Analysis |

Israel’s Center-right Merger Worsens the Left’s Dilemma

The job of Israeli leftist parties in the past was to challenge Labor’s centrism, particularly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Now Labor and Meretz have to do that vis-à-vis Lapid and Gantz, but are those two parties better together?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Yair Golan, left, Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg at a Meretz event last year.
Yair Golan, left, Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg at a Meretz event last year.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last week’s announcement by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar that their parties will run together in the November election was lost a bit in the furor of Joe Biden’s visit, but it has the potential to upend the next three and a half months of campaigning.

Gantz, Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu, the three possible candidates to form the next government, each have a headache regarding who to go after. Netanyahu has always preferred to take on just one rival as the sole target of his toxic onslaught.

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Gantz wants to prove he’s the candidate capable of bringing together the largest number of parties, but he has work to do to persuade centrist voters that he won’t break his promise of not serving under Netanyahu, as he did in 2020. Lapid needs to uphold his claim of being the only viable alternative to Netanyahu without jeopardizing his fragile relations with Gantz and the other members of the coalition he built.

But even before those three-way dynamics play out, they’re having an impact further along the political spectrum. Gantz’s link-up with Sa’ar means that the merged Kahol Lavan-New Hope slate is a right-leaning outfit. As a result, Lapid’s Yesh Atid is now officially the center-left option. If it grows, and the polls are predicting it will, this will be at the expense of the parties to its left.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Defense Minister Benny Gantz after their joint statement last week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The space occupied by the parties that used to call themselves the Zionist left, once the largest parcel of prime political real estate, has now become a tiny nature reserve for endangered species. Lapid has already conquered most of Labor’s historical middle ground and he’s coming for what’s left.

Ever since the electoral threshold was raised in 2014 to 3.25 percent from 2 percent, Meretz has spent every election campaign in a panic, putting out distress signals to its electorate to save it from oblivion. Since 2020, when then-Labor chief Amir Peretz took the party into a coalition with Netanyahu, Labor has been in a similar situation, though Merav Michaeli, who replaced Peretz, brought the party back from the near dead in last year’s election.

The campaign season has barely started and it’s happening again: Many polls have Meretz teetering on the brink. Labor, in a slightly better position, is being called on to save Meretz by agreeing to a merger of their slates.

Michaeli, who claims she can restore Labor to its old self as a potential party of power – and to do so it can’t dilute its message – is against any talk of mergers. On Monday she’s almost certain to be reelected leader (the only challenger in the primary is the rather unpopular party secretary-general, Eran Hermoni), and for now at least she won’t budge.

Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On August 23, Meretz will hold its leadership primary to replace Nitzan Horowitz, who has resigned. Former leader Zehava Galon has yet to declare, but if she does, as many expect, she’ll easily beat the only other candidate so far, retired general Yair Golan.

Michaeli and Galon are a formidable duo who could lead the Israeli left, but would they be better off doing so together or separately?

Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s not just a question of whether each leader could reenergize her party and ensure they both cross the threshold. Even assuming the answer to that is yes, is there any remaining justification for their separate existence?

Labor and Meretz are trapped by history. No Labor leader can admit that the party that founded Israel and governed it for half the country’s existence has been relegated to second-class status for the foreseeable future, even though it’s clear that as long as Lapid is on the scene, Labor won’t become a party of power again.

Meretz was never the party of power but the two parties that merged to found it in 1992 – socialist Mapam and Ratz (the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace) – represent crucial strands of the Israeli left’s DNA. (The third original member of Meretz, Shinui, soon left, returning to its centrist roots.) The job was to challenge Labor’s centrism and nudge it to braver positions, particularly on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Meretz was meant to be the tugboat pulling Labor’s ship of state in the desired direction. Now that both parties are leaky rowboats, there is little justification for their existence if they can’t come up with a clear message on what they stand for. Over the past year, they did exactly what their voters wanted from them – served as steady partners (with the exception of one Meretz member) in the broad coalition that replaced Netanyahu. But they failed during this unusual collaboration to articulate what their added value was.

If it’s all about keeping Netanyahu out of office, Lapid is the one who pulled it off. Many potential Labor and Meretz voters who once saw Lapid as a lightweight are now thinking their votes would be better used to strengthen him in the next fight against Netanyahu.

It’s not just about survival, it’s about how the two parties see their role. Meretz was always prepared to challenge the status quo of the occupation, while Labor remained closer to its hawkish Ben-Gurionist roots. And it still does. On the other hand, the old-school Zionist socialism of Mapam has been diluted in Meretz’s suburban Tel-Avivianism. Labor today has at least some prominent members who are trying to come up with a new social-democratic manifesto.

When it comes to the issues of women’s and LGBTQ rights that Meretz’s founder Shulamit Aloni pioneered, the parties don’t differ much. And it’s hard to say, based on recent experience, that either party has done a stellar job forging a Jewish-Arab alliance that has to be part of the Israeli left’s future.

If Meretz’s job was to be the left-wing corrective to Labor, now both parties have an identical role vis-à-vis Lapid and Gantz. Is there any point in doing that separately?

Once Meretz settles its leadership question next month, three weeks will remain until the deadline for filing candidate lists with the Central Elections Committee. It may be the most critical period for the future of the Israeli left.

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