Israeli Labor Lawmaker Quits, Left-wing Meretz Party Eyes Primary Ahead of New Election

Tal Rousso ends his short-lived political life and former MK Nitzan Hotowitz to run for Meretz leadership as parties grapple with election disappointment

Meretz activists prepare for the party's primary election in its Tel Aviv headquarters, February 13, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Israeli left-wing parties Meretz and Labor face changes in leadership ahead of a do-over election on September 17, after the poor outcome on April 9 granted the left-wing block only 10 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

In Meretz, former MK Nitzan Horowitz announced that he will be running for party leadership against current chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, pending party protocol. In Labor, Tal Rousso, second on the party's slate and former head of the military's Southern Command  announced his departure from political life after only a few months. The two parties are also considering possibilities of a merger with one another or with others.

Horowitz announced he will run for the leadership of Meretz, pending a decision by the Meretz convention, which will discuss whether to accept the proposal of Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg to freeze the present slate and run in the coming election with the same list.

>> Time to unite the left | Editorial ■ Why a new election? Only two men know | Analysis

According to the Meretz constitution, there must be elections for leadership and list prior to every Knesset election. Zandberg’s proposal to cancel the internal election requires a two-thirds majority of the convention delegates, and a participation of at least 20 percent. The four elected MKs Meretz has were split on the decision, but following Horowitz's announcement Zandberg said she would no longer support it.

Tomer Appelbaum

Horowitz, who is supported by the “red” faction in Meretz, whose members are identified with former Chairwoman Zehava Galon and the representatives of the kibbutzim, wrote on Facebook: “We have an opportunity. We’ve received a second chance to repair what happened in the last election and to create a proper left … In the recent election we were almost erased. If we don’t get our bearings, make repairs and add more forces – there won’t be a next time.”

A senior Meretz member told Haaretz: “after the resounding failure in the recent election, it’s important to allow the party’s voters to change the face of the party. Zandberg, who conducted a personal campaign that placed an emphasis on her own persona, was unable to bring out the voters.”

In the recent election Meretz received only four seats, compared to its previous five. One of the seats came from Arab voters, a target audience in which the party is expected to invest considerable efforts prior to Election Day, in the hope of attracting additional voters.

In Labor, Tal Russo, former head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, who received the safe number two spot on the Labor slate in the recent election, has announced that he will not run for a Knesset seat in September.

On his Facebook page he wrote: “In the current situation, early elections and the election of a new party chairman in such a short period of time do not allow me to do things as I had hoped. I don’t want to be a partner to battles of succession, and am therefore removing myself from the race for the position of chairman and from the slate for the 22nd Knesset.”

Although the Knesset has not functioned since his election, he is entitled to a full salary until a new Knesset is formed. He is expected to meet on Tuesday with the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, in order to clarify his situation after his announcement.

Minutes after the Knesset voted on its dissolution, Zandberg repeated her proposal to merge with Labor. “The hour calls for a large and significant left-wing bloc alongside the center,” she explained. Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay called for the merger and said that his party has to run in the upcoming election on a joint list with Meretz or with Kahol Lavan. “There should be only three parties on the left-center instead of five,” he said.

But not everyone in his party supports merging with Meretz. “In Labor’s present situation, we have to join Kahol Lavan or run with them jointly,” said one of the party MKs. “There are no significant differences today between [Kahol Lavan leaders Benny] Gantz and [Yair] Lapid and us. Joining Kahol Lavan would make it easier for Labor to join a coalition after the election, whether it is formed by Gantz or by Likud, in the case that Netanyahu resigns."

He added: “Joining the coalition could improve the party’s public image, while remaining in the opposition for another term will kill it. Joining Meretz, on the other hand, could create a problematic image for us and distance voters who want to support a centrist party rather than a left-wing one.”

Recently, lawmaker Issawi Freij of Meretz turned to the leader of Arab-majority parties Hadash and Ta’al in order to examine a merger. Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh didn’t reject the idea out of hand, but made it clear that Hadash has a commitment to party supporters to re-establishing the Joint [Arab] List before examining a merger of that kind.