the past eight months has pushed Israelis towards demanding a firmer handling of the Gaza Strip – Netanyahu does not need to stoke this fire. In fact, he is being accused by a broad majority of not doing nearly enough to suppress Gazan violence.

Said myopia aside, the authors suggest that the way to turn around the national vote is to learn from the victory of a Meretz local campaign in the city of Rosh Ha’Ayin, 15 miles east of Tel Aviv, with a population of some 50,000, the vast majority of whom are Jewish and considered leaning-religious. In 205, only 576 Rosh Ha’Ayin residents voted for Meretz. In 2018, however, the leftwing party received 4,872 votes, giving it three seats on the local city council and making it the largest single faction in the council.

Part of their considerable success had to do with the fact that the field, competing for fewer than 40,000 voters (71.2% actually cast their ballots), was splintered into 14 factions, many of which could have coalesced and won bigger numbers—but didn’t. The ruling coalition in Rosh Ha’Ayin will certainly be rightwing and religious-leaning just like the one before, but the Meretz achievement was nevertheless considerable.

Meretz did not alter its agenda to pander to conservative voters, Gissin/Haber argue. “Instead, they articulated a clear progressive agenda.” They enlisted local focus groups to write their platform, campaigned on an equal allocation of resources, religious pluralism, education, public transportation and letting businesses stay open on Shabbat.

The leftwing victory in Rosh Ha’Ayin followed a year-long grassroots campaign, according to the authors, who point out that “this was quite unprecedented in Israel because few campaigns, even on the national level, take longer than three months.”

“Voters are receptive to progressive agendas, even if they don’t identify as such. If we learn from the local experience, and propose bold, authentic, progressive platforms that stand on their own, rather than as a reaction to right-wing fear-mongering, we can reproduce these victories on the national level, and change the political reality both in Israel and the United States,” Gissin/Haber conclude.

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