I attended the most recent J14 demonstration, this one at Rabin Square on October 29. Although I arrived late to it, there were still lots of people there—singles, gay couples, straight couples, families. There were some fiery speeches focusing on the high cost of living and the cruel anonymity of the market. There were heated political discussions in small groups on the outskirts of the demonstration. At the end, Hatikvah was sung and many in the crowd stood (relatively) still and hummed along.
All in all, it appeared that J14 retains the interest of many Israelis. While I think Gideon Levy’s take on the demonstration might be a bit of a rush to judgment at this point, I’d argue that Ami Kaufman’s uncertainty about its energy and effect is more telling.
J14 is important because of how it began and what it represents, but the key consideration now is how it will pursue its goals of social justice, raising the quality of public services, and changing Israel’s socio-economic structures. Will it remain an extra-parliamentary movement trying to shape the policy discussion? Or will it join the political system and try to directly manage Israel’s social and economic policies? I suggest that the first option is the better one.
In the Israeli experience, groups operating outside the Knesset have been quite successful. Think of the settler movement, the defense establishment, the labor movement. Once groups move into the Knesset, though, their success has diminished. Apart from the religious parties, the Israeli political system does not easily facilitate protest or special interest parties, and movements that have transformed into political parties might shine brightly for a brief electoral moment in the political constellation, but they soon fizzle away.
From 1948 to 1977 the Israeli political system was a “dominant party system,” in which Labor’s hegemony was reinforced each election. The old quip, that elections were held only to determine who would be Labor’s coalition partners, rang true until the Likud “earthquake” victory of 1977. From then until 1992, although Likud never dominated the system the way Labor had, it was the “go-to” party and the senior partner even in governments that included Labor.
From 1992 to 2006, the two parties alternated control of the government. The sudden rise of Kadima in 2006, with 29 Knesset seats, raised questions about whether a new era had emerged—one in which third parties could have a chance at governing.
Kadima’s star appears to be fading now. If current projections pan out, not only will Likud increase its seats from 27 to 37, but Labor will rebound as well from 8 to 22 seats. In both cases, these gains will come to a great degree at the expense of Kadima: the same survey indicates Kadima will drop from 28 to 17 seats.
If J14 rides its wave of support into Labor—and the polls indicate Labor’s rise in popularity is partly due to renewed interest in social-economic issues—it’s not clear that this will translate into real political power. Requiems for Labor’s future were common when Ehud Barak took his small faction out of it to form Independence, and there isn’t any evidence that Labor can return to its former glory or even become a major party anymore. The Israeli electorate has, at least temporarily, shifted right; and as long as the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t getting any worse for Israel and the Palestinians continue to make Israelis feel threatened and besieged, Likud’s primacy is all but ensured.
If J14 can’t go through Labor, it certainly can’t go through Likud or Kadima: the former’s free market orientation is anathema to it, and the latter’s single-issue focus leaves no room for addressing Israel’s high cost of living. This only leaves the option of forming another party.
But here again the omens are inauspicious. The history of “third parties” in Israel—that is, parties that are not Labor or Likud but that appeal to voters in the center of the spectrum, independents, and those interested in broad change—is one of super-bright stars that disintegrate quickly by the heat of their own expectations.
In 1965, David Ben-Gurion left Labor to form Rafi. It received 10 seats in that year’s election; but zero in 1969. In 1977, the Democratic Movement for Change won 15 mandates (contributing to the defeat of Labor by siphoning off many of its supporters), but none in 1981. In 1996, the Third Way won a mere 4 seats, but even that could not be repeated in 1999 when it didn’t win any. And in 1999, the Center Party took 6 mandates only to lose all of them in the next election in 2003.
J14 has potential to matter in policymaking. But in historical terms and under contemporary political conditions, its best chance is an extra-parliamentary movement, mobilizing support and channeling it into votes for parties that agree to work toward its goals.