Will Israel's Left Wing Form an Alliance Ahead of the New Election? First, Heads Need to Roll

Meretz pushes for merger with Labor, which is busy trying to replace its discredited leader ■ Both parties need a facelift after the poor showing in April's election

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg and Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay
Majdi Mohammed, AP/Amir Cohen, Reuters

The decision to dissolve the 21st Knesset and hold an early election caught both the Labor Party and Meretz still reeling from the disappointing results in the last one.

The Labor Party plummeted to a mere six Knesset seats after it managed to garner 24 in its previous incarnation as part of the Zionist Union political alliance. Its image as a potential alternative for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud has crashed, and its members have been occupied in recent weeks solely with recovery, mending inside rifts.

Meretz just barely scraped the electoral threshold, getting only four Knesset seats after pulling in five in the previous election. Its campaign slogan – 'No revolution without Meretz' – failed to convince voters, and its most loyal supporters abandoned it in the moment of truth, turning instead to Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid's Kahol Lavan party in the hopes of dethroning Netanyahu.

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One of the seats Meretz did get came from Arab voters, a community the party is likely to invest serious efforts in ahead of the September 17 ballot in an attempt to draw even more supporters.

Both parties discussed over the past day the need for a facelift. Labor is expected to hold a primary election to choose a chair for the party and a new slate as the current chairman, Avi Gabbay, is expected to vacate his post.

Gabbay is associated with the bitter defeat Labor suffered in the April election. The fact that he recently looked into the possibility of joining Netanyahu's government despite his promise during the election campaign that he would never do so didn't help his image among supporters and party members alike.

Such a move by Gabbay would have been in exchange for Netanyahu abandoning his efforts to promote a bill that would give him immunity from indictment, as well as his attempts to curb the powers of the High Court through legislation - according to reports about the talks at the time.

Those expected to battle over the leadership of the party in the post-Gabbay era are former chairman Amir Peretz as well as Knesset members Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, who announced Thursday that she is considering the move. Former Israeli army deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, who is cautiously approaching the political arena these days, has also said that he would consider running for the position.

Shelly Yacimovich recently stated she would not run for another term as party chairman, explaining that leading Labor in the past forced her to devote her time to inter-party politics instead of parliamentary work.

Labor has yet to decide whether to hold an open primary among tens of thousands of members, or form the party's slate using its smaller committee forum. Tal Russo's position, whose place on the slate was reserved by Gabbay, remains unclear.

One the eve of the 21st Knesset's swearing-in, Russo contemplated bowing out in light of the party's poor showing in the polls, and has said during interviews on Thursday he was still ruminating over his future.

Labor chairman Avi Gabbay at the Knesset plenum with lawmaker Ayman Odeh, May 29, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

Meretz, too, hasn't decided yet whether it will keep its current slate or hold another primary ahead of the election, but minutes after the Knesset voted to dissolve party leader Tamar Zandberg broached a far-reaching proposal: A union with Labor.

"The present need calls for a big and significant left-wing bloc alongside the center," said Zandberg, repeating a similar call she made before the last election, which Gabbay rejected after polls held by both parties at the time showed a merger wouldn't increase their total number of seats.

Zandberg's rushed proposal also signals to left-wing voters that if such a union never comes, the fault would rest with Labor.

Other Labor member do not support a union with Meretz. "In the Labor Party's current condition, we need to join Kahol Lavan and run on a joint slate," said one of the party's lawmakers.

"There are no significant differences today between Gantz and Lapid and us. Joining Kahol Lavan may make it easier for Labor to join a coalition after the election, whether it is formed by Gantz, or Likud, if Netanyahu bows out," said the lawmaker. "Being in the coalition could improve the party's public image, while another stint in the opposition would kill it. Joining Meretz, however, could create a problematic image and drive away voters who don't want to support a left-wing party, but a centrist one."