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Analysis: On Israel's left, it's 'out with the old, in with the new'

In this photo taken Feb. 24, 2015, Zehava Galon, the leader of Meretz party, arrives at a debate hosted by the Israel Women’s Network in Tel Aviv
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov
A new left-wing generation is here. They're hungry and angry. Will they shift the balance in Israeli politics?

The massive shake up in Israel's left-wing Meretz party, sparked by the announcement that its top leading figures – longtime party head Zehava Galon and second in command MK Ilan Gilon – were withdrawing from its leadership race in this month's primaries is certainly not restricted to a changing of the guards. What it really means is a profound generational shift in all of Israel's left-wing camp.

When Galon courageously explained her dramatic move by saying that she realized Meretz voters "want a different kind of leadership", she acknowledged that the younger left wants to take charge, younger leaders included.

The young left thinks differently. With Galon and Gilon (both 62) dropping out of race, the age of the remaining candidates for leadership of the party ranges from 32 to 44.

Since Meretz is now almost the only real option for young, left-oriented Israeli voters, the leader elected in Meretz's March 22 primaries becomes the leader of the left.

Around a quarter of new party members, who joined Meretz since Galon opened it to primaries 6 weeks ago, are less than 25-years-old.

It's a strange Israeli paradox: a renowned leader of the ultra-Orthodox community died last week at the age of 86 and was mourned as young. Rightfully so. His colleagues, prominent rabbis in Israeli orthodoxy, only came to power when they turned 90. But in the secular political community, a 62-year-old is bound to be replaced.

So who are the new young left?

It is easier to say who they are not. They are free of the constraints of the older generation. The Oslo agreement signed in 1993 is history for them, certainly not a term of reference as it is for the older generation.

So is the “two state solution”, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict coined and cherished by the older generation who fought for it.

The new young left is unattached to all of the milestones that hold the old left together – but which serve as an obstacle for change and growth at the same time.

There is no big difference in core ideology among the older and the younger left: both oppose military occupation and both are sensitive to human rights in the broad definition of the term.

Yet the young generation in less ideological and more pragmatic. Even more so, they are equipped with a different set of tools to get wherever it is they want to get. They will be a new challenge to the right wing.

“One of the main point of differences between the young left and the old left is our sense of hunger. Contrary to the older generation who has already tasted the taste of leadership being an influential member in government and coalition in the 90’s - we have never experienced it,” Mickey Gitzin, the 36-year-old Executive Director of the New Israel Fund, tells i24NEWS.

Gitzin argues that the young left is weary of simply expressing the right opinions and eager to be where decision makers are. The young left, he claims, is tired of old axioms, and are looking for new venues with new people.

“There is something in the elegance of the old left that we reject,” he says. “We would never say in response to some insult directed at us by right wingers that it’s beneath us to react. We will fight back.”

On top of this argument, Gitzin, surrounded by young left circles, says something surprising: “All the left in Israel is under assault; but we, the young generation, are really angry at the older generation for letting it get there with no real fight back."

"They let them kill us at the city’s place with no retaliation and no protection. When we choose to react on our own- they say we are aggressive and power hungry.”

There is, of course, the usual generation gap in their speed and use of technology and new media that affects “modus operandi”. That could explain why the younger generation has been a missing link at a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that has been sweeping Israel over the last months.

In fact, this generation has not started a new protest movement over the last decades. The one still active, ‘Peace Now”, was established by the old generation in 1977. The only time they went out to the streets was during the massive 2011 social protests relevant to the particular needs of their generation.

Does the fact that they aren't hitting the streets make them more self- centered? Not necessarily. They just act different, and look for new allies.

Since the left themselves have become kind of persecuted minority in Israeli society, they can better relate to those who know this feeling like the young Sephardi, the young Russian speaking community, and youth living in the country's peripheries. Unlike the old left, they want to make change with them – not for them.

The changing of the guards on the left is bound not to be a smooth transition. Older generations in politics tend not to give up easily on their strongholds. Yet it might be healthy for Israeli society and its political scene.

For the last decade, certainly since the 1995 assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s and Netanyahu's rise to power in 1996, the left has projected an air of defeat that has made them easy prey for radical right.

The right emerged from Rabin's assassination stronger and more innovative.

It seems some much needed balance is about to arrive.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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