The Israeli Left's Labor-Meretz Linkup: An Alliance Forged by Fear, Not Love

The difficulty in forging a slate between people who have no fundamental differences of opinion show that culture wars and ethnic rifts still drive Israeli society

Ravit Hecht
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Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, left, and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, right.
Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, left, and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, right, at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Jan. 13, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ravit Hecht

More than being a reason to celebrate, the linkup between Labor-Gesher and Meretz is an insurance policy against a catastrophe. Their joint slate in the March 2 Knesset election doesn’t have the essential momentum of a new venture, as there was when Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz linked up with Yair Lapid, for example.

There is a reasonable possibility that the joint Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket will get fewer seats in the next Knesset than the parties would have achieved on their own, (assuming, of course, that they would have passed the minimum 3.25 percent vote threshold separately). But they also faced the potential – and a rather catastrophic one at that – of about 150,000 left-wing votes going down the drain. That would lead to a right-wing coalition marked by corruption, immunity for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a move towards annexation in the West Bank.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Credit: Haaretz

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The parties on the Zionist left have been facing an ongoing crisis of deep and wide-ranging origin that predated their current party representatives. The parties have been brutally tarnished by the right over the past two decades, to such an extent that their supporters have been forced into self-denial. And to avoid appearing crazy or, even worse, traitorous, the supporters have put aside their hope that one day Israel would have clearly defined borders and no longer be an occupier controlling a civilian population.

The energy has shifted to issues with better optics, such as LGBTQ rights, separation of religion and state and the rule of law. The left-wingers are flocking to parties that blur their foreign policy platforms to as great an extent possible. Kahol Lavan, which is home to both leftists and rightists, all of whom dislike Netanyahu, provides a refreshing, simple and convenient solution for this electorate – certainly more so than parties with complex party institutions that have become tainted by failure and irrelevance.

Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz foresaw what was coming well before launching his bid to head the party. Even prior to last April’s Knesset election, he lobbied for a joint slate uniting Meretz and Labor, brandishing projections that at the time appeared unrealistically catastrophic. They boiled down to expectations of a showing so poor that one of the parties on the left might be shut out of the Knesset altogether.

In retrospect, he was right and that’s one of the reasons he was elected to head Meretz. The party figured it would be easier to carry out such an alliance with Horowitz at the helm rather than Tamar Zandberg.

Over at the Labor Party, which played hard to get throughout, matters were a little more complicated. In the April election, the party was headed by Avi Gabbay, who didn’t want the alliance. But separately the two parties scored an achievement that was astonishingly meager.

Before he was election to replace Gabbay as Labor’s leader, Amir Peretz did show interest in joining forces with Meretz, an interest originating in the distant past, when he spoke with Ilan Gilon about possibly uniting the so-called red camp within Meretz.

In the more recent past, the matter also came up, with various ex-Laborites who have always been making it their business (even if Meretz would soon not have Knesset seats or even exist as a party). In February, ahead of the April election, Peretz even tweeted: “Out of [our sense of] national responsibility and responsibility for the peace and social justice camp, we have to do whatever it takes to fulfill the possibility of running as a joint Labor and Meretz slate.”

But from the moment he allied Labor with Gesher Orli Levi-Abekasis, Peretz turned his back on Meretz.

Pressure from elsewhere

Orli Levi-Abekasis and Amir Peretz.
Orli Levi-Abekasis, left, and Amir Peretz at a news conference, July 2019.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Peretz and his new partner had dreams of a social, cultural and ethnic big bang that would attract new voters, including Mizrahim – attracting a spectrum of voters, from former supporters of Moshe Kahlon on the soft-right to the Mizrahi left, some of whom had coalesced around Gesher. The dispute over whether or not the effort failed is still ongoing. Some precincts in outlying areas and development towns showed growth in support for Labor. But there are others, in Levi-Abekasis’ home turf of Beit She’an, for example, where Labor and Gesher attracted more votes in April running separately than they did as a united ticket in September.

In any event, in advance of next March’s third round of elections, the pressure on Peretz is coming from elsewhere entirely – from Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction of Kahol Lavan to Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List.

All along, it has appeared that the more Peretz came under pressure, the stiffer his resistance became. Beyond the not entirely unreasonable gamble that the two parties would do better running separately, throughout his political life, Peretz has been a victim of racism as a member of the Mizrahi community of Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

In 2006, during Peretz’s prior stint as Labor Party leader, some traditional Labor voters jumped ship, refusing to vote for a Mizrahi. Now he has again been feeling that he has to take orders from left-wing Ashkenazim. And Peretz is not alone on that score.

The tide of animosity towards him since his refusal to join forces with Meretz in the previous election went beyond legitimate criticism of his stubbornness and included allegedly solid allegations that Peretz would come to the rescue of a Netanyahu-led government in exchange for a position of power, perks and his selection later as Israel’s president.

Doesn’t understand Peretz

Labor’s traditional electorate, and the left in general, hasn’t been able to understand and didn’t want to understand what Peretz was trying to do or why. The electorate has been hostile and suspicious of him and outraged over what it has perceived as a constant attempt to blame it for historic injustice.

The tremendous difficulty in achieving an alliance between people who barely differ in their opinions demonstrates that the tribal cultural war sometimes called the ethnic rift remains the most painful wound in Israeli society, and the main force driving it.

After all, what is the difference between the foreign policy views of Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, or between Peretz and Ilan Gilon’s views on the economy. The wound isn’t healing. It’s becoming more sophisticated and changing in shape and form.

At one time, Labor and Meretz couldn’t have united because Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who called for “breaking the legs and arms” of Palestinians during the first intifada, really could not have sat together with a personality like Yossi Sarid.

Now it has required a gun to the head to get Labor and Meretz together. That’s because Levi-Abekasis, who despite her disgraceful voting record when she was with Yisrael Beiteinu, doesn’t appear to have clear-cut foreign policy views, but simply didn’t want to be seen with those privileged people from Meretz.

And one final comment. It’s true that Stav Shaffir is a difficult person, hot-tempered, egoistic, etc. etc. (as if everybody else in politics was refined, elegant and humble, tripping from one altruistic act to the next). But Shaffir is also a politician who is admired on the left. She has her supporters and a measure of public respect. Under the current circumstances, despite the egos and infighting, she could have been placed on the joint Labor-Meretz slate. It wouldn’t have been a disaster.

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