In one of the most memorable scenes in the 1993 American coming-of-age movie “The Sandlot,” Ham and Phillips are hurling insults back and forth, upping the ante with each verbal assault and raising the stakes between the rag-tag bunch of baseball misfits and the organized local team.
The two lob volleys, each egged on by his own team, until Ham fires off the most dreaded insult of all, fueled by the chauvinism of young male adolescents in the early 90s.
“You play ball like a girl!”
It’s a slap in the face combined with a kick in the gut, leaving Phillips hurt, fuming, and speechless all at once.
Welcome to my movie analogy for the Israel’s upcoming elections on April 9.
In modern Israeli politics, the equivalent of telling someone they play baseball “like a girl” is calling them a leftist.
“Smolani,” as it’s said in Hebrew, has become the most common – and perhaps the most feared – insult across the political landscape.
Favorite punching bag
Israeli politics has become a race to the right, and no one is looking back. Politicians fall over themselves to reject a Palestinian state, vow to expel tens of thousands of African migrants, demolish a Bedouin village near Jerusalem that was deemed illegal, and boast of harsher measures against Hamas in Gaza. Just as long as they’re not accused of being leftists.
Not every party identifies as absolutely right-wing – there are centrist parties – but nearly every party wants to avoid the left-wing moniker. The entire field of Israeli political parties – historically a solid bell curve with Labor representing center-left and Likud representing center-right – has shifted dramatically to one end of the spectrum.
The left has become the favorite punching bag of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who blames it – and the media – for putting pressure on the Attorney General to indict the Israeli leader. Netanyahu has accused the left of being involved in a conspiracy with the media to topple his right-wing government at all costs.
Only Iran gets nearly as much of Netanyahu’s time and Twitter feed.
The way Netanyahu has painted it, if Iran is Israel’s greatest external enemy, the left is the most serious internal one.
When former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz launched his campaign on Tuesday night, Netanyahu – who included left-wing parties in his government from 2009 to 2015 – attacked Gantz immediately as a leftist.
One hour before his first speech, Netanyahu’s Likud party tweeted an attack on Gantz saying, “Benny Gantz is left. Weak left.”
Gantz – who may become the main challenger to Netanyahu in the April elections – has tried hard to position himself as a centrist.
“The struggle between left and right rips us apart. Quarrels between religious and secular split us. The tension between Jews and non-Jews threatens us. The mutual guarantee of a shared society is crumbling. Politics is ugly, and the public arena has become poisoned,” said Gantz in his campaign speech.
“A strong government governs to unite and doesn’t govern in order to separate, to rule.”
Gantz spoke of a united Jerusalem, strengthening the settlement blocs, holding on to the Golan Heights, and maintaining a security presence in the Jordan Valley – hardly the words of a leftist.
His first campaign video shows a bombed-out neighborhood in Gaza and boasts of “1,364 terrorists killed” in the 2014 war when he was the IDF Chief of Staff. An investigation by the United Nations found that approximately 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the war – more than half of them civilians.
His campaign jingle – and yes, Israel apparently has campaign jingles – even begins with “There is no more right or left. There is just Israel. Israel before everything.”
The last line is even reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s “America First,” but the similarities did little to save him from the attacks branding him a member of the left. Perhaps because others had come even closer to Trump’s language.
Labor in disarray
Right-wing leader Naftali Bennett’s New Right party has “Making Israel Win Again” as its campaign slogan. Bennett didn’t even wait for Gantz to begin speaking. In a video he retweeted two days before Gantz’s speech, Bennett provides viewers with two options. His New Right party or Gantz’s weak left. (It rhymes in Hebrew.)
Beyond simply campaign rhetoric, fear of being branded a leftist has had profound policy impacts. In April, Netanyahu came to an agreement with the UN High Council on Refugees over the roughly 35,000 African migrants in Israel. Half would be absorbed by Israel while the other half would be moved to Western countries that would accept them. The agreement made everyone happy… except the right wing, who wanted all of the migrants expelled. Within hours of reaching the agreement, Netanyahu canceled it under pressure from the right, who call the migrants infiltrators. Instead, Israel is now left with no agreement and all of the migrants.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has tried to keep his party’s image away from the left.
The Labor party, which was for decades the stalwart of Israel’s left-wing political parties, is in shambles. Two different polls conducted by the Israel News Company and Channel 13 – the country’s two major broadcasters – show the party shrinking to less than a third of its current size in the next elections, from a healthy 24 seats to a barely relevant six seats. Its leader, Avi Gabbay, refuses to step down and still insists he’s going to be the next Prime Minister, a boast that seems less likely by the day.
Historically, the Labor party ran on a platform of continuing the peace process with the Palestinians. But with a moribund peace process and few believing Trump’s mysterious Deal of the Century will succeed in moving the needle from clinically dead to even mostly unconscious, the peace process is simply not a key voting issue.
“In the last 10 years, it has become increasingly difficult to sell to the Israeli public that there is a peace partner, there is a peace process, and that people should vote for the left and it will make Israel more secure,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of politics and diplomacy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Hazan added that Israeli voters are most concerned with security instead of the economy or social issues, an emphasis that favors right-wing parties. Since 2008, Israel has been through three wars with Gaza. Israel has sworn enemies on its northern border and in Gaza; rarely a day goes by when the country’s leaders don’t mention Iran. Consequently, all of Israeli politics has shifted away from the left.
“The fact that the center is growing and that it can hold [multiple] parties happens not because they are sucking voters from the right or the religious, but they are emptying out the left,” said Hazan.
Only one party is openly and proudly on the left, and that is the Meretz party.
“Left left left,” tweeted party leader Tamar Zandberg recently. “The fact that the word left has become the imaginary demon of the right, to the point that even the center is afraid of it, is exactly the reason to vote left. And left is Meretz.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising Zandberg is the only party leader embracing the left. She is one of the only female leaders of a major political party in Israel.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is left-wing, but the former foreign minister isn’t expected to garner enough votes to win seats in the Knesset, according to the latest polls. And Orly Levy-Abekasis’s new party, named Gesher, runs the same risk as she tries to position the party in the center.
Zandberg is perhaps the only political leader in the country who is loudly and proudly left. It’s a lonely place to stand in Israeli politics today, but she’s not afraid to be there.
And she’s probably not afraid to play ball.