Merge, Rejuvenate or Desist: How to Save the Israeli Left

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Former MKs Zehava Galon, left, Dov Khenin, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin and Avraham Burg.
Former MKs Zehava Galon, left, and Dov Khenin.Credit: Moti Milrod, Olivier Fitoussi and Meged Gozani
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The question has already become a permanent one in these repeated election campaigns: Will Labor and Meretz merge this time around – or will they once again crawl on their bellies through every trial and tribulation only to gnaw their fingernails as they await the exit polls? 

'The left’s great crisis began during the tenure of Ehud Barak, who was elected prime minister in 1999 with massive, 95 percent support from Arab voters,' says former Hadash MK Dov Khenin

As of this writing, it looks as if those parties will run separately, due mainly to the stubbornness of Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz and his partner in the Labor-Gesher joint ticket, Orli Levi-Abekasis, both of whom see their slate as a great success. According to senior Labor officials, Peretz is vehemently opposed to linking up with Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz, even as part of a “technical” joint-ticket arrangement that would allow both parties to remain completely independent after the March 2 election.

Peretz and Levi-Abekasis are acting as if Labor-Gesher will definitely win enough votes to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset. They argue that running separately will ultimately produce more votes for the left-wing bloc as a whole than a joint Labor-Meretz list would. 

They may be right, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they’re taking an enormous risk, one verging on recklessness. The danger these party leaders face in the upcoming election is even greater than it was in the last one. 

MK Stav Shaffir of the Democratic Union, right, and the party's chairman, MK Nitzan Horowitz.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Kahol Lavan alliance managed to fulfill its purpose and to position itself as an adequate and realistic option for ending the reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the left’s main object of loathing in recent years. Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz succeeded where others have failed over the last decade: He was asked by the president to form a government and has tied with Netanyahu in polls asking who is most suited to be prime minister. 

These precedents, coupled with Netanyahu’s legal and political woes, can leave no left-wing heart indifferent. So what awaits Labor and Meretz?

Losing the kibbutzim

Before trying to predict the future, we should take a moment to look back and understand what has happened to Labor and Meretz in recent decades. In the 1992 election, the two parties received a combined 44.3 percent of the vote, which translated into 56 Knesset seats (44 for Labor and 12 for Meretz). In the 2015 election, Zionist Union (a joint slate comprised of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah) and Meretz received a combined 22.6 percent of the vote, or 29 seats. 

In the April 2019 election, Labor headed by Avi Gabbay won 4.4 percent of the vote, or six seats, while Meretz got 3.6 percent, or four seats. Gesher, headed by Levi-Abekasis, got 1.7 percent of the vote, not enough to enter the Knesset.

Meretz activists are carrying signs and banners at a high school in Tel Aviv. Running as part of the Democratic Union joint ticket, Meretz got 4.4 percent of the votes in September’s do-over election.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In September’s do-over election, Labor-Gesher got 4.8 percent of the vote and Meretz – running as part of the Democratic Union joint ticket – got 4.4 percent. Thus the two parties combined won 11 seats.

Kahol Lavan easily gobbled up Labor and Meretz voters. In that same election in Givatayim, a city associated with the Labor Party in particular and the Zionist left in general, Labor-Gesher garnered 9.6 percent of the vote and Democratic Union won 11 percent, while Kahol Lavan captured around 50 percent. In Haifa, another “red” city, Kahol Lavan got 33 percent of the vote, while Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union received 5.5 percent each.

Even in many kibbutzim, longtime bastions of Labor and Meretz, Kahol Lavan won big in that round. According to kibbutz movement data, Kahol Lavan chalked up 50 percent of the kibbutz vote, while Democratic Union got around 10 percent and Labor-Gesher got approximately 16 percent.

You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that the part of the electorate culturally and politically identified with veteran left-wing parties hasn’t hesitated to abandon them once another suitable political framework emerged. In fact, the public began deserting Labor and Meretz even earlier: In the 2009 election, in which Kadima was running as the ruling party and its then-leader, Tzipi Livni, was seen as a realistic candidate to defeat Netanyahu, Labor headed by Ehud Barak won 13 seats (9.9 percent of the vote) and Meretz hit an all-time low of three seats (3 percent of the vote).

“They’re always trying to say that Kahol Lavan gobbled up Labor’s votes, but the truth is that every time, someone else gobbled up those votes,” said former Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin. “It’s because its body was sick. It’s impossible to eat away a healthy body.”

'Labor suffered from delegitimization by both the right and the left. It was impossible to survive this pincers movement'

Former Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Labor suffered from “delegitimization by both the right and the left. It was impossible to survive this pincers movement,” she continued, adding, “Israel needs an ideological center. This may be one of the only countries in the world in which there’s a psychological need to be in the center. What happened on the left is that everyone who espoused centrist views was expelled from the camp. The people who expect to talk with our bitterest enemies aren’t willing to have any relationship whatsoever with the other side [of the political spectrum].”

Former Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, said Nahmias-Verbin, “took the party to the most furthest left edge of social democracy. This had some justification after the [social justice] protests of 2011, but it dragged the whole image of the party leftward, beyond what its potential electorate was able to swallow. Those are the seats that went to Yair Lapid in 2013.”

Yacimovich’s successor, Isaac Herzog, “understood that the public needs something in the center, and therefore joined forces with Tzipi Livni, which succeeded,” she added. “Effectively, he prepared the ground for Kahol Lavan.”

The Arab vote

Part of the trend Nahmias-Verbin describes is evident in the persistent criticism by left-wingers of parties in the leftist bloc. They argue that there’s an irreconcilable contradiction between leftist values and Zionist values, between democracy and Judaism.

“There’s an internal contradiction when the people who are supposed to make peace with the Arabs are only Jews,” said former Hadash MK Dov Khenin. “There’s a substantive contradiction between the fact that I say we have to get along with the world and the Arab region, and the fact that within my party, I haven’t succeeded in creating a real Jewish-Arab partnership. This weakens the message.”

'There’s an internal contradiction when the people who are supposed to make peace with the Arabs are only Jews'

Former Hadash MK Dov Khenin. Credit: Meged Gozani

He added: “If we look around the world, we see that almost everywhere, progressive parties have built themselves around coalitions of minorities. The classic example of this is the Democratic Party in the United States which, had it not given black Americans a real place within it, wouldn’t have succeeded.”

Khenin stressed that a lack of confidence in the Zionist left is commonplace among Israeli Arabs. “The Labor Party created tools for itself whose goal was to mobilize support among Arabs, such as satellite parties of Mapai,” he said, referring to Labor’s precursor. “Until the 1977 election, most Arab voters voted for Mapai and those satellite parties. 

“But the left’s great crisis began during the tenure of Ehud Barak, who was elected prime minister [in 1999] with massive, 95 percent support from Arab voters,” he continued. But during the Arab riots of October 2000 [in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada], Barak roused anger in the Arab community that Labor “hasn’t managed to recover from to this day. As Labor’s leader, he also said there was no partner [for peace]. And that essentially means the right was right.”

According to former Labor MK Avraham Burg, “Israel has no true left.” Burg, currently working to create a civic Jewish-Arab party, thinks that “Meretz, in every election, was ultimately the party of Jewish privilege. Admittedly, it’s the most moderate one on the scale, but that’s still what it is.”

'Israel has no true left. Meretz, in every election, was ultimately the party of Jewish privilege. Admittedly, it’s the most moderate one on the scale, but that’s still what it is'

Former Labor MK Avraham Burg.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Nor does he spare his own former political home of criticism: “To welcome Orli Levi-Abekasis, Amir Peretz folded up the flag of diplomacy, and I don’t find their social-welfare flag credible. Ideologically and intellectually, I don’t accept a worldview that is social-welfare oriented but also ethnic. There’s no such thing.”

Prof. Camil Fuchs, a statistician and pollster, said that in previous elections, the Arab community gave Labor and Meretz more than one Knesset seat on average. Thus, if the Arab parties’ Joint List is on the rise at present, he said, “these parties are in danger,” since a stronger Joint List “is likely to come at the expense of support for Labor and Meretz.”

Khenin also raised another problem that contributes to the two parties’ poor showing. “Both have given up on their educational vehicles, like the youth movements, so all that remains is a platform that’s focused on getting elected, without any cultural or educational activity,” he said.

A woman is walking past election ads on election day, April 9th, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Thirty years ago, the former MK continued, the Histadrut Labor Federation had workers’ councils that held political activities and meetings: “These were the Labor Party’s social bases. But today, this doesn’t exist.”

The labor movement still has its communes and other affiliates, “but they’re disconnected from the mother ship – not connected to any political process. Now compare that to the activities of all the garinim torani’im, which are part of the political process,” he said, referring to groups of religious Zionists that go to locales without many religious Jews, and conduct activities to bolster residents’ Jewish identity. “In Lod, for instance, one of the leaders of the garin torani was elected mayor.”

Uniting in order to split

But whatever the reasons for their problems, all of the polls since the September vote are showing the two parties failing to surpass the combined 11 seats they won in the last election. Indeed, they may well fare even worse. Most surveys show them with nine to 10 seats combined. 

Their poor showing in the polls is arousing concern not only in Labor and Meretz, but also in Kahol Lavan – because if one of the two left-wing parties fails to cross the electoral threshold, Kahol Lavan will effectively be a party to the bloc’s disaster. 

Sources in both of the smaller parties say that Gantz hasn’t done enough to save the dying left wing – in sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s relentless, energetic efforts to boost small parties in the rightist bloc. People in Labor say Peretz actually wanted to run together with Kahol Lavan, but the latter’s leadership rejected the idea. 

Kahol Lavan’s already crowded cockpit – the joint ticket has four co-leaders – didn’t need another occupant. Moreover, if Labor voters are moving over to Kahol Lavan in any case, why would it need to merge with their party and put up with all the egos, tempests and internal strife?

Given the weakness of the two smaller parties and the danger this poses, there’s no choice but to ask whether there’s any justification for them to run at all in the current situation.  

“Your influence when you’re in the realm of six Knesset seats is very small,” Nahmias-Verbin said. “The two parties must form a technical bloc now, and then afterward, the left needs to reorganize.”

The former head of Meretz, Zehava Galon, is also of the opinion that such an emergency solution must be put into play now – on the way to dismantling and rebuilding the bloc. 

'In this election, there is a supreme goal and it is to kick out Bibi. For this to happen, no vote must be allowed to go to waste, and that demands that Labor and Meretz to form a technical bloc.'

The former head of Meretz and Haaretz columnist, Zehava Galon. Credit: Moti Milrod

“In this election, there is a supreme goal and it is to kick out Bibi,” she told Haaretz. “For this to happen, no vote must be allowed to go to waste, and that demands that Labor and Meretz to form a technical bloc. But in the longer term, it is impossible to continue with a ‘gevalt’ [last-ditch] campaign that scrapes the bottom of the electoral threshold every time anew."

Added Galon: "In the next election, between Kahol Lavan and the Joint List, something egalitarian must arise, something Jewish-Arab and social democratic, that will reflect something new and energetic. Meretz and Labor have come to the end of their historic roles. There is a moment when you have to see reality clearly. These parties need to undertake a self-examination."

“If Labor and Meretz unite," predicted someone who has served as a consultant for both parties, "they can win 12 Knesset seats in a campaign that's aimed right between the eyes, one that presents them in the role of the bad boy on the field.” But there is a problem with the people involved, he added: “The figures from Labor and Meretz have permeated the walls, like infections in the hospital.” 

Left-wing voters have been calling for years for their parties to join together, for “renewal, to become more militant, pragmatic and to aspire to rule,” said MK Stav Shaffir of the Democratic Union. Shaffir’s own situation today is complicated too: The party she started out in but subsequently left, headed by Amir Peretz, refuses to join forces with her, while in Meretz they are no longer very enthusiastic about a continued partnership with her. 

“The veteran parties are hesitating and there are too many groups who want to preserve the existing situation, even if it means crashing,” she observed. 

'We are the incubator'

A number of veteran political figures have been trying recently to establish a new party framework of the type Galon is talking about: Avraham Burg; David (Dedi) Zucker, one of the founders of Peace Now; former Meretz chairman Haim Oron; former MK Talab al-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party; and social activist Mohammad Darawshe. 

“We are the incubator," said Zucker, when asked why it was the old horses who are trying to bring a new message to the left. “We have a very limited role, to be the starter. After that, our role is to move aside."  

The former leader of Meretz and founder of the Ratz party, the late Shulamit Aloni. Achieved Meretz's best election result, in 1992.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As for the continued existence of Labor and Meretz, Zucker said they are fighting for their lives and this “interferes with the growth of something new. This something new needs to be a party that will place in the forefront the most critical issue for Israel’s existence – and it is equality. Such a party will be an 'alumnus' of the Zionist movement and it will take the next step: to switch from a partnership on a national basis to a partnership on a civic basis.” 

“We have talked about Meretz and Labor, but the other parties must provide an answer too,” said Burg, explaining his work on behalf of the new enterprise. “The Joint List is not a clear political creation but a coalition based on nationality, and it does not have an agenda of full citizenship and partnership. On the other side, Kahol Lavan is a self-proclaimed party of the right."

Burg added that for the sort of entity he envisions "to reach fruition, it needs a period of at least two years, and not within a schedule of having elections every three months." 

After the election in April 2019, Burg and his colleagues conducted a poll that forecast that the type of party they are trying to form would win four seats in the Knesset – not a bad starting point for an initiative that still does not have faces or names.

In Meretz, they are of course less enthusiastic about this scenario. “What is shared by all the people there is that they had some sort of unpleasant experience with Meretz or they left it in anger,” said one member.

The late Israeli prime minister and Labor leader, Yizhak Rabin, is giving his victory speech after winning the 1992 election.Credit: Jerome Delay / ASSOCIATED PRESS

What are the party’s own positions in light of their situation? Meretz and Labor are quite used to defending themselves and explaining why they are still important. Meretz is busy these days with trying to formalize a partnership with Shaffir, and are also showing a desire to merge with Labor. There are those in the Labor Party who are beginning to lose their patience with Peretz – both because of the abyss that looms ahead and also due to internal party matters. The latter include reserving places on the Knesset slate for his choices, which has been keeping his colleagues busy – especially in light of the very limited number of seats, if any, the party is expected to win.

“For 20 years, they’ve been saying that Meretz needs to be closed down,” says its chairman, Nitzan Horowitz. “This is a party, some of whose fans love to beat up on it and torture it but in the end has no substitute. It fulfills a role that nobody else does. Who do you call when someone is arrested or has to petition the High Court of Justice? Who goes to help free left-wing activists or homosexual Palestinian illegal residents, whom the Arabs don’t want to hear about, and the Interior Ministry doesn’t want and of course neither does the right? Only us.”

Regarding the new initiative for starting a Jewish-Arab party, Horowitz told Haaretz: “As far as is known, this thing isn’t happening now. When it comes to the theoretical idea, I’m very much in favor. I think it’s critical for the Israeli left to be a left of partnership. That’s something that’s fundamental and a key to the future of the country and to the renewal of the left. Today we’re in a situation of division that isn’t really that. 

"The moment we embark on a normal political track and there aren’t more elections within a few months time, we’ll begin to develop the left as a Jewish-Arab partnership. It doesn’t have to be only Meretz, but something broader of which Meretz is a part.”

Amir Peretz declined to be interviewed for this report.

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