Analysis

Center-left Merger Leaves Barak, Shaffir and Meretz Smiling on the Life Raft

New Democratic Union alliance should allow Meretz to fight another day, but places extra pressure on other center-left parties in September’s do-over election

Ehud Barak, left, Stav Shaffir and Nitzan Horowitz
Tomer Appelbaum, Meged Gozani

The smiles in the not-quite-selfie are contrived. None of the three people in the frame wanted to be there: Nitzan Horowitz wanted Meretz to be a clear left-wing alternative to the centrist parties; now he’s diluting his message. Stav Shaffir wanted to lead a rejuvenated Labor Party; now she’s politically homeless. And then there’s Ehud Barak.

‏As always, Barak looks inscrutable in the picture. He can actually claim this is what he wanted all along — to create an alliance of parties to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it’s hard to believe he didn’t want to play a more central role himself, as leader of a new party and candidate for a senior ministerial position.

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>> Read more: Democratic Union leaders launch campaign: Left has never been stronger ■ Galvanized Israeli leftists can thank Jeffrey Epstein for the shock Barak-Shaffir-Meretz alliance | Opinion

Now he’s been forced to accept the 10th slot on the newly formed Democratic Union’s slate. At 77, he’s been relegated to the role of kibitzer-in-chief. He’ll be great at savaging Netanyahu during the campaign. As a candidate, though, he is more of a liability than an asset.

Horowitz seems to have gained the most from the merger. He’s leading the alliance and Meretz is officially hosting it. He’s bought his party another term. In September’s election, at least, the party leaders will not have to beg their wavering voters to save them from oblivion in the last week of the campaign. But he risks losing some of the party’s more left-wing voters, who will find it extremely difficult to vote for a slate including the arch-capitalist and warlord Barak, who is tainted by his association with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

The risk of a mass departure of Meretz voters to the Joint List (assuming the four Arab parties get their act together and run on one slate this time) is somewhat mitigated by Barak being pushed down to 10th on the Democratic Union ticket. But it’s still there, and we can expect long weeks of arguments on left-wing blogs between purists and pragmatists right up till Election Day. Ultimately, though, there will be enough new voters drawn in to balance any exodus and Meretz will live to fight another day.

Shaffir’s story is the most intriguing. By all accounts, she was one of the main forces in bringing about the merger and will be number two on the new slate. But she paid for it by leaving Labor, where she was a leader-in-waiting. If other Labor heavyweights follow her — and Itzik Shmuli seems the likeliest candidate — or if Labor leader Amir Peretz is also forced to merge Labor into the Democratic Union in the week remaining before slates are handed into the Central Elections Committee, she will be vindicated.

If not (as seems likely), her political future is less certain. Meretz is a small and crowded party, and she craves a wider stage. Her long-term plan is to return to Labor on the day after and rejuvenate it — if there’s still a party to return to, that is.

‏But they’re all smiling for now, like survivors on a life raft when the helicopters arrive. Or uneasy family members at an arranged marriage. Choose your metaphor. They’re alive and will cross the electoral threshold. In the current political climate, that’s an achievement. But what next?

Labor leader Amir Peretz and Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis heading to announce their parties' election pact, July 18, 2019.
Nir Keidar

There are a few immediate questions. First, will this ensure that center-left votes don’t get lost by one of the parties not crossing the electoral threshold? On paper, the space between Likud on the right and Hadash on the left, which encompasses nearly 40 percent of the electorate, is more than wide enough for the three parties now competing there: Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union. In practice, however, the survival of all three is far from guaranteed.

Ideologically, sociologically and historically, there is room for a large centrist party, tilting slightly to the left — which is what Labor historically was — and a smaller Zionist-left party in the shape of Meretz. But short-lived centrist parties have shifted this historic balance, diminishing both Labor and Meretz in the process. Now it’s Kahol Lavan, which sucked away wide swaths of Labor voters in April, and some from Meretz as well, nearly pushing it beneath the 3.25 percent threshold.

Meretz should survive, but what about Labor, which has lost one of its major stars in Shaffir? By striking a deal with Orli Levi-Abekasi’s Gesher (which itself failed to pass the electoral threshold in April), Peretz has made it clear that he’s playing for “social-minded” voters on the soft right. Are there enough of those willing to shift to Labor to compensate for the loss of voters who will stick with Shaffir?

Assuming both Labor and Meretz survive, what are the wider implications for the center-left and its chances of bringing about a change in government?

Currently, the three parties combined have 45 seats. With the more left-wing element — Meretz, Shaffir and Barak — now energized, and Labor playing for right wingers, how will Kahol Lavan react? For all the party’s talk of replacing Netanyahu, its “achievement” of winning 35 seats in April was based almost entirely on cannibalizing the other center-left parties — the cynical tactic employed in previous elections by Yesh Atid, the party of co-leader Yair Lapid. Will the latest developments force it to finally make real efforts to expand its appeal rightward, seriously challenging Netanyahu?

‏Even if the three center-left parties survive and add to their current combined tally on September 17, they have no prospect of winning a Knesset majority — not even with the addition of the Joint List’s seats. The Democratic Union’s real test will come on the day after the election when it turns out that the only prospect of replacing Netanyahu is through a governing coalition with right-wing partners: Avigdor Lieberman, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett.

That dilemma will almost certainly split them. But the Democratic Union may have already served its purpose by then.