Analysis |

The Israeli Left's Beloved Leader Is Back. Now She Faces Her Biggest Challenge Yet

The former Meretz leader is known as a fearless warrior for democracy and civil rights, but her track-record of ideological firmness could be played against her

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon in a 2015 Knesset hearing.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon in a 2015 Knesset hearing.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

When Zehava Galon was first elected to the Knesset in 1999, she was one of ten lawmakers representing Meretz, a party that was then about to join a ruling coalition for the second time in less than a decade.

Meretz, Israel’s most liberal party, was an influential party at the time, a left-wing partner pushing the center-left Labor party to implement more daring policies whenever it held power.

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That seems like distant and irrelevant history for today’s Meretz, which Galon announced on Tuesday that she would aim to lead in the upcoming Israeli election.

The Meretz of 1999 was aiming for a two-digit seat number in the hope of improving the set of government portfolios it would receive after the election; the Meretz of 2022 is fighting to survive against Israel’s daunting 3.25 percent electoral threshold and has no great aspirations beyond that.

Galon led Meretz from 2012 to 2018. In a short video announcing her return to politics on Tuesday, Galon looked straight into the camera and repeated the words “Meretz is back.”

The comeback theme is critical for a party that has lost much of its support in recent months, according to public opinion polls, after a rogue lawmaker in its ranks helped derail Israel’s ‘change coalition’, essentially playing into the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the far-right.

Meretz voters swore to punish the party for harming the government they mostly supported. Galon is trying to bring them back, if only through the sheer force of her own popularity among the party’s electorate.

This could definitely work: Galon is a beloved and respected figure within the Israeli left, a fearless warrior for democracy and civil rights who stands firm against corruption and government abuse.

She is also a rare Israeli political phenomenon: a true parliamentarian who deeply appreciates and understands the Knesset, and not an MK looking for every opportunity to ditch the legislative work and become a government minister.

In her two decades in politics, Galon spent only a year as part of a ruling coalition and the rest in opposition, fighting against those in power and not giving up even in some of the most depressing political moments for her political camp, such as Netanyahu’s 2015 election victory.

In her coming campaign to lead Meretz, Galon will count on voters’ emotional fondness for her. It will be interesting to see how her rival, lawmaker and retired general Yair Golan, will respond now that his chances to win the party leadership have decreased dramatically following her announcement to run.

Golan could take Galon’s historical moral firmness against her and claim that under his leadership, it would be easier for the party to join the ruling coalition again. Following this strategy, he would warn party members that Galon is too ideological and potentially not pragmatic enough for the compromises required to be part of a government in 2022 Israel. It’s doubtful this would work for him, but it’s probably his only shot.

If she overcomes Golan, as most pundits expect her to, Galon’s central dilemma will be how to handle the growing calls for a merger with the Labor party led by Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli.

The ideological differences between the two parties are miniature and meaningless in current Israeli politics, where the entire Zionist left could shrink to less than ten seats after this election.

Many left-wing voters are expected to support Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party this time around. But Michaeli, with grandiose dreams of rebuilding Labor as a ruling party, refuses to merge with Meretz to save both parties from the threat of not passing the threshold.

Galon’s return could stabilize Meretz and push it further away from the threshold, but it still won’t be enough to make it a medium-sized party like the one Galon joined two decades ago. The only way to achieve that is still by merging with Labor and creating a left-wing party that will accompany Yesh Atid in the same way that Meretz worked next to Labor in the days of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

The Israeli Knesset will be better with the experienced Galon back in the building, and Meretz will probably be safer with the veteran lawmaker back on top. But the Israeli left, currently split between two small parties with big dreams, will need more than this comeback to become relevant and influential again.

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