Analysis

Labor-Meretz Merger: Once a Powerhouse, Israel's Founding Party Struggles to Survive

Israel's Labor Party once dominated the Knesset, and its aim was to keep hold of and share its power. Now it's all about survival

Labor Chairman Amir Peretz and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz announcing their parties' merger in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2020.
Moti Milrod

The last time Labor merged its candidate list with the party to its left was back in January 1969, under Levi Eshkol. Not only was the party in power at the time, but the bloc it formed with Mapam (United Workers Party) created for the next 10 months the only party ever to have an absolute majority in the Knesset, with a total of 63 seats.

The joint party, called the Alignment, lost its absolute majority in that year's October election, but the 56 seats it did win under the leadership of Golda Meir was the highest number any party has won in an Israeli election. It was more than enough to form a ruling government.

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Labor had merged with Mapam to ensure its continuing dominance of the political scene. For Mapam, which had been Labor's smaller, socialist sister for the previous two decades, the merger was a show of recognition that only as part of a larger bloc could it hope to implement at least some of its policies. The Alignment would stick together for another 15 years (and five election campaigns) until after the 1984 election, when Labor – by then desperate to regain power after seven years in the opposition – entered a national unity coalition with Likud. Mapam refused and became an independent party once more. Eight years later, it and two other small-left wing parties would go on to form Meretz.

'The Alignment' won 56 seats under Golda Meir's leadership in 1969 - the highest number any party has ever won in an Israeli election
משה מילנר / לעמ

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Back then, it was all about having power and sharing it. Thirty-six years since the last time they ran together, Labor and its left-wing ally are united once again in the same slate. But this time, it’s all about survival.

Amir Peretz’s reluctance to merge with Meretz, which lasted until Sunday, is understandable. As the leader of Israel’s founding party, he can no longer be certain that Labor will remain a distinct and independent entity after this election. No Israeli politician has the breadth of Peretz’s experience. He was mayor of the southern Israeli city Sderot, secretary-general of the Histadrut labor federation and defense minister. He has comprehensive, progressive social policies as well as his own detailed plan for peace with the Palestinians. And he had a vision for Labor as a modern, sociodemocratic party, breaking the dichotomous left-right divide in Israeli society.

None of that cut through in his two terms as Labor leader. It continued to shrink, and adding Likud “princess” (and now Gesher leader) Orli Levi-Abekasis to his ticket didn’t change that. Labor lost its historic role as the central party of Israeli politics first to Kadima, during Peretz’s first stint as leader back in 2006, and now once again to Kahol Lavan. It is a tiny niche party of urban and kibbutz leftists, almost indistinguishable from Meretz.

Israel’s center-left was once wide enough to hold both Labor and Mapam (or Meretz in its current evolution). As recently as 1992, they won a total of 56 seats together, or 44 percent of the electorate. But the last two governments in which they worked together, headed by Labor's Yitzhak Rabin and then Ehud Barak, focused on the Oslo peace process.

When the second intifada and the exploding buses and coffee shops came along, the two parties’ key policy was discredited in the eyes of most Israelis. Labor was no longer seen as the responsible centrist option. Parties with charismatic leaders but vague policies (Kadima, Yesh Atid, Kahol Lavan) captured Labor’s traditional position.

Despite the efforts of Labor’s two previous leaders, Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay, to tack toward the center and shift the conversation from the Palestinian issue to domestic policy, the party has been squeezed leftward by Kahol Lavan, splitting a dwindling constituency with Meretz.

Labor Chairman Amir Peretz and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz announcing their parties' merger in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2020.
Moti Milrod

The two parties’ decline seems irreversible. Unlike Peretz, Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz understood this early on. For the past year, even before he was elected party leader last July, he has implored both Gabbay and then Peretz to merge their slates. Horowitz also has a clear sociodemocratic vision, but unlike Peretz he has a more pragmatic view of its prospects in the short-term.

Horowitz knows there are not currently enough voters who discern between Meretz and Labor, and that articulating a convincing new message is impossible with the campaign to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overriding any other ideology or policy. He knows that Meretz will not be the same in the post-Netanyahu realignment period. For now, it just has to survive.

Labor and Meretz will each have a small handful of lawmakers in the next Knesset. They may not be enough to rebuild these historic parties. Mapam, the proud socialist-Zionist party that played a major role in building the state, ceased to exist in 1997. Labor, which ruled Israel for half its existence, is no longer guaranteed an independent future either. For now it is surviving, barely, as one half of a small left-wing party. This may well be its last election.