Zahava Gal-On.
Zahava Gal-On. Photo by Gali Eitan
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Gali Eitan
Shulamit Aloni (left) and Zahava Gal-On Photo by Gali Eitan
Gali Eitan
Zahava Gal-On. Photo by Gali Eitan

It happened at the end of a most exhausting day, after a long drive to Migron with Meretz party people and peace activists, a few days before the government decision on a High Court order to evacuate the illegal settlement was due. A very old woman entered the crowded bakery on Basel Street in Tel Aviv.

“I know you! I know just who you are!” she said, poking a pointy red-polished fingernail into Zahava Gal-On’s slender shoulder. “But remind me what your name is?”

Gal-On told her.

“That’s right,” said the lady. “And look how small and delicate you are in real life, and you look so nice. So why do you have to be so aggressive on television? Why must you make it hard for yourself? Why must you annoy people all the time? Why can’t you be nice and delicate like you are now?”

This was not such an unusual comment, it turns out. “It’s pretty common for people who meet me face to face to be amazed that I’m not scary and that I’m actually nice,” Gal-On told me. “For example, there was this cab driver in Petah Tikva that I was riding with while they were broadcasting the speech I’d given in the Knesset about violence against women. The driver said to me: ‘Fine, talk about women, my wife really loves you, but why do you have to be so annoying and talk with the Palestinians, too?’”

Despite such advice, Gal-On apparently intends to keep “annoying” everyone. That's who she is: an avowed leftist and secular, a fighter for human rights, an opponent of the occupation, and a supporter of social justice who opposes religious coercion.

For those reasons, and because of the way people are labeled around here, she is also perceived as a condescending, elitist Ashkenazi − a perception that borders on the absurd and is fundamentally mistaken. There are people in the party she heads who are perceived as less annoying because they don’t insist on the whole “package”: Nitzan Horowitz focuses mainly on green issues, while Ilan Gilon, an amiable social justice activist, is perceived as being “one of the people” more than she is.

Meanwhile, Gal-On insists on firmly expressing her views on every controversial issue, and in a voice that, for some reason, really seems to bug men in particular. Perhaps this is one of the reasons she has followed a convoluted path to the distinguished position she holds today: head of a party that she was not actually elected to represent in the last Knesset elections.

Gal-On had been an active MK for a decade, from 1999-2009. Then, in the wake of pressure on her and an incorrect reading of the pre-election polls that predicted Meretz would win more seats than it had, she consented to give up her place on the list to Horowitz and took the No. 4 spot − “out of foolishness,” as she puts it now. Meretz won only three seats. It was two years later that Haim ‏(“Jumas”‏) Oron, who tried to rehabilitate the party, resigned as its leader.

Thus, in 2011, Gal-On returned to the Knesset, and during that year was elected to lead Meretz: a classic leftist who sees the struggle for social justice also as a fight against the occupation, against the violation of Palestinian human rights, against continued illegal construction in the territories and excessive budgetary allotments to the ultra-Orthodox.

“I’m not one of those people who puts a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing,” says Gal-On. “I don’t see this party as a governing party, so I know I don’t appeal to all the public. We’re a true leftist party, and I know I irritate settlers and rightists.”

Do you get the sense that when Nitzan Horowitz or Ilan Gilon speaks they arouse less opposition?

“Yes, there’s something threatening about being an opinionated, uncompromising, assertive woman. I don’t make tactical considerations when expressing my views. I came out against the Second Lebanon War when the whole country was for it. This was very, very unpopular, especially when the whole group of men was supporting the war. It was aggravating: A woman, who just because of her gender apparently doesn’t understand anything about security, and she has the nerve to talk about this? I’m not looking to be loved. My husband and my children and my friends love me.

“As head of Meretz, I am putting forward a comprehensive worldview. I think the left has an opportunity; Meretz has doubled its strength in the polls. They’re talking about six seats. I think Meretz has the chance to get 10. I think leftists didn’t vote for Meretz last time because they voted for Kadima in order to stop Bibi [Netanyahu], and now they see, especially after [Shaul] Mofaz’s rotten maneuver, that Kadima is essentially a satellite party of Bibi. People who voted for Barak were disappointed, too.”

But they can also vote for Labor headed by Shelly Yacimovich.

“Not now, not after Shelly Yacimovich called Labor a centrist party and said, ‘Yes, borders are important but the state is more important.’ And I’m saying that Labor has already done more than just look a bit to the right; it’s already made a sharp turn. Besides, Labor was a partner in all of the coalitions lead by right-wing parties and Shelly Yacimovich has also said that she would not rule out being in a coalition with right-wing parties.
“Therefore I see Meretz as the sole Zionist leftist party. I like to say that the left has Meretz and the left has a leader and Meretz is the leader of the left. The pre-election polls we did showed that there are a half-million people who subscribe to Meretz’s positions and this means that the public support for the left’s positions is a lot larger than its representation in the Knesset. I want to make Meretz’s list a place for fighters. Leftists who aren’t ashamed to say that they’re leftists. Fighters.”

Aloni’s successor

In conversation, Gal-On is just as much a natural listener as she is a talker. She exudes empathy and has tremendous reserves of patience, which helps to explain how she survived in the political wilderness outside the Knesset, and why she makes no effort to temper her ideology in order to curry favor with the public. One source of this courage may be her tight-knit family and her very stable and supportive marriage, in addition to her wide circle of friends, and her awareness that there is life beyond politics.

She is an intelligent woman with a sense of humor, with whom it is a pleasure to discuss any subject, from buying shoes to great literature − and especially the movies, which she and her husband go to see at every opportunity. She is an avid reader, is very close to her two sons and her brother, looks after her widower father, and between the faction meetings, the long days at the Knesset, the trips to settlements and all the media interviews, she still always finds time to have her hair done.

Due to unexpected interruptions on her part and mine − which included hospital stays, political revolutions involving Netanyahu’s huge coalition, as well as the death of Gal-On’s mother − our encounters were spread out over a four-month period. The first was cut short by an urgent phone call from her mother’s caregiver. At the second meeting, at a breakfast at the home of Shulamit Aloni on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Aloni congratulated Gal-On on being elected head of Meretz and lavishly praised her as a worthy successor, saying she was just the person to wake the party from its recent slumber.

In Aloni’s lovely garden, surrounded by several dozen rather opinionated women, Gal-On truly seemed the embodiment of the “international woman” whom the day was meant to honor. Her dedicated and tenacious activity over the years on behalf of every issue related to women’s status cannot be exaggerated.

A few days later, Gal-On’s mother passed away, so the third time we met was during the shivah, in Gal-On’s spacious apartment in Petah Tikva, which was mobbed with guests, including an array of political figures, some from rival parties, such as Finance Committee Moshe Gafni, with whom Gal-On frequently spars in the Knesset.

“Political differences aside, I have good relationships with most of the Knesset members,” she says.

You can be the friend of people with extreme right-wing views or with ultra-Orthodox men who won’t shake your hand?

“No, I’m friends with my friends, and most of them have views that are quite similar to mine, but I certainly can maintain a friendly relationship and courteous relations with people whose views are very different from mine.”

And where is the boundary? If a person is a racist or issues calls for violence − that doesn’t get in the way of your friendship? Is there no one you won’t speak with?

“There is. Michael Ben-Ari. I don’t speak with him or about him. When I came into the Knesset I said there is one MK about whom and with whom I won’t speak. He is worse than [the late extremist Rabbi Meir] Kahane. He is the worst product of Kahane and he managed to enter the Knesset through the front door, and this is appalling. For years, when Kahane got up to speak, other MKs left the hall, but today Ben-Ari receives legitimation. He is the worst combination of racism, messianism and someone who calls for violence.”

Which women MKs are your friends?

“I have good relationships with all of them.”

What’s your opinion of Tzipi Hotovely?

“She is very talented, very articulate, young, smart and I don’t agree with her positions. Her positions are extreme, dangerous. They take the Likud in the [Moshe] Feiglin direction. I work with her on all kinds of women’s status issues.”

I didn’t notice her making any fuss about the exclusion of women [from public singing] in the army.

“Tzipi is for women’s equality as long as it doesn’t clash with Jewish religious views. For Tzipi, too, what counts the most is what the rabbi says, not the sovereign state.”

What’s in Mom’s suitcase?

Zahava Gal-On, 56, grew up in the Petah Tikva housing project where her father still lives, but was born in Vilnius and came to Israel with her parents, Aryeh and Yaffa Schnipitzky, when she was four.

“The amazing thing is that three languages were spoken in our home − Yiddish, Polish and Russian − and I never spoke any of them until 1990, when all my cousins from Russia came and I stood there in the airport and suddenly found myself speaking Russian to them.”

When she arrived here as a child, the family lived in a transit camp: “I remember the huts, everyone there was a new immigrant, it was a real ingathering of the exiles. Everyone had the same status and spoke many languages. I remember that as a kid I spoke Romanian and Arabic. And it continued in my neighborhood in Petah Tikva, which was a neighborhood of immigrants. We were all children of immigrants. It was only when I got to the Scouts that I realized there were other groups."

Were you treated differently? Did you suffer discrimination because you were considered a new immigrant?

“No, because wherever I was I stood out a lot. There were differences, but I personally didn’t feel it.”

Her father was a plumber who worked for a subsidiary of Solel Boneh, and her mother, who recently passed away, who’d earned a master’s degree in English when still in Vilnius, was a teacher.

Gal-On: “I’ll tell you just one story about my mother. She was someone who had a very big influence on me in terms of community involvement. Because she knew seven languages, she was the focal point of the neighborhood. Anyone who was searching for relatives or had to write letters always came to her. There was always a long line of people at our house and they would tell her their stories. I grew up in an atmosphere of giving. My mother was the ‘anchor.’

“My father was in the Red Army. My mother and her family fled. She had a brother and sister − my aunt who died two years ago, who was like my second mother, and who was deaf-mute. Her brother, who lives in New York now, left Vilnius before the war. My mother’s family fled to Uzbekistan. While they were on the way, my mother said she had to return home and took her suitcase and went back. Throughout the war, my mother held my aunt with one hand and her suitcase with the other. Her father would ask her: What do you have in there? Put down the suitcase, but my mother didn’t let go of that suitcase all through the war.

“My mother’s parents died in Tashkent and after the war my mother and her sister traveled to meet my uncle who’d returned to Vilnius, and it turned out that throughout the war my mother had been carrying around his doctorate in that suitcase. My uncle became a world-renowned professor. Benjamin Nadel. He’s 93 now.”

The house in Petah Tikva was “a working-class home and also a hive of activity and mutual aid that was filled with stories of the Shoah. My deaf aunt was a seamstress and fixed all the clothes people received in care packages from America. My mother, mother-in-law and aunt all died in the past three years.” Gal-On’s “wonderful brother” was born in Israel.

Gal-On went on to be very active in the Scouts, served in the Paratroopers and right after the army married Pesah Gal-On, who had been her boyfriend since the 12th grade. By age 26, she was a mother of two sons, Yiftah and Nadav, now 32 and 30. She studied special education at Beit Berl, but never worked in the field. “But I always say that this training never went to waste: An understanding of special education is necessary for survival in politics and in the Knesset.”

Did you ever think about what it was like for you children to have a leftist politician for a mother?

“There was a time when the children were in elementary school that I spent five days in prison for a demonstration I organized against the demolition of homes in Qalqilyah, and their father had to explain to them the difference between an ordinary criminal and somebody who’s arrested for ideological reasons. There was a time when I received death threats in the mail. Even just a few months ago I had a bodyguard because of threats from settlers. It can be quite a nightmare, and my kids lived in the shadow of this nightmare.”

Gal-On got involved in politics through her involvement in the struggle against religious coercion. The first time she herself voted in a Knesset election, she voted for Ratz, the party that later merged with Mapam and became Meretz.

“When I was 15 I heard Shulamit Aloni speaking about the ... issue of ‘Who is a Jew,’ and was deeply impressed and started going to hear her on a regular basis and to read everything she wrote, even though the environment at my school was very right-wing, even Kahanistic,” says Gal-On. “Later, when I was a mother, I was sitting with friends in Petah Tikva, and since I’ve always loved the movies, and still do, and the only cinema there was closed on Shabbat, I said: this isn’t right, why don’t we stage some kind of protest? And one of the others said: Maybe I’ll call Shulamit Aloni and see if she’ll help us.

“From then on we stood in front of the Heichal Cinema every Friday − Shulamit Aloni and I and [Meretz member] Dedi Zucker and [the late professor and activist] Boaz Moav, and afterward the demonstrations started all over the country. And then Shulamit Aloni and Boaz said to me: You’re not going to become a teacher, you have to join Ratz. And Shula offered me the position of assistant director general of Ratz.”

Gal-On was the first director of the B’tselem human rights organization that was founded by Zucker and [civil rights lawyer] Avigdor Feldman. “I was very determined to make it to the Knesset. It was very hard because it’s a zero-sum game: For a woman to enter, a man has to leave.”

Shulamit Aloni didn’t exactly stand by her side, however, and some said at the time that she purposely tried to thwart Gal-On because she viewed her as a rival ‏(Gal-On in response: “Why bring that up now? It’s been over 20 years and in recent years Shula has always been behind me and also openly came out for me in the Meretz leadership race. And you yourself heard her say that she sees me as her successor”‏). She was finally elected to the Knesset in 1999.

‘A different agenda’

Our fourth conversation took place a few days after Mofaz decided to join Netanyahu’s coalition, not long after the uproar surrounding the crude racist statements made by some coalition MKs against refugees and migrant workers.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could be part of the majority?

“No, although the truth is that it’s hard and tiring to be the one standing at the gate. I look at some of my women friends in the Knesset, and it’s easier for them. There are some who only want to deal with consensus issues. But I can only be who I am. Anyone who votes Meretz knows that it’s a pure vote for the left. Unlike Labor and Kadima and Yair Lapid, we announced that we do not intend to sit in Netanyahu’s coalition. Anyone who doesn’t want his vote to end up going to Netanyahu’s coalition should vote Meretz, and I also want to see that since I’ve been heading Meretz, Meretz is speaking with a clearer voice. I think that in the last years it rounded corners and dithered a bit, but today it is very clear what Meretz is saying.”

Last summer’s social protest didn’t blur the boundaries a little?

“On the contrary: There was a time when people could maybe deliberate between Labor and Meretz, but that’s over. We’re appealing to an ideological audience, not to the majority. In Meretz we have a different agenda. First of all, let me say that I have great respect for Shelly Yacimovich. I heard her say that she wants peace but that before there is peace there has to be a state here, and I’m presenting an opposite approach. I don’t think it’s possible to have a social democracy without peace. There is no social justice and equality without talking about liberty. Nor can you have occupation and democracy simultaneously, and one also has to fight against the declaration about the social protest that ‘It’s not political.’ Everything’s political: It’s all one inclusive struggle and therefore one cannot talk about social protest and justice without talking about occupation.

“The masses talked about neoliberal policy, but the main issue wasn’t mentioned. A billion and a half shekels is going to maintain the settlements, from Kiryat Arba to Tekoa. One can’t embrace settlers without also saying that we are paying the price of the settlements. If we want social justice, it will only be possible if we stop the occupation. Therefore I think that all the talk about social democracy without there being actual democracy is nonsense.”

Gal-On observes that what has been happening in recent months in regard to the refugees and migrant workers in Israel is leading to fascism.

“There’s a combination of racism, incitement and economic interests here,” she says. “It should be remembered that Shas, when it held the Interior and Industry and Trade portfolios, accelerated the ‘revolving-door policy’ ‏(bringing in foreign workers on permits and expelling others‏). Every worker who enters Israel with a permit issued to him by Eli Yishai is bringing a good sum of money to employment agencies. A refugee that arrives from Africa is not paying those companies a thing, and so Miri Regev and the Shas MKs successfully fought the plan to grant residency permits to refugees.

“Racism and economic interests go hand in hand. I said in the Knesset that Eli Yishai has a large skullcap and a small heart of stone. You can’t be arresting and deporting children. And we’re a nation that has experienced refugeehood. My problem isn’t just with Yishai but also with the prime minister, who lends legitimacy to all of these things.”

The following response was received from Yishai’s spokesman on Tuesday: “The minister has no intention of descending to this level [of discourse]. Rather, [Gal-On] ought to go out and learn something about the way the Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Spain and so on, deal with illegal infiltrators.”

In your view, is Netanyahu the worst prime minister we’ve had?

“The worst prime minister ever was Ehud Olmert. Corrupt, and also got us into two unnecessary wars. He was a terrible mayor, too. In order to escape the corruption allegations he tried to create some peace spin, he was looking for a victory picture that would permeate the public consciousness.”

Even after the Jerusalem District Court ruled this week contrary to her expectations and exonerated Olmert on two of the counts against him, Gal-On has not softened her view about him. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“The ruling underscores the need to keep strengthening law enforcement and the court system in Israel,” she says. “A prime minister mustn’t be convicted of even a single crime, and the absence of a conviction due to reasonable doubt on the other counts blurs this fact. The fact that Olmert was convicted of breach of trust is very grave and should keep him out of the political system forever. The ruling paints a portrait of a corrupt political figure who used power to enrich himself and his associates. The acquittal on criminal charges does not equate with a moral and ethical vindication.”

She returns to the subject of the current premier: “No one could suspect me of supporting Bibi. I infuriate him. But there’s one thing I will say in his favor: Bibi has been prime minister for three years and he hasn’t yet made an unnecessary war, knock on wood. Bibi doesn’t budge on the diplomatic front but he’s a lot more moderate, security-wise.”

But what about the state of the democracy?

“The battle today isn’t just between right and left, but between those who wish to have a democracy here and those who wish to dismantle it and replace it with a messianic kingdom for Jews only. There is a growing group in Israeli society that has made it its goal to wipe out any trace of liberalism, of universal and humanistic principles, and above all, of the idea that democracy is the kind of rule that is desirable in Israel.

“The assertion that all human beings are equal is threatening to these people, and stands in sharp contradiction to the Jewish racist concept of superiority. The claim that Arabs and Jews can live together in peace, side by side, is heretical to the imperative of expulsion and persecution according to which they live. The thought that refugees, asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, dark-skinned people, will live in Israel, makes them sick.

“There can be no democracy in which there is no equality for women, in which there is gender discrimination, in which all marriage and divorce is subject to an anachronistic and chauvinistic religious establishment following religious law that is 3,000 years old. With an Orthodox establishment that tells us how we can marry, divorce, convert and be buried. There can be no democracy without freedom of expression, freedom of the press and cultural freedom.

“There can be no democracy without a stable and broad middle class, upon which the democracy basically rests. In Israel, the middle class is collapsing under the burden of a centralized economy and shrinking government services. Basic rights like decent medical care have become a product that costs a pretty penny, and the weaker sectors are suffering from ongoing and systematic government neglect.”

Basically you’re saying that a majority of the people, as represented by the coalition, is against democracy?

“No, the coalition also represents people who fell for the Tzipi Livni trap and voted Kadima instead of Meretz and found themselves in a satellite party of the Likud. We’re fighting with great determination against all the anti-democratic laws and the laws designed to limit freedom of speech that they’re trying to pass, and also against the notion that democracy is a matter just for Jews − male Jews in particular. There’s a certain group in Israeli society that gets into the government democratically and wants to destroy democratic rule.”

Who is in this group?

“MKs from the Likud, from Habayit Hayehudi, from the National Union and the ultra-Orthodox parties. The insistence that all people are equal is threatening to them ... There are people whose worldview is based on a notion of Jewish racial superiority that derives from halakha ‏(Jewish law‏) and which is also the source of the idea of male superiority, which causes the exclusion of women and inequality.”

How difficult is it for you to get your messages across on television, which is the main medium for this?

“It’s very complicated. Television is a critical tool in the positioning of politicians, but it is very superficial. It’s not interested in what’s happening over the Green Line. That’s not sexy, it’s not interesting. Television reflects the general cheapening that is affecting Israeli society. Give them ‘Big Brother.’ So for a party like Meretz with a complex message, it’s hard. I’m conveying a complex message and television has a very limited capacity to absorb complex messages. It prefers slogans like ‘No loyalty, no citizenship.’”

Lapid’s TV mannerisms

One of our meetings was after Netanyahu disbanded the Plesner Committee that recommended drafting the ultra-Orthodox and after another protest, calling for Haredim to be drafted, took place in Tel Aviv. Yair Lapid also had begun making appearances on television as a politician for the first time, in the time between our last meeting and the one that preceded it.

Gal-On − who even beforehand hadn’t been all that wild about Lapid − noticed that he “upgraded his collection of television mannerisms, he’s got all kinds of new eyebrow-raising movements and hand gestures that he didn’t use as a presenter and talk-show host. Then, he was careful to remain without an opinion, and I think he’s still that way, because I don’t think I’ve heard him say anything significant.

“I heard him say that he’s in favor of education. [Education Minister] Gideon Sa’ar is also in favor of education and therefore sends schoolchildren to Hebron and Nablus. The ultra-Orthodox are also milking the state for the sake of education. I don’t know anyone who’s not for education; the question, though, is which kind of education. I think Bibi won’t just sit back and watch Lapid do his thing. He’s going to upgrade his mannerisms too. We’ve turned politics into a battle on the television screen, and this explains the Yair Lapid phenomenon, of a person who wants to leap straight from the screen into politics.”

Shelly Yacimovich also came from the media and you can’t deny that she’s proven herself to be an extraordinary parliamentarian.

“There’s a significant difference: Shelly Yachimovich was an opinionated journalist with an agenda that she wanted to promote in the Knesset. Before running for the Labor Party leadership, she did excellent parliamentary work. I haven’t heard any ideological statement from Yair Lapid, and he also has no intention of being a mere MK. Right away he appointed himself as party head. This attests to the cheapening of politics − the fact that people who don’t come with a record of accomplishments or a clearly stated position think that it’s enough for them to quote all sorts of lines that suit the consensus, and that they’ll succeed that way.”

Meanwhile, Haim Ramon has come up with his initiative to found a new centrist party, as if it’s not crowded enough already in the center.

“Everyone likes to congregate in the center where it’s warm and cozy, and you don’t have to speak any truths,” says Gal-On. “You don’t have to say anything that’s annoying. Look at the Mofaz version of Kadima and the Livni version: Where have they come to? They have no real influence on the agenda. Today I issued a statement that even if Kadima opts to quit the coalition for the opposition, we don’t want them there. But not to worry, they won’t quit. [Our conversation took place the day Mofaz threatened to quit the government as a result of Netanyahu’s decision not to accept the Plesner Committee’s recommendations on drafting the ultra-Orthodox.]

“Look how all the Kadima voters have been disappointed. They’ll vote for Bibi or Ramon or Lapid and they’ll have the same disappointment because in the center nothing happens. Mofaz is a paper tiger and created a crisis on paper, and nothing will happen. Today there’s a supposed crisis around the draft issue, but for [Kadima], being in the government is akin to artificial respiration, because it’s a clinically dead party, even if some people haven’t quite realized that yet.”

And what is your view of the Plesner Committee’s recommendations?

“First of all, in a normal country there should be civil equality. But I’m really not that thrilled about the idea of ultra-Orthodox militias with their special demands concerning kashrut and excluding women, and I also believe that the time has come to free the ultra-Orthodox from the ignorance they are kept in by their rabbis. The rabbis are trying to keep the Haredim from attaining personal autonomy, they’re trying to deny them a higher education and the ability to integrate into the job market, so actually alternative civil service could be very good for them because it will help them integrate in the employment market. They also need to be able to study a core curriculum, of course. It’s very scary to have such a large population here whose ignorance keeps it captive to the rabbis.

“First of all, the education system has to say that it will not fund institutions that do not teach the core curriculum. I have no problem with there being schools that don’t teach that curriculum, just as I have no problems with all kinds of private schools, but if they want state funding, they need to teach the core subjects.”

‘Violent settler public’

Earlier this week, the report by a panel headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, concerning land ownership in the West Bank, was published. It said the settlements must be legalized because the territory cannot be considered occupied if it wasn’t taken from a sovereign state.

In a late-night phone call, after learning of the report, Gal-On says: “It’s obvious that Bibi appointed a committee that would decide exactly what he wanted it to decide, and therefore the people selected for the committee, particularly the person heading it, were those with a very specific worldview. This was part of the double maneuver that he is constantly engaged in. While in his Bar-Ilan speech, Bibi supposedly declared his vision of a solution with two states for two peoples − at the same time he is always acting in the opposite way and aiming for a one-state solution and the perpetuation of the occupation. The Levy panel, which said there is no occupation and that the outposts are therefore legal, serves Netanyahu’s purpose and his settler ideology, but according to any international basis, this ruling is false.
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“A government that encourages ideological criminality is an irresponsible government that is putting us in danger of conflict and bloodshed. In Israel there are real homeless people, there are real problems, there are people who don’t live in villas or outposts, people who went out to protest last summer, people who live in tents because they don’t have a roof over their heads. The government isn’t building for them, because it spends this money on houses in [outposts] Bruchin and Sansana, and pours NIS 53 million into temporary housing for the Migron evacuees.

“The violent settler public in the territories is subordinating the state to its messianic and apocalyptic ambitions. In the territories there are two systems of law: one for the superior race, which is comprised of the religious Jews, and one for all the rest − Palestinians, leftists, foreigners, journalists and anyone else who dares to butt in. The army has become the servant of the settlers and authorizes every despicable action, be it the building of illegal outposts on stolen land, the beating and abuse of Palestinians, blocking access to and destroying farmland, drying up water sources, and any other unlawful action you can think of. And it’s clear that what the settlers are doing to the Palestinians in the territories they would love to do to the secular public inside the Green Line. The ideology of being the masters isn’t applied to the Arabs alone, but to anyone who is not a part of the pure religious messianic race.

“Compensation for land thieves will lead to a Jewish apartheid state. The annexation solution will not be accepted by the international community, and will make Israel a pariah state to the whole world. The message is that there is no equality before the law and that the settlers are worth more than the other citizens of Israel. And this warning also needs to be sounded: The occupation is going to destroy the Israeli economy. The labeling of products from the settlements that’s already been announced by South Africa and Denmark is just the beginning of what will become the dark winter of the Israeli economy. We should be glad that the world still makes the distinction between Israel and the territories − a distinction that Israel itself made in its tax agreement with the European Union. But this government is blurring the boundaries, and eventually the world won’t make the distinction either, and then we’ll all really be in big trouble.”

But in his joint press conference with Mofaz in May, when the new coalition was announced, Netanyahu said he plans to pursue the peace process.

“I don’t believe in the talk about a process. We want the only possible peace: Peace on the basis of the ‘67 lines and a division of sovereignty in Jerusalem − not the imaginary peace that Netanyahu is trying to sell us. The one-state solution is a dangerous and misleading illusion. And by the way, I believe that a lot of people think the same as we do.”

Many people accept the idea of two states and returning territory as the way to a peace agreement, but still they don’t vote Meretz − perhaps because your potential to wield influence as an opposition party is not great.

“I gave a talk at a university and afterward this fellow came up to me and said he agreed with every word but he didn’t know if he would vote for us ‘because your party is so small.’ I told him: Vote for Meretz and we won’t be small anymore. I think there’s a new spirit and new energy in Meretz these days, and there’s an active young generation and we have time until the election to triple our size. If only half the people who share our views would vote for us it would happen.”

She has toiled for so many years on the correct side − in her view − of politics, and yet our situation has probably never been worse. But Gal-On is optimistic: “I have to be, because I believe in change. And there’s one sentence that I always keep in mind, even in the toughest times, and which kept playing in my head during the tough time when I found myself outside the Knesset, and it’s a line that was written by activists from the Solidarity movement in Poland: “Even if the winter is hard, you can’t stop spring from arriving.”

To paraphrase Yehuda Amichai, all that remains to be seen is whether from this place where we are right now, flowers will in fact bloom in the spring.