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World The decline and demonization of ‘the left’ represents a historic change in Israeli politics

Former Israeli Defense minister and Yisrael Beiteino party leader Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a press conference in May.

Amir Levy/Getty Images

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at a political opponent earlier this year, he reached for one of the most charged words in Israeli politics today: He said his rival had become “part of the left.”

Describing Avigdor Lieberman – who refused to join a new government led by Mr. Netanyahu, a move that plunged the country into fresh elections – as a left-winger is almost farcical. The former Israeli defence minister is a staunch social conservative, and one prone to slurs targeting Israel’s Arab minority. Mr. Leiberman is no dove either, having quit Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet to protest the Prime Minister’s willingness to enter into a ceasefire agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

But Mr. Netanyahu didn’t mean that Mr. Lieberman had suddenly become a peacenik, or that he had embraced Marxism. “The left,” in modern Israeli politics, is a term conflated with anyone who opposes the increasingly nationalist right-wing consensus that Mr. Netanyahu has forged over his decade in power. Leftists are, in the inflammatory words of Mr. Netanyahu’s son Yair, “traitors.”

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The decline and demonization of Israel’s left represents a historic change. The first three decades of the country’s existence were dominated by the left-wing Labour and its predecessor, Mapai – parties that produced such iconic prime ministers as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. But the previous left-wing prime minister was Labour’s Ehud Barak, who was voted out of office in 2001.

Today’s political debate in Israel – as the country readies for its second election this year – is one that pits the centre-right Blue and White coalition against the further right Likud Party, headed by Mr. Netanyahu. The two groupings disagree on social issues, such as the role of religion in society, but share a security-first posture toward dealing with the Palestinians, who have lived under Israeli military occupation since 1967. (Blue and White is led by Benny Gantz, a former head of Israel’s armed forces.)

Pollsters say the change represents a shift in Israeli society, which became disillusioned with the endless peace processes that saw first Mr. Rabin and then Mr. Barak come close to deals with the Palestinians, only to fail each time, sparking new rounds of violence.

Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu’s decade in power has convinced Israelis that their country can be economically prosperous – and win increased acceptance among its neighbours in the Arab world – while maintaining Israel’s occupation of, and the Jewish settlements in, the Palestinian West Bank.

“’The occupation’ is nonsense,” Mr. Netanyahu said last year, ahead of the first election campaign, which saw him promise to annex the West Bank settlements if he were returned to the prime minister’s office. It’s an agenda, long dear to Mr. Netanyahu, that was given a lift earlier this year by U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the same 1967 war.

Those who still stand genuinely on the left of Israeli politics – a position that largely equates with continuing support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – are a dwindling band. In the April election, left-wing parties Labour and Meretz won a combined total of just 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The Likud Party and Blue and White coalition won 35 seats each, leading to the stalemate around forming a government, and the calling of fresh elections for Sept. 17.

Opinion polls suggest Labour and Meretz will win a similar number of seats in the rerun. A new left-of-centre party, headed by Mr. Barak, could win an additional five or six seats, but all signs point to another contest between Likud and Blue and White.

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“For Israelis, there is no cost for the ongoing occupation. Life here is fabulous. The economy is solid. Violence is almost unnoticeable. The number of people killed in road accidents is much higher than the number killed by Palestinians,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel. Prof. Hermann said her research found that 60 per cent of Israelis now described themselves as either “soft-right” or right-wing, while only 15 per cent identified with the left of the political spectrum.

“The left hasn’t come up with anything new since the 1990s. Even if you stick to the Oslo [peace process] agenda, you need to make some renovations,” Prof. Hermann said.

But Israeli human-rights activists say something larger, and darker, is going on. They say Mr. Netanyahu, who has close ties to the ownership of powerful Israeli media companies, has intentionally fostered an atmosphere – similar to those created by fellow right-wing populists such as Mr. Trump in the United States and Viktor Orban in Hungary – where anyone who opposes the Likud agenda is portrayed as an enemy of the state.

One of the biggest concerns is a draft law, promoted by Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, that would allow the Knesset to override decisions made by the Supreme Court. In the short term, that could help Mr. Netanyahu gain immunity from prosecution (the Prime Minister is facing indictments in three separate cases of alleged corruption). In the longer term, it could allow a right-wing Knesset to push ahead with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, even if the Supreme Court rules the move illegal.

Mr. Netanyahu has led many of the attacks on NGOs and the media himself. He labelled B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization that documents alleged abuses in the occupied territories, a “disgrace”– just as the group was being hailed last year for its human-rights work with an award from the French government, and an invitation to address the United Nations. Mr. Netanyahu described Breaking the Silence – an NGO run by former Israeli soldiers that collects testimonials of Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – as “intolerable.” He has also adopted Mr. Trump’s habit of labelling unfavourable media coverage as “fake news.”

“I’ll say what everyone in the country knows,” Yair Netanyahu, an increasingly prominent figure in Israel, wrote on his Facebook page in December. “Left-wing NGOs funded by foreign and hostile governments, the politicians on the left and media people who always side with the enemy and always against Jewish interests … they are the traitors!”

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Mr. Netanyahu’s government passed a law last year that specifically bars Breaking the Silence from speaking in schools. Another draft law would force NGOs to reveal any foreign sources of funding. The campaign drew criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which found in its annual report, published in March, that human-rights activists working in Israel were subject to “threats, intimidation and attempts to delegitimize them.”

Another target of Mr. Netanyahu’s ire has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or BDS) movement, a pro-Palestinian group that seeks to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. Israel has barred several BDS supporters from entering the country, and is in the process of trying to expel Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen who heads the local office of Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, over his previous social-media postings supporting BDS.

“This, for me, is a slippery slope. BDS – whether you agree with it or not – is a bastion of free expression,” said Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli group that monitors the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade since Hamas seized control of the area in 2007. “How long is it before we conflate human-rights work with terrorism? They very much portray our work as against the state when I see it as very much in favour of the state and its well-being.”

Avner Gvaryahu, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, said he saw the campaign against NGOs, the Supreme Court and the media as Mr. Netanyahu preparing the ground for the eventual annexation of some or all of the West Bank.

“In order to maintain the settlements and the occupation and to transition into not only a de facto but a de jure annexation … they need to destroy the roadblocks – and as weak as the opposition is, there are still roadblocks,” he said. But Mr. Gvaryahu vowed that groups such as Breaking the Silence would continue their fight for what he called “the soul of this place.”

“Our biggest mission at the end of the day is to see how we can overcome this shrinking space in order to do what we really have to do, which is end Israel’s military control over the Palestinians.”

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