Analysis |

Boxed in on Left and Right, Meretz Holds Primary Election

The left-wing party should have been doing well in April’s election, but polls show differently – can Thursday’s vote save it from years of decline and an unpopular leader?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Meretz activists prepare for the party's primary election in its Tel Aviv headquarters, February 13, 2019.
Meretz activists prepare for the party's primary election in its Tel Aviv headquarters, February 13, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

By the laws of electoral mathematics, Meretz should be doing well in the upcoming election. The party that ran to its right in 2015 and received 24 seats, Zionist Union, has been dissolved. Of its constituent parts, Labor is currently around seven seats in the polls and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah has disappeared from the charts. To Meretz’s left, the Joint List has also split into two warring parties, and together they are polling less than the 13 seats they won in 2015. Surely some of these leftist votes should have wandered to the party in the middle?

They haven’t. In nearly all the polls, Meretz is either stuck with the same five seats it has in the current Knesset or else it’s down to four, hovering perilously close to the electoral threshold. Where have all those voters gone?

The answer can be found in the meteoric rise of Benny Gantz’s centrist Hosen L'Yisrael party and in the lack of excitement among Meretz’s natural voters for the party’s current leadership or any of the main candidates running in the primary for the party’s Knesset slate.

>> Read more: The Israeli left should learn from TrumpWith Gantz on the scene, Meretz and Labor must unite

Roy Yellin, an experienced political strategist on the left who ran the Meretz campaign in 2013, blames first of all the leadership for Meretz’s dismal showing. “It’s not the same Meretz. The previous leader, Zehava Galon, may not have been very telegenic or charismatic, but she had clear principles, was staunchly against the occupation and you knew exactly where she stood. [Present leader] Tamar Zandberg simply is not ideologically defined.”

Similar sentiments can be heard from many Meretz supporters. Zandberg to them is simply not made from the same stuff of past Meretz leaders – the wise old women and men of the Israeli left like party founder Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Haim Oron, Yossi Beilin and Galon.

Zandberg is a capable parliamentarian, good in interviews and on social media. But Meretz was always a party that combined veteran ideological leadership with enthusiastic young activists. Zandberg is neither.

But blaming it all on 42-year-old Zandberg, who has been in charge for less than a year, is hardly fair. Meretz has been in decline for 15 years, plummeting to five seats, and then only three, under the leadership of the much-missed stalwart Oron. Meretz is a victim of the broader failure of the Israeli left, following the failure of the Oslo process and the stagnation of the two-state solution, to articulate a new narrative.

The cliché is that Israelis have moved rightward. But the truth is that even when Labor won elections, back in 1992 and 1999, more Israelis voted for right-wing and religious parties than those of the center-left bloc. The two blocs have remained nearly static. What has changed is that many voters who were once prepared to vote for openly left-wing parties now prefer centrists.

When Meretz was founded in 1992, all three parties that formed it brought a distinct plank of left-wing policy. Mapam were the staunch socialists; Ratz the champions of civil rights; and Shinui fought against religious coercion. The party won 12 seats that year – which remains Meretz’s best ever showing. In 2003, Shinui, always the most centrist and bourgeois of the three, broke away to run on its own. Meretz’s tally was halved to six and it has remained there since.

Meretz is stuck. Israelis don’t want to see themselves as left-wingers, and the shrinking number of those who are still proudly left-wing demand the ideological purity that Zandberg simply cannot deliver. Perhaps some of the more radical candidates on the Knesset slate will restore a bit of the old fervor. But with the party expected to do no better than its current five seats, their chances of seeing the Knesset from within are remote.

The April 9 election has one main theme: Will Benjamin Netanyahu survive as prime minister? The possibility of finally replacing Bibi is attracting even left-wingers to Gantz, despite his blatant play for right-wing voters. Meretz has yet to come up with an exciting new idea to compete with this.

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