Clawing at Electoral Threshold, Meretz Makes Desperate Appeals to LGBTQ, Israeli Arab Communities

The left-wing party fears that the controversial remarks by one of its Knesset candidates, an Israeli Arab, on LGBTQ rights will chase away potential voters

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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From right: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Nitzan Horowitz, and Esawi Freige.
From right: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Nitzan Horowitz, and Esawi Freige.Credit: Amir Levy
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Meretz candidate Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, number four on the party's slate, has caused great shock among senior Meretz officials by saying she intends to abstain from supporting a bill banning "conversion therapy" – which aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ people – out of consideration for religious sentiments in the Arab community.   

In an interview with the Kul al-Arab website on Monday, Rinawie Zoabi said Meretz supports the right of every person to live as they please but added that she plans to take into account the society she comes from. The bill was sponsored by Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz and already passed a preliminary Knesset vote.

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She later reversed he remarks and said she would support the bill.

“The rights of the LGBTQ community are the Holy of Holies,” a senior Meretz official told Haaretz. “This statement harmed us. We swiftly corrected it, but this statement caused damage.”

Rinawie Zoabi’s comments symbolize the trap Meretz is facing ahead of the March 23 election – the party is trying to entice Arab voters, including those supporting the conservative United Arab List faction, while spearheading the battle to achieve equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.

“The LGBT community and United Arab List voters don’t go together,” according to one party source. “The handling of this affair was clear cut. There is no room for a variety of opinions on this issue. Our commitment to the LGBT community is the strongest, and we will not make exceptions on the issue for any candidate."

Meretz hopes to overcome this crisis, but it remains unclear whether Rinawie Zoabi’s controversial comments have chased away LGBTQ votes or if her immediate retraction has harmed the party’s efforts to attract conservative Arab voters.

Rinawie Zoabi's remarks spread like wildfire on social media and among party activists. After the interview, she was forced to issue a clarification and immediately sent an improvised video to the media in which she reiterated her retraction. She later released another video in which she repeated her commitment to legislation on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Horowitz, who is openly gay, released his own video with his partner Ido Riklin in an attempts to appease the LGBTQ community.

Two recent polls have placed the party under the electoral threshold required to enter the next Knesset, while other polls showed the party is projected to win four seats, the minimum needed to enter the Knesset.

In contrast, the Labor Party, whose progenitor formed Israel and has lingered well below the electoral threshold under former chairman Amir Peretz, is now expected to win seven seats with Merav Michaeli at its helm.

A Channel 13 poll conducted by Prof. Camil Fuchs, however, projected Meretz would manage to enter the Knesset.

Furthermore, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid has been steadily gaining support and could become the second largest in the Knesset, according to recent polls, and even Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan – which was forecasted to disappear – is still managing to pass the electoral threshold with the support of a very fragile pool of voters.

The majority of Meretz's strategic voters have abandoned the party for Yesh Atid, while a large portion of women who have supported Meretz now intend to vote for Michaeli, an advocate of equal rights for women and known for her feminist views.

Meretz lawmakers are now trying to sharpen their platform, given the ideological similarities between them and Labor. 

The party fears that a string of polls showing them as failing to enter the Knesset would shape reality and push voters to abandon the party. “The bad polls provided a wakeup call for our supporters that they mustn't be complacent,” a party source said.

He added that "In the past few days, voters who left for other center-left parties can clearly be seen returning to Meretz. At the same time, Meretz has managed to raise donations for its election campaign in amounts the party has never seen before."

“There isn’t an atmosphere of despair,” a senior party official said in reference to the grim polls. “There is an atmosphere of war mixed with worry.” Party officials repeatedly mention that since 2003, Meretz has never managed to win more than six Knesset seats. "The latest polls clearly show that Meretz is stable, and although it didn’t pass the electoral threshold in two polls, it did in other polls," the source said, adding that “Meretz has never been a large party, which people tend to forget.”

Meretz continues to invest efforts to gain support in the Arab community, in the hope that the Arab vote would help the party enter the Knesset. It remains unclear whether this investment will pay off. “The Arab community is a big unknown,” another party source said. “It is very hard to decipher how they will vote in the end.”

At the same time, Meretz is also running a "Gevald" campaign, seeking support by playing up the direness of their situation, among Arabic speakers. Meretz is pleadign with potential voters to save the party from disappearing after the election. "This is the first time in 30 years that they are talking to us about abandoning the race," according to a senior party official. “This is the first time we aren’t passing [the threshold] in the polls.”

On Saturday night, the next stage of the party’s campaign will be launched under the slogan: “If there is no Meretz, he will have 61.” The campaign is based on polls showing that the bloc supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manages to win a 61-seat majority only in surveys forecasting that Meretz will fail to enter the Knesset.

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