The Next Leader of Israel's Left-wing Meretz Party Left Faces a Daunting Challenge

Now that her rivals have cleared the path toward leadership, Tamar Zandberg has her work cut out for her

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MK Tamar Zandberg, seated left, and other members of the Israeli left-wing Meretz party vote to change the party's electoral system, January 7, 2018.
MK Tamar Zandberg, seated left, and other members of the Israeli left-wing Meretz party vote to change the party's electoral system, January 7, 2018. Credit: meged gozani
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

When I set out to profile Meretz’s leading candidates several weeks ago, with the understanding that the party was crying out for a generational change of leadership, I already figured Tamar Zandberg would be Meretz’s next chairwoman. But I didn’t predict the amazing ease with which she would win, barring some unlikely drama before the elections, with the veteran candidates simply moving out of her way.

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Anyone familiar with the goings on in Meretz saw what Zehava Galon saw in the polls. Her decline was sharp and decisive. In fact, as soon as she quit the Knesset, with the excuse that she wanted to devote all her energy to advancing the open primaries, you could detect the despair. Galon was angry when it was said out loud, but she, too, knew in her heart that she was losing the party. The older members – known in party lingo as “the green camp” – wanted to feel young and innovative and successful again, like in 1992, and turned to Zandberg.

Ilan Gilon is a different story. Gilon heads a very distinct faction – the “red camp,” which in the past considered joining Labor’s Amir Peretz to forge a political partnership with a socialist foundation. Gilon announced he was quitting the leadership race for health reasons, but in my view he too understood he had no chance against Zandberg.

Had he and Zandberg confronted each other in a second round, it’s almost certain that Galon’s voters would have switched to Zandberg. Gilon offered Meretz voters a product whose electoral value has proven low in recent years, as Shelly Yacimovich knows. Likud voters, even those who burnt their membership cards defiantly, weren’t so quick to give up their political strongholds in return for social solidarity with big names from the ‘hood.

The “red camp,” which includes many party newcomers, has been orphaned, for the time being. The main beneficiary of Gilon’s departure is social activist Avi Dabush, but he doesn’t stand much of a chance against Zandberg, either. The party’s rumor mill suggests that he too will step down and throw his support to Zandberg toward the end of the race.

Zandberg conveys freshness and youth, but she’s a seasoned politician who heads an aggressive, activist faction, including her partner Uri Zaki and former Meretz secretary-general Dror Morag, party Young Guard chairman Elad Wolf and various local government figures. Many in Meretz, especially in the “red camp,” call Zandberg’s faction “the careerist camp.” Despite the criticism, Zandberg identifies herself as a social democrat and has supported egalitarian economic legislation and supported social equality in the Knesset committees and plenum.

Will the red camp remain in Meretz under her leadership, or turn to an Arab-Jewish partnership on the basis of socialist values – an aspiration entertained there for years? The answer to this will determine the shape of Meretz and the Israeli left in general.

Zandberg’s challenge, after she is elected, is bigger than Meretz’s voters can imagine. Meretz is strife-torn, atomized, rotting from personal wars and vindictive hatreds. Delving into its depths I heard nasty gossip, slurs and rumors that set a low bar even for the disgusting arena of politics. From stories of corruption and voter fraud to rumors about the candidates’ sex lives. The remains of the party’s unnatural union of Ratz, Mapam and Shinui seem harder to rehabilitate than Zevulun Orlev’s old National Religious Party – the political project of Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which Zandberg sees as a model for Meretz. The diminished liberal camp in Israel must pray for Zandberg’s success.

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