The left’s last stand: Why Israeli liberals are panicking over judicial reform – analysis

Seventy-four percent of Israeli Jewish voters under the age of 35 identify as politically right-wing. Israeli left-wing parties are unlikely to see a sweeping electoral victory in the next few decades.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Potential reforms to Israel’s judicial system, including limitations on the Supreme Court’s powers, have roiled Israeli leftists to a degree unseen in decades.

Left-wing leaders have called for bloodshed and violent rebellion against the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They’ve blocked Ayalon Highway and other major thoroughfares, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

They bused people from all over the country to rallies outside of the Knesset, engaged in strikes, protested outside a right-wing minister’s home, lobbied diaspora and pro-Israel groups to speak out against the reforms, and more.

It is clear that Israeli liberals are fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure the Supreme Court’s essentially unchecked power remains in place.

When asked why this struggle is so important, they say that the Court’s ability to unilaterally overturn legislation it deems unacceptable is critical for keeping Israeli democracy secure.

Without the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down unsavory laws, Israel could see new legislation that violates basic civil liberties and human rights, they claim.

The unprecedented push to stop the judicial reform has been framed as a fight against dictatorship and necessary for maintaining Israel’s status as a democracy.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said the anti-judicial reform protests are a “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario (and clearly, as a left-winger, he’s one of the good guys). But the truth is there’s much more at play here that the left won’t admit.

As of 2023, it’s impossible to see the Israeli left ever again experiencing a sweeping electoral victory. While a left-of-center party could theoretically join a broad coalition in the future, they’d likely be confined to the fringes of the government and unable to enact legislation that advances their agenda.

The reason for this is simple: massive demographic changes have relegated the Israeli left to a minority orientation, with little political will or power.

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Because the Supreme Court leans left, Israeli liberals depend on the court for action that’s in line with their core values.

The Israeli left needs the court to advance measures that cannot be achieved legislatively due to their long-term failures in gaining a Knesset majority, and the likelihood that they’ll never again win more than a handful of seats in a ruling coalition.

Leftism is dead among younger Israelis

According to the 2022 Israeli Democracy Index, a solid majority of Israeli Jews (62 percent) identify as politically right-wing. But those numbers spike when looking at Gen Z and Millennial voters.

Unlike in the U.S., younger Israelis are more right-leaning than their older counterparts, and that has serious ramifications for the Israeli left.

Strikingly, 73 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of 18 and 24 identify as right-wingers, and 75 percent of those between 25 and 34 categorize themselves as right-wing.

Those numbers shrink according to older age brackets, with only 46 percent of Jewish voters over the age of 65 identifying as right-wing.

There are numerous reasons for this development. Religious people, who overwhelmingly vote for right-wing parties, have more children than left-wing families. On average, ultra-Orthodox women have 6.7 children, while secular Jewish women typically have 3.

Another reason for the tendency for older voters to be more left-wing could be their memories of the 1994 Oslo Accords and the sense that peace with the Palestinians was on the horizon.

They may still be clinging to that hope, whereas most voters under the age of 30 are too young to remember that time period and have accepted the intractable and bloody nature of the conflict as an inevitable reality.

That’s not to mention that older voters grew up in a time period when Israel’s politics and culture were controlled by the left-wing, including socialist parties, that were instrumental during the founding of the state and its early years.

Additionally, tens of thousands of highly educated Israelis, who tend to be more liberal on average, and those working in creative professions, who also tend to lean left, have emigrated in recent years.

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Opportunity squandered

Israel’s left-wing Meretz and Labor parties, along with parties that define themselves as center-left, including opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, had a critical opportunity to prove themselves when they joined a broad coalition headed by Naftali Bennett in 2021.

But once in power, the left-wing parties displayed gross incompetence when it came to actually governing. Party leaders lacked the will to successfully advance legislature they had been promising their voters for years.

Widespread in-fighting, diametrically opposing viewpoints on fundamental issues such as settlements and the religious status quo, and squabbles that turned into power grabs (see the Chametz wars) rendered the eclectic ruling coalition unable to come to a consensus on almost anything of importance.

That is not to mention the weakness displayed by many of the left’s party leaders, including Meretz chair Nitzan Horowitz. His inability to control his renegade partymate, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, was the failure that brought down the government.

Zoabi, who said she did not know the words to Israel’s national anthem because it is not inclusive of her Arab identity, dramatically departed from the coalition with an open letter that claimed the government was not fulfilling its promises to Arab Israelis.

The placement of Zoabi so high up on the left-wing party’s list was controversial among Meretz voters from the start because her political views were in direct contradiction with much of the party’s platform. For example, Zoabi publicly said she would not vote for pro-LGBT legislation, including gay marriage, because she “represents the Arab public” and their traditional values. Horowitz, who is gay himself, had to remind Zoabi that she “represents Meretz voters.”

It’s likely that Horowitz ignored those concerns because he hoped that she and former Regional Cooperation Minister Essawi Freij would help diversify the party’s base and attract Arab voters.

That strategy backfired, with Zoabi’s resignation serving as the final nail in the coffin of the so-called change government.

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Meretz voters were clearly turned off by these misfires, and the party failed to cross the electoral threshold in the November 2022 elections.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli was later blamed by the new Meretz head, Zehava Galon, and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid for not agreeing to run on a joint ticket with Meretz, sparking another round of left-wing infighting.

What does the future hold for Israeli left-wingers?

Notably, the definition of “right-wing” in Israel does not carry exactly the same connotation as it does in North America or Europe.

“When [Israelis] say we’re right-wing, we’re talking about security, not social stuff like same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization,” said Yoni (a pseudonym), a 39-year-old Israeli who identifies as politically right-wing. “I think a lot of right-wing voters feel similarly to me. It’s about an emphasis on strong security, not necessarily culture or those kinds of [conservative] values.”

Yoni says his father, a 74-year-old lifelong Likud voter, shares the same perspective on social issues. “My dad doesn’t care about that stuff. He wants security and a good economy, that’s it.”

A 2021 survey found that the majority of Likud voters are not opposed to same-sex marriage. The party has prominent LGBT members, a large, active LGBT caucus, as well as a caucus dedicated to the decriminalization of marijuana. It’s possible that left-wing parties will see some of their social agendas come to pass, albeit thanks to Likud and its voters.

While the future looks bleak for Israel’s left-wing parties, they may be able to score victories for their constituents by partnering with right-wing parties on social issues. And with Israel’s chaotic political map constantly shifting, energizing their voter bases and sticking to their core agendas could result in a scenario in which they wield influence as coalition kingmakers.

In 2021, the Islamist Ra’am party earned just four Knesset seats, but played a critical role in Bennett’s rise to power. If left-wing parties rethink their ideological opposition to partnering with specific right-wing parties, there’s a chance they could enter a broad unity government once again.