Israel's Left-wing Meretz Party Set to Hold First-ever Primary for Knesset Slate

In run-up to February 14 vote, party officials concerned about lack of reserved spot for Arab and move to unseat incumbents; 20,000 members eligible to vote

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Meretz party MK Esawi Freige, left, with party leader Tamar Zandberg outside the Supreme Court of Israel in Jerusalem, July 31, 2018
Meretz MK Freige, left, with party leader Tamar Zandberg, in July. It was actually Freige’s idea to scrap the reserved slot for an Arab on the slate.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

After years in which the central committee of Meretz chose the Knesset ticket, this year, for the first time, the party will hold a primary in which all of its 20,000 members can vote. However, party officials are worried that in the primary, on February 14, no Israeli Arab candidate will end up placing high enough on the slate to have a realistic chance of getting into the Knesset.

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The party has not reserved a slot for an Arab candidate this time around. And while MK Esawi Freige had no trouble securing a relatively high place on the list when it was elected by the central committee, it’s not clear that he will fare as well this time among the greater membership.

“I’m afraid that in the voters’ subconscious, they’ll think a place is reserved for an Arab in Meretz and therefore won’t vote for such a candidate,” said Freige.

Party sources estimate that his prominent place on the ticket brought Meretz about half-a-seat’s worth of Arab voters in the last election.

“The Arab street is a senior partner for the Israeli left and Meretz, and this partnership must be reflected in its slate,” said Freige, currently the only Arab member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

It was actually Freige’s idea to scrap the reserved slot for an Arab, since in the past, the spot in question had been the seventh. Meretz only has five Knesset seats and polls are showing that it can only expect five, or perhaps six, in the upcoming election on April 9, so reserving the No. 7 slot would likely be pointless.

“I want voters to elect me because of my achievements,” the MK said.

The party has pledged that three of the first six people on its ticket will be women, including party chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, and it has also decided that the No. 5 slot will be reserved for someone who isn’t currently serving in the Knesset – which probably means that one of its sitting MKs will not be reelected.

On Meretz source told Haaretz that some activists have been trying to make deals that would get rid of three sitting MKs – Mossi Raz, Michal Rozin and Freige – and replace them with newcomers. But MK Ilan Gilon, who has been cited as supporting this effort, denied it vehemently.

The primary is taking place in just over two weeks, but the list of candidates and the voter rolls have yet to be finalized.

The party is hoping that an attractive list will draw left-wing voters away from more centrist parties, but so far it hasn’t managed to attract any big stars. Most of those in the running are well-known left-wing activists, among them former Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer and attorney Gaby Lasky.

Meretz’s small size makes it a marginal factor in the parliamentary opposition, but its MKs have typically been very active legislators. Rozin, for instance, managed to push through 18 laws, including amendments to the sexual harassment law. She also spearheaded the fight against annexationist legislation in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“Meretz, as a brand, is much stronger than the sum total of the people comprising it,” she said, adding that voters tend to vote for the party brand rather than for its leader, regardless of who it is.

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