'If We Don’t Pass, There Won’t Be a Left in the Knesset'

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz dreads the possibility of his party vanishing in next week's election. In an interview with Haaretz, he tells about his disgust with homophobic statements made inside and outside his party, and says identity politics is used by conservatives to destroy the left

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Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, last week.
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, last week.
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Nitzan Horowitz is in trouble. When he returned to the political arena and was chosen to be the chairman of Meretz in June 2019, he never imagined he’d be dragged from one election to another and embroiled in a nerve-racking battle to pass the electoral threshold. “Nobody in his worst nightmares imagined such a thing, but I’m coping,” he tells Haaretz.

What will happen if you don’t pass the threshold (i.e., garner the minimum proportion of votes, currently 3.25 percent, necessary to get into the Knesset)?

“It won’t happen. We’re doing everything so that we will.”

And if not?

On MK Ahmad Tibi's anti-LGBTQ remarks: 'I find it sad that someone like Tibi, whom I admired and whom I know well, would say such a thing. It’s really really disgusting'

“I don’t understand the question. What kind of answer can one give to such a question. If we don’t pass, there won’t be Meretz and there won’t be a left in the Knesset.”

Would you run if there’s a fifth election?

“I hope we won’t get to that point. Meretz is a democratic party and anyone who wants to run will run. And I assume that I will too.”

Horowitz – and not only because of the traditional “gevalt” campaign being waged (a last-gasp effort to convince people that voting for a certain candidate or party is the only way to avert a catastrophe) – doesn’t try to whitewash his situation or exhibit false confidence. When I ask him, between a trip to the Meretz offices and a demonstration in the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, whether he’s afraid, he replies: “Of course.”

Nitzan Horowitz gives a speech at the launch of Meretz's campaign aimed at the Israel-Arab community, this week.

As always in life, the blow lands from an unexpected place. For Horowitz, who not long ago had a stable five to six Knesset seats according to the polls, this one comes from someone whom he tried to bring into Meretz in the past year.

“All year long we proposed to MK Merav Michaeli, before she became leader of the Labor party, that she join us. I had many discussions with her,” he says. “But she decided to stay in the Labor Party and managed to become its leader, which is fine and totally legitimate – but it shouldn’t come at the expense of Meretz.

“Meretz has a task and a mission that Labor doesn’t carry out, with respect to issues from which all the parties, including Labor, are fleeing. In the past five years, including the years when Merav served as an MK with me, Labor didn’t want to deal, for example, with the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. It fled from that.”

In his campaign the openly gay Horowitz emphasizes the LGBTQ issue – including a video clip in which his partner, who is usually not in the spotlight, asks him to buy milk

Last week Horowitz found a particularly sharp hook on which to hang the differences between them. He said that the decision by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate Israel for its actions in the occupied territories is justified. His view contrasted with that of Michaeli, who condemned the court’s decision – espousing conventional folklore that’s influenced by Israel’s right.

That statement caused your potential partners for replacing Netanyahu, like Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, to reject you.

The leader of Israel's Labor party, Merav Michaeli. 'All year long we proposed her to join us,' says Horowitz.

“Bennett and Sa’ar said that they wouldn’t sit with Labor, and that they don’t want the support of the Joint List [Israeli Arab party]. In other words, they reject everyone. That’s unrelated to any statement of one kind or another. In real life, when you need votes to forge a coalition – everything looks different.”

Nevertheless, the Meretz chairman totally rules out teaming up with the ultra-Orthodox, who he claims won’t part from Netanyahu. “Merav Michaeli said that they [Labor] have no problem sitting with the Haredi parties, okay? But I have a problem because they see me as a pervert – they think that I’m a sick and abnormal person, and that I have no right to exist.”

'Really disgusting'

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi. Homophobic remarks.

It seems that part of the Arab community you’re wooing thinks the same thing. Proof of that is [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi’s statement that he is against 'promoting the LGBTQ phenomenon' and the declaration by No. 4 on your own party list, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, that she doesn’t rule out conversion therapy [for LGBTQ individuals], a statement she later retracted.

“True. There must be a change in both Haredi and Arab society. Do you remember when [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai said that when he sees men who are partners it disgusts him? Well that has changed. The change that has taken place in parts of Israeli society has to take place among the religious members of Jewish society, and in Arab society.”

Is it possible that Tibi, with his homophobic statements, helped you to pass the electoral threshold? Did you celebrate?

“I didn’t celebrate because I find it sad that someone like Tibi, whom I admired and whom I know well, would say such a thing. It’s really really disgusting.”

In his campaign the openly gay Horowitz emphasizes the LGBTQ issue – including a video clip in which his partner, who is usually not in the spotlight, asks him to buy milk. This is not only an attempt to repair the embarrassment aroused by Rinawie Zoabi's statement or to woo back leftists who have strayed as far as the Joint List. He stresses that he sees LGBTQ rights as a litmus test for democracy.

No. 4 on Meretz, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi. She said she doesn’t rule out conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community - then retracted her statement

“What I fear is a process of reaction and backpedaling. I think that could happen on two planes, as in Poland or Hungary. It could be in a reversal of LGBTQ laws or rights, and thus those individuals, including the partner of [Public Security Minister] Amir Ohana, should recall that we haven’t reached paradise and that everything can be reversed.

“Second, I think that what the right will try to do in the next government is to prevent reports to international organizations about what’s happening in the occupied territories. They’ll simply try to make them illegal, and close the groups that draft them."

And do you think that four Meretz seats can stop such things?

“They have weight, because we’re making our voice heard. Meretz throughout the years has proved that it takes a step forward, makes its voice heard, absorbs criticism, but in the end succeeds in bringing about change. Meretz is an agent of change.”

Do you prefer Sa’ar and Bennett to Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, who as compared to them is far more of a leftist?

For me there are two types of people who are totally inacceptable: those under criminal indictment and Kahanists who are racists

Nitzan Horowitz

“Gafni recently said, apropos the story of Reform conversions [now being permitted in Israel], that the condition for UTJ joining the coalition would be passage of the so-called override bill [which would disempower the Supreme Court from intervening in legislation and administrative resolutions by the government, ministers or Knesset] in order to emasculate the Supreme Court. That terrifies me. After all, how did the gay community attain most of its achievements? Through the Supreme Court. If Gafni takes it down, how can I live here? I want a secular coalition. I would prefer center-left, but there aren’t enough [parties].”

'Netanyahu is off-limits'

Who would you like to see at the head of that government?

“Lapid, in the end. I don’t want Sa’ar and Bennett heading the government.”

Horowitz at his home in Tel Aviv. 'The right will try to prevent reports to international organizations about what’s happening in the occupied territories.'

I think you’ll agree that in the present situation, Lapid, whom you prefer, doesn’t really have a chance of being prime minister. Netanyahu, at least in terms of ideology, is the least bad prime minister for the left, compared to Sa’ar or Bennett. He signed peace agreements, he stopped annexation [of the territories] that he apparently never wanted. Aren’t you caving in here to the sentiment of the voters who hate Netanyahu, at the expense of leftist values?

“Netanyahu is off-limits because he’s a corrupt man and is under criminal indictment. There’s a red line here and it’s impossible to give a stamp of approval to someone under criminal indictment.”

Last week Horowitz said that the decision by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate Israel for its actions in the occupied territories is justified

And if [extremist Rabbi Meir] Kahane hadn’t been under criminal indictment? Would he also have been preferable to Netanyahu?

“He’s also unacceptable in my opinion. For me there are two types of people who are totally inacceptable: those under criminal indictment and Kahanists who are racists. Netanyahu must go. It’s not just an obsession, and it’s not only some sect that hates him. That man has profoundly corrupted the government system in Israel. For years he incited against parts of Israeli society, including against me and the community I represent.

“Part of the reason that the left is having problems today is because of the systematic delegitimization of it by Netanyahu and his associates for years. So we have a very long and very sharp account with Netanyahu. We won’t sit in the government with him under any circumstances. Bibi must go and we have to change Bibi’s path. That’s why I won’t support Sa’ar either.”

Horowitz is seen during a visit to Har Hevron in the West Bank, this week.

In regard to Bibi you say: Never. But that’s not what you say about Sa’ar

“With Sa'ar there is a possibility of [support that's] 'subject to…' With Bibi there’s no possibility. Never. There’s a red line. There have to be principles in life. But I refuse to decide between the two of them. According to that logic, there’s only a right wing in the world and we have to choose among all the different varieties."

But that’s reality

“I don’t accept that. I think that’s one of the reasons for the weakness of the left. It comes with a lack of confidence. Instead of strengthening itself, it says: ‘Okay, so now the majority is in the right so I have to join it somehow and try to find a somewhat softer right.’ That’s why the left has become weaker over the years, and that’s why every time Labor engaged in such calculations and joined right-wing governments, it became weaker and didn’t become an alternative. I intend to fight for my principles, and if a government is formed whose basic guidelines are intolerable, I won’t be a part of it.”

A Meretz campaign video showing Horowitz with his partner, Ido Riklin.

What do you consider intolerable basic guidelines?

“For example, annexation [of the territories]. For example, racist laws – like laws that will limit Arabs’ right to participate in elections for various and sundry reasons. For example, persecuting human rights organizations.”

Destructive self-criticism

There’s seems to be a kind of atmosphere that deters leftists from voting for left-wing parties. How would you explain that?

“I have discerned that among several Haaretz reporters too. It’s an excess of self-criticism that leads to absurd conclusions. Because you have criticism of your parties or your camp, that leads you to really sick conclusions like voting for the right as part of some totally perverse strategy. Or simply not voting – and then in effect you’re voting for the right.

“I can understand where it comes from. For years we’ve been confronting terrible delegitimization. It’s not easy to be a leftist in Israel – you’re attacked, you’re condemned, you’re a minority. You have to understand, we’re confronting a huge, aggressive government establishment with unlimited funds, with a school system that doesn’t let us in, with organizations into which it [the government] pours a fortune in order to reshape Israeli awareness.”

Meretz candidates in Nazareth, from left: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Horowitz and Esawi Freige.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not only the right that persecutes leftists. As opposed to the strategy of the iron fist on the right, you’re active in a camp that often attacks itself.

“That’s true. And it’s very difficult. Self-criticism sometimes reaches a level of sick self-flagellation, and in the end leads to losing your way and being at your wit’s end. For a while, for example, they told us we must foster Jewish-Arab partnership, and we have to give them [Arabs] representation, and how can it be that there isn’t any. I made a move and included two Arabs among the first five names on the Meretz list [Esawi Freige and Ghaida Rinawi Zoabi]. I think that in no party since the establishment of the state has there been such a ratio of Arabs to Jews.

“And the moment we did that – there was silence on the left. All the big advocates disappeared. No appreciation and no compliments. So yes, there’s a feeling that they [people on the left] are only trying to beat up on us; it’s a kind of never-ending ritual. These are also people whom you can never satisfy. Whatever you do isn’t good enough.”

The identity politics on the left is contributing mainly to its dismantling.

“Identity politics is something that I don’t think is leftist. It’s a right-wing tool for destroying social solidarity. Instead of fighting together for things we share, which in my opinion is socioeconomic issues first of all, we opt for an identity-based discourse that is based on color and race and religion, and that causes the atomization of society. It’s a tool of conservatives that disintegrates the left. I believe that the answer to social gaps is a welfare state and not sectionalization."

So why don’t those weaker classes that you’re concerned about vote for you? Why don’t they believe that you represent them?

“Because there’s an infrastructure issue here. It’s hard for us as the left to reach the general public in Israel because we’ve become impoverished.”

Even when you were part of the government, when [former Meretz MK] Ran Cohen passed the famous Public Housing Law, the communities that benefited from it didn’t vote for you.

“So first of all there were people who voted Meretz as a result of such laws, and if we had had an opportunity to create education in the spirit of our values, then yes – we could have started to foment social change.”

In the final analysis, Meretz voters belong to your class: Ashkenazim, mostly of a high socioeconomic status, from well-to-do cities and neighborhoods.

Instead of fighting together for things we share, which in my opinion is socioeconomic issues first of all, we opt for an identity-based discourse that is based on color and race and religion, and that causes the atomization of society

Nitzan Horowitz

“That’s fine. That’s part of the left, and these people have a right to be represented like everyone else. They don’t want to live in an extreme situation of terrible gaps and violence and hungry beggars on the street.”

I think that in terms of your social-democratic economic policy, at the time, both you and [former Meretz leader] Zehava Galon went against your electorate – courageously, it should be said.

“We didn’t go against our electorate. Our target audience is also a gay waiter who lives in a rented room with roommates, earns a few thousand shekels a month, and finds it difficult to survive in the present situation. We have a target audience of the elderly and the disabled who live on government allowances, and they’re totally Meretz. Meretz isn’t only billionaires. And even the well-to-do people who support our party are in favor of social-democratic values, and social justice. Many would definitely be willing to pay a little more tax if they knew that it would go to the creation of a more just society, and they favor economic steps that are even more radical that what we’re proposing.”

What did you think of the tweet by journalist Avishay Ben Haim, who said that both the “First Israel” (old Ashkenazi elites, i.e., Meretz and Labor) parties are headed by people who don't have children?

“That he’s a moron. And when the two parties were headed by people with children did he support that? What’s the point?”

I think he was wondering about the demography of the left and its continuation.

“That’s part of the incitement against us and the attempt to show that the left and the secular public are people lacking values – empty, cold, anti-family. There’s a political intention behind it.”

What’s your opinion of the things said by a member of your party, Yair Golan, who in an interview with Haaretz about a year ago said that there’s no occupation, and regarding The Hague said that Israel isn’t committing war crimes in the territories?

“Yair Golan also stresses that the way to deal with that is not by attacking the court in The Hague and saying that it’s antisemitic. Yair Golan also thinks that the top priority is to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.”

Do those statements embarrass you?

“No. Because I look at the big picture. I look at how he confronts the right and gives it to them in a way that you don’t see among many people on the left. So, yes, sometimes his phrasing – maybe because of the background he comes from, he was in the army for 40 years – is more militaristic. But in the end what’s important to me is where it leads. Yair Golan says that he came to Meretz because he wants to leave the territories and find a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. In the end what’s important to me is not to incessantly examine opinions all day long and to quarrel among ourselves, but to confront the right and to attack them, because they’re much stronger.”

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