Flanked by New Challengers, Israeli Left's Meretz Party Mulls Future as Jewish-Arab Platform

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Voting at a Meretz conference, Tel Aviv, January 14, 2020.
Voting at a Meretz conference, Tel Aviv, January 14, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

With an early election looming and two new left-wing parties entering the fray, Meretz’s leaders seek new ways to gain voters and stay relevant. At a meeting in early November, they discussed efforts to rebrand the party as a Jewish-Arab partnership and reserve top slots for Arab candidates.

An early election is considered possible in March or June as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to skirt the agreement to rotate the premiership with Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Against that backdrop, Meretz, which lies to the left of the Labor Party, aims to win back voters who defected in recent elections to Gantz’s Kahol Lavan or to the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties.

In a Zoom meeting whose content has been obtained by Haaretz, Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz warned about the electoral threat posed by a new party headed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and the possible emergence of a new Jewish-Arab party. In the Zoom videoconference, Horowitz said he believed Huldai “has no intention of partnering with us and no intention of anything Jewish-Arab.”

Horowitz added that he had heard about former Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav’s plans to establish “a Jewish-Arab party, but absolutely not a leftist one,” with Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam.

Esawi Freige, a former Meretz Knesset member, warned: “If Meretz doesn’t take back the mantle on the partnership issue, others will. We have our work cut out for us. That’s the clearest, most important thing that distinguishes Meretz from other parties.”

'Legitimizing Arab political participation'

There is no agreement within the party on what such a partnership would look like. Haim Oron, a former Meretz chairman and one of the initiative’s leaders, told the videoconference that 40 to 50 percent of Meretz Knesset candidates in the next election should be Arab Israelis.

Uri Zaki, a former president of the party’s executive board, called for a much broader measure “in which we hold completely open primaries, for everything from the party’s structure to Knesset representation. It must be a Jewish-Arab initiative.”

Zaki, who moderated the discussion, added: “We’ve lost our ability to influence the Palestinian issue. We’ve lost the public’s attention. If we have a historic role on one issue, it’s in legitimizing Arab political participation.”

The party whip, Tamar Zandberg, said Meretz has the unique ability to attract voters to “a Jewish-Arab political home that is just and egalitarian and matches our values.” But Horowitz was more skeptical, warning against any measures that would repel voters. “We have to thoroughly think through how to do this without losing our people,” he said.

Party chief Nitzan Horowitz speaking at a Meretz press conference in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The first buds of the new initiative appeared on the opinion pages of Haaretz’s Hebrew edition in late October: A dozen former Meretz and Labor Party cabinet ministers, legislators and candidates called for the creation of a new Jewish-Arab political framework.

“We will renounce our ego in order to present to the public a combined slate with equal representation of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, they wrote. “When the results are known it will be clear to everyone: There is only one way to remove the repugnant right from power – us.” The authors of the op-ed include former Meretz MKs Oron, Dedi Zucker and Mossi Raz.

Around 40,000 Arab voters gave one seat to Meretz, then led by Zandberg, in the April 2019 election. Freige and Ali Salalha, a member of the Druze community, were in the slate’s top five.

Meretz failed to repeat the feat in the next two elections, bleeding seats to the reunified Joint List. It fell from four seats to three as part of the Meretz-led Democratic Union in the September 2019 election and just two – Horowitz and Zandberg – in the current Knesset. (Meretz MK Yair Golan isn’t actually a party member.)

Meretz is wary about attacking the Joint List; in the Zoom meeting, Oron warned: “There’s a great danger that such a step would be interpreted as a confrontation with the Joint List, an attempt to break the monopoly.”

'Ideological questions as a Zionist party'

Horowitz, though, bitterly criticized Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, whom he said ruled out a joint ticket with Meretz. Horowitz said Meretz should confront the Joint List publicly. “We have to consider that we’re in an election campaign, and they’re our rivals to a certain degree,” Horowitz said.

“We’re certainly talking about an attempt to attract more Arab voters and to represent them. I reject the approach that ‘we say nothing about the Joint List.’ We won’t target them. Heaven knows, we don’t want to stoke an unnecessary fight with them.”

Still, he noted: “We do have political disagreements with the Joint List; some have emerged recently ... and all kinds of things are unacceptable.”

Horowitz mentioned the Joint List’s opposition to the bill banning “conversion therapy” for gay men, and negotiations between the alliance’s United Arab List and Netanyahu himself. Also, there was the canceling of the Knesset vote to launch a parliamentary inquiry into Israel’s so-called submarine affair; Deputy Speaker Mansour Abbas, the leader of the United Arab List, worked with Speaker Yariv Levin to cancel the vote.

Arab-Israeli leaders demonstrating in front of the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

“I say this without getting into our big ideological questions as a Zionist party: We held elections three weeks ago for the national institutions we belong to,” Horowitz said. “These are things that meet great opposition there. Even the definition of a Jewish and democratic state is bitterly argued.”

Horowitz said he had spoken with Odeh and the other leaders of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party about joining forces, but they were “very against that.”

Referring to the wider Joint List, he said: “They’ll criticize us no matter what we do, they’ll mock us and attack us with full force .… I don’t care what they say, whether it’s about Syria or gay people or legalizing drugs. I have my party.”

And not everyone in the meeting was excited by the idea of awarding choice spots to Arab candidates as a way to attract Arab voters. “I think we’re fooling ourselves a bit to say we’re a Jewish-Arab party when this happens without the Joint List or parts of it,” Meretz Secretary-General Tomer Resnick said.

“With all due respect, even if we put four or five Arab candidates in the top five spots, this won’t make us a Jewish-Arab party. Creating a Jewish-Arab political movement means uniting movements and organizations, not guaranteeing spots for individuals.”

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