As of election day, January 28, 2003 at 23:00 local time, and according to exit polls, the Israeli left has suffered a resounding defeat. The final results will undoubtably be different -- the 3 TV polls are giving very different results -- but already it seems safe to say that the left has collapsed.

Current results (and I cannot resist mentioning again that these numbers are imprecise) give these numbers:

Likud              32-36
Labour             17-19
Shinui             14-17
Sha"s               9-13
National Alliance   8-10
Mere"tz             5- 8
National Religious  5
Yahadut Ha'Torah    4- 5
Khada"sh-Ta'al      4
Israel Ba'Aliyah    3- 4
One People          3
Bala"d              3
Ra"am               3
Heirut              0- 2
All numbers are out of 120 Members of Knesset. This is an amalgamation of various polls, the numbers appearing in which are themselves highly unstable -- treat with caution.

The main parties of the Israeli left -- Labour and Mere"tz -- have both lost large numbers of seats. Labour, which was the largest party by a fair margin, barely scrapes into second place. Yossi Sarid, chairman of Mere"tz, has already pledged to resign if the polled numbers turn out to be true. But note that with anything above 5 MKs, he has plenty of wriggle room. Khada"sh are the former Communists; Bala"d and Ra"am are Arab parties. Totalling the entire firm bloc gives no more than 36 -- about what the right-wing Likud party received on its own.

Of the other parties, Shinui has a very anti-religious platform, but any examination of their platform shows it is in fact a right-wing party. Just how right-wing depends on the examiner of the platform and on which of the first 4 candidatesMKs one is considering (it is impossible to consider the remaining 13, as they are almost completely unknown). Leaving aside the religious right -- Sha"s, the National Religious Mafda"l, Yahadut Ha'Torah, and parts of the National Alliance -- we have the National Alliance and Heirut on the extreme right, and Nathan Sharansky's Israel Ba'Aliyah as a moderate right-wing immigrant's party. One People is led by the chairman of the Histadrut, the Trade Unions, but is no socialist party, and has little platform to speak of.

The Israeli left is 36 MKs, no more.

Why did this happen? Just over 10 years ago, Yitzhak Rabin won a convincing victory over the right wing, and proceeded to start the Oslo peace process.

The assassination of Rabin was the first serious blow, of course, but it seems clear that we need to look at more. The Rabin administration provided a tremendous boost to the Israeli economy, increased public spending on schools and infrastructure, and advanced towards peace. What went wrong?

A popular saying in Israel has it that elections are not so much won as they are lost. The Israeli Labour party spent the past 7 years towards losing this election. After Rabin's victory, the voting system was changed to have a directly elected Prime Minister. This turned out to be a catastrophe for Labour -- Labour's Peres lost to Likkud's Netanyahu after Rabin's assassination, due to general drabness, but even more than that due to caving in to right-wing demands. Why elect a left-wing party to execute a right-wing policy?

Netanyahu's disastrous administration led in turn to his loss to Labour's Ehud Barak. But doubts about Barak's centrist leanings turned out to be justified: Barak ran a right-wing economic policy, and never managed seriously to move negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab states anywhere useful. When he finally got started at Camp David, it was too late, and he lost by a landslide to Ariel Sharon.

Ariel Sharon's administration was also inept. During the last 6 weeks of the current election campaign, it also turned out to be tainted by serious allegations of corruption. Nonetheless, the Labour party did everything in its power to boost Sharon. For most of Sharon's tenure, Labour left Mere"tz to lead the opposition, preferring to sit in a National Unity coalition government with the Likkud. Thus, Labour managed to taint itself with the same brush it needed to paint Sharon. Labour's current (losing) leader, Amram Mitzna, was brought in far too late to make any significant difference. And it's not at all clear such a grey candidate could have done anything useful.

Finally, we have the collapse of the peace process. While Peres (Labour), Netanyahu (Likkud), Barak (Labour) and Sharon (Likkud) deserve much blame for this, the fact remains that the Israeli left has been left in an impossible situation. The proposals for ending the conflict are known, but few people in Israel, including left-wingers, can identify realistic partners on the Palestinian side. Lacking an understanding of why Yasir Arafat decided to topple Barak and raise Sharon in October 2000, it is hard to believe that the left understand him well enough to sign a deal with him. And following Sharon's government's near-destruction of the Palestinian Authority (to most of which the Labour party was a partner, I'm not sure why), it is even harder to see any Palestinian moderate who can deliver, with or without Arafat's presence.

The peace process has for many years been the Israeli left's big promise. Nobody seriously believes they will implement socialist economics (and most probably don't wish it), and few people believe their protestations of restoring a Social Democratic welfare state. The peace process is where it's at. And for the past few years, the Israeli Labour party has shown itself unable to raise a convincing, coherent alternative strategy to bringing peace with the Palestinians: they have no partners on the Palestinian side and no plans.

Where now? Only time will tell.

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