'Democracy Is in Trouble': As Israel’s Left Implodes, a Giant of the Camp Bids Farewell

Meretz legislator Ilan Gilon, who just missed making it into the Knesset, is one of the last veterans of Israel’s progressive glory days

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Ilan Gilon.
Ilan Gilon. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

After around 15 years in the Knesset, Meretz's Ilan Gilon has to say goodbye – the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate has won seven seats in parliament and Gilon was No. 8 on the ticket.

As Gilon says goodbye, the Knesset says farewell to a giant of the Israeli left.

The news ended an already tough two years. Gilon, 63, had two strokes, forcing him to call off his bid to lead Meretz, the left-most prong in the Labor-Gesher-Meretz electoral alliance.

A few weeks ago he and his wife moved from their hometown of the past 55 years, Ashdod, to an apartment tower in Ramat Gan, a few floors above a daughter and grandchildren.

“I don’t think I’ll ever return to the Knesset; that’s not the plan,” he says. “The fun I had in that role was to see the next generation, which can fix what’s broken – and what’s broken in Israeli society is the solidarity.”

Gilon, a former left-wing youth leader and later a deputy mayor of Ashdod, served in the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, and then from 2009 to 2019.

During his terms, Meretz was always a small opposition party. “I never wanted to be part of the opposition,” he says.

“We didn’t want to be an ombudsman, we wanted to be in a place to have significant influence .... We never ruled out any parties, but rather their policies. It’s better to be without any influence in the opposition than without any influence in the coalition.”

Gilon says that if not for his health he would have easily won the race for Meretz leader. “I would have stridden to victory, even though I don’t walk particularly well,” he says. Gilon gets around on a vehicle known as a rascal scooter, the kind often used by someone with a disability.

He attributes his political beliefs to three prophets: Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. “Amos talked about dividing up the national coffers, and Isaiah about dividing up the country,” he says “And Jeremiah urged us all to remain human.”

Gilon characterizes himself as someone who spoke with anyone who approached him. “They called me ‘Gilon the heavy hitter against all ills,’” he says.

But support for Gilon was never translated into many Knesset seats. When people would reach out to him on the streets, “people would tell me, ‘on social affairs, I’m with you,’ and when I’d ask them who they were voting for, they would say Bibi” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Among Meretz’s leaders, Gilon is the last from Mapai, the Labor Party precursor that folded in 1968. The same can be said about Gilon, Meretz and Hashomer Hatzair, the legendary Jewish and later Israeli left-wing youth group.

“There may still be some scions of Hashomer Hatzair in the Knesset, but they don’t follow its ethos,” he says.

Gilon believes that Meretz’s messages have been right, but they haven’t been successfully broadcast to the public. And of course the alliance with Labor and Gesher didn’t go too well at the ballot box Monday.

“I don’t understand the election results because these are the most socially aware people, the greenest people, the most transparent people, and the most diligent,” Gilon says.

He chides Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party for blurring ideological lines to win seats in the Knesset.

“The ones who won the day are the posers; they’re Ikea parties, made of do-it-yourself ideology. This began with Kadima,” he says, referring to the centrist party of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert that lasted from 2005 to 2015. “It’s a global trend – democracy is in trouble. When I look at Trump I get a sense of déjà vu.”

He says that for Meretz’s 2018 leadership race, “the plan was to ask Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis. The Labor Party had 20-plus seats, and there was already talk of who would leave it to join Meretz so we could establish a real social democratic party.” Peretz is currently Labor chief, while Levi-Abekasis heads Gesher.

Still, Gilon was a power in the Knesset. In January 2017 he made headlines with his bid to raise allowances for the disabled to the level of the minimum wage. He won preliminary approval for his bill that opposed the government’s stance on the issue – an extraordinary feat.

The legislation was later defeated but led to agreements with the government to raise allowances for the disabled.

Gilon also chaired a subcommittee on accessibility. “When I headed the committee it was as if I were in charge of a government ministry,” he says. “I think this entered the public consciousness. It was accepted that the next success story would be accessibility. To make everything accessible. Every person has a degree of disability at one time or another.”

On Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin praised Gilon on Army Radio. Their relations are warm despite their deep ideological differences. In the Knesset, Gilon crossed party lines in the presidential election by supporting Rivlin.

But he has less esteem for the people on the right currently in the Knesset. “I wish there were a right wing,” he says.

“If Jabotinsky rose from the grave and saw how he’s memorialized in the Knesset, he’d go back after seeing who his successors are – the shallowness and extremism,” Gilon says about Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of the Israeli right who died in 1940, eight years before the establishment of the state.

Gilon says he still doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next – maybe a director of a kibbutz, or maybe “a vendor of kebab, rolls and beer.”

As he puts it, “When a door shuts, a window opens. I won’t wait for long.”

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