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The Israeli Left’s Most Daunting Election Problem: Centrist Voters

Meretz and Labor should have both thought of this a month ago, when they had a chance to merge their slates and run on one list

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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From left: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Nitzan Horowitz, and Esawi Freige.
From left: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Nitzan Horowitz, and Esawi Freige.Credit: Amir Levy
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Monday’s mini-scandal on the campaign trail was provided by a candidate few Israelis had heard of before. In an interview with the Kul al-Arab channel, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi – No. 4 on Meretz’s candidate slate – said she would abstain on legislation outlawing “conversion therapy” for LGBT people if such a law were presented to the Knesset, “out of respect to my conservative community.” Cue a storm on the left.

Meretz is the party of LGBTQ rights, with an openly gay leader, Nitzan Horowitz, and a record going back to the 1980s (even before Meretz was founded) when future party co-founder Shulamit Aloni successfully lobbied for the decriminalization of same-sex relations. How could a Meretz candidate even contemplate not voting to outlaw “conversion therapy”?

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Horowitz was quick to make clear that “all Meretz members, Jewish and Arab, are fully committed to the campaign for equality and advancement of the rights of the gay community,” and Rinawie Zoabi herself soon clarified in a statement she would “support all legislation for LGBT rights,” including an anti-conversion therapy law.

The Rinawie Zoabi kerfuffle couldn’t have come at a worse moment for Meretz, when it is trying to burnish its ultra-progressive credentials and thereby differentiate itself from its sister party, Labor, which ever since the election of new leader Merav Michaeli two months ago has been eating into Meretz’s dwindling constituency, pushing it beneath the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent in a handful of recent polls.

It’s ironic that just when the two parties are trying to establish that they are actually different from each other, so they can divide the limited reservoir of left-wing votes between them and ensure they both survive on March 23, the leaderships of both parties are having to walk back controversial statements by Arab candidates. Labor spent much of last month doing the same with old anti-Zionist social media posts of the No. 7 on its list, Ibtisam Mara’ana, for which she has now apologized. But it’s still incongruous, to say the least, on the record of a candidate for the party that once embodied Zionism.

Another irony of Labor and Meretz’s plight is that in relative terms, they are the most democratic of Israeli parties, both having only recently held leadership elections, as well as primaries for the Knesset candidates’ slate in Labor and a convention vote in Meretz. Unlike most other parties on the Israeli landscape, where the party leader decides the candidates (Likud prides itself on holding primaries, but the last leadership election was held at the end of 2019 and the slate primaries four election campaigns ago), they have tried to open their ranks. But the results have produced two slates that are largely indistinguishable from each other.

Horowitz and Michaeli have campaigned over their careers on different issues, but as far as most Israelis are concerned, including center-left voters, they occupy much the same spot on the Israeli political spectrum. Both are typical liberal Israelis. Both come from very much the same Tel Aviv middle-class background. And both had successful careers in media before entering politics, which they both began during their military service in Arm Radio.

Since Michaeli’s election, they’ve tried to strike radically different notes. Michaeli has sworn that her Labor is the centrist, security-conscious party of Yitzhak Rabin. Horowitz has veered sharply leftward, putting an emphasis on diplomatic issues that previously were not his priority, calling Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “apartheid” and even justifying the recent decision of the International Criminal Court to begin investigating Israel for war crimes. Meretz has also launched a concerted campaign in the Arab-Israeli sector, utilizing Rinawie Zoabi, a prominent Arab community organizer but only a recent member of the party, and Esawi Freij, a former Meretz MK and now No. 5 on the list, in the hope of attracting voters away from the Joint List. So far the polls show it isn’t working.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the reasons for “the death of the Israeli left,” but that isn’t the main reason Labor and Meretz are in danger of pushing each other beneath the threshold. For a start, Labor was never really a left-wing party anyway. And there should still be enough “left-wing” voters between the place once occupied by Labor in the political center-ground and the far-left communist Hadash party (now one-third of Joint List) to ensure Meretz survives with relative ease.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The problem is not with the Israeli left, which was always small. It’s with the centrist voters, once Labor’s backbone, who have long deserted it for newer, flashier alternatives. In the space once occupied just by Labor and Meretz, there are currently four parties, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid taking up most of the space in the center and his former partner Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, also struggling to remain above the threshold, occupying what remains of Labor’s natural habitat.

In an interview with The New York Times last week, Michaeli said, “I brought Labor back almost from the dead.” That’s true in the sense that before her election, and in the wake of the decision by former party leader Amir Peretz to join the Netanyahu coalition last year, Labor was way beneath the threshold. But her resurrection of the party has so far been mainly through the cannibalization of Meretz, rather than by retaking Labor’s traditional ground.

For Meretz, at least, this is a familiar predicament and it has already embarked on its usual last-minute “Save Meretz!” campaign. Or as former party leader Zehava Galon puts it, “How can we allow a situation where the followers of Meir Kahane [Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party] are in the Knesset and the party of Shulamit Aloni is not?”

Horowitz and Michaeli should have both thought of this a month ago, when they had a chance to merge their slates and run on one list that would have at least guaranteed their parliamentary survival. At least, if Meretz fails to cross the threshold, Aloni’s memory will not be tarnished by a lawmaker who is less than resolute in fighting for LGBTQ rights.

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