Floating Voter / Farewell Meretz

In November 2005 Amir Peretz was elected head of the Labor Party. Two days later, on November 11, I wrote an article here that blessed the new chairman as he set out on his path:

"Now the horizon has opened, and there are signs of new chances. Peretz's political and social agenda is very similar to Meretz's, and it is possible that the similarity calls out for merging forces. There is no certainty that such a merger would be worthwhile electorally, but there is also no certainty that Peretz's election will lead directly to the prime minister's bureau in the coming elections, which are too soon. Peretz's election should be regarded as a longer term investment ... And now it depends first of all on Peretz, if he has the strength in a torn and divided party that eats its leaders, and if he wants to establish the front to save Israel. The initiative is in his hands."

Peretz's initial reaction at the time was positive. After a day or two he was thinking more cooly and even his reactions grew chilly and caught a cold. In practice, he rejected my overture, as did the heads of Meretz. It wasn't hard to grasp that both sides ruled out the idea; even I got it.

No point insisting. Especially since every new idea always encounters tremendous wariness - What does he really mean, and what is he actually after? I wanted nothing, because I had nothing left to want. I had announced my retirement from public life, and that announcement was the end of it from my standpoint. I simply thought that Peretz was not Peres, the Labor Party under his leadership was not the same bad old party, and if a new leaf had been turned over, there was no need to replicate the old.

I have no idea why Peretz decided not to lift the gauntlet. One can only speculate: First, his initial days as chairman suffered from arrogance; he can do great things single-handedly; and second, his aides doubtless explained to him that an alliance with Meretz would deter voters. Even loyal aides are sometimes motivated by personal considerations, which they try to conceal and therefore highlight the ostensibly public motives, and present the leftist Meretz as a scarecrow. Maybe Peretz did not notice that Meretz's scarecrowhood isn't what it used to be, birds no longer flee, let alone people. When Avigdor Lieberman wishes to be purified, he sets a date for breakfast at Yossi Beilin's house.

It can't be proved, but may be surmised that had Labor and Meretz joined forces, they would have neared or even equaled Kadima's size. Unions can detract, but they can also add, and Labor would not have risked losing its primacy, which anyway was not reserved to it in these elections (unless the arrogance was more malignant than we gathered then). It is entirely uncertain, but possible that "joining forces" would have generated a positive atmosphere throughout the Israeli left - at long last it's uniting - and the updated political framework would have received a boost.

The Labor Party is expected to get 20 or 21 seats; what it had is what it will have - no more and apparently no less. The weight of these seats is greater than their number; the number itself gives Labor no cause for joy; weight-wise, there's no government without it. Meretz's seats - four in all - have no number, but also have no weight. The coalition will be formed even without them.

Contrary to early expections and to the impression they're trying to create now, Labor under Peretz did not purchase a real hold on the peripheral towns and poor urban neighborhoods. Even in Sderot, the candidate's hometown, no voter pride was evident. Labor led with 25 percent of Sderot's votes, but that's just 6 percent more than Labor and One People got in 2003. In Beit Shemesh, Labor won 6.5 percent of the vote, compared to 5 percent for Labor and One People in 2003. Slight improvements should not be discounted, but a dramatic shift it's not.

True, Tel Aviv produced a decline - about 20 percent, down from 24 percent in 2003, yet it's still better than the national average, and without Tel Aviv's racist Ashkenazim, Labor would not have 20 Knesset seats. Remember that the big city's votes are equivalent to the votes of all the outlying towns in the south and north put together. It's clear, therefore, that a few Givatayim elders followed Shimon Peres, but between reality and its depiction there was nothing but covert emotional blackmail. Mizrahim are not particularly impressed by a candidate's Mizrahi credentials, just as Ashkenazim do not disapprove of such to the degree ascribed to them. All in all the Labor Party under Peretz received most of its traditional support, and only relatively few abandoned or joined. It is permissible to doubt whether the picture would have altered significantly had Meretz's scarecrow been planted among the rest of the scarecrows in the Labor patch.

I left the party of my own volition in 1984. A month before leaving, I was elected by more than 70 percent of the party's Central Committee members; only Yitzhak Rabin got more votes than me. I left, because I was fed up with my party and wanted to go free. In those faraway days I had big eyes, and believed that the Labor Party must be replaced; not reformed and not energized but rather supplanted for its ineptitude, its blindness and corruption. In 1992 Meretz won 12 seats; in 1996, nine; and in 1999, 10. I still believed it was possible and necessary to offer an alternative, not a corrective, to the Labor Party. Based on its positions and conduct, its clean hands and mind, Meretz was worth taking Labor's place. The big party didn't deserve to remain the main party of the Left, if you can call that Left.

In 2003 I gave up. Meretz, under my leadership, plummeted to six seats; among the exploding buses I did not feel to blame and did feel responsible. I drew the requisite conclusions and resigned. Perhaps belatedly I reached the frustrating and painful conclusion that size does matter, is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating, only size.

The delicate leftists prefer the taste of a small party, until they reach the polling station. They seize the Emet slip. Because the main party of the "camp" must be saved at the last minute from collapse; saved from itself. And thus the big remains big and the small remains small.

Peretz and Meretz erred five months ago when they ignored the advice to join forces; the mistake can be rectified now - it's late, but not too late. Together the parties can immediately provide 24 seats at least, and according to their surplus-vote agreement and the Bader-Ofer Law maybe 25 or 26 seats; we'll await the final results. These figures bring Labor-Meretz to within touching distance of Kadima, instantly turning the coalition talks into negotiations among equals, almost. It would necessarily lead to more important government posts, and guarantees the finance portfolio for Peretz, enabling the "social revolution" that is slow in coming. And who knows, under a certain circumstantial development it would be possible to form a government on the basis of parity. Is a rotational premiership between Olmert and Peretz too fanciful?

Unfortunately, we have not managed over the years to beat the Labor Party, so the time has come to join it. Especially since today, as opposed to yesterday, it is less deserving of a beating.

Meretz was not just "another party." Its sworn rivals would concede that it was more talented, more devoted, cleaner. It wasn't merely a party, but a symbol, a political, educational and civic school of thought. Large parties have adopted entire chapters of its doctrine, and now Meretz is living off its own table crumbs. It is hard to imagine Israeli politics of the past 40 years without Ratz, Mapam and the original Shinui, which became one movement in 1988. In post-1967 Israel there hasn't been a more influential movement than Meretz in its various incarnations, and the majority in Israel today speak the Meretz language, consciously or not.

Meretz has done its part, and how! Now it has no choice but to go. Farewell Meretz. I miss you already.