In a Tel Aviv Bar, Zehava Galon Convinces Everyone She's the Israeli Left's Savior

After leaving politics three years ago, the former Meretz chief is back to save her party from electoral disaster

Nir Tsadok
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Former Meretz chair Zehava Galon at a conference in Jerusalem this month.
Former Meretz chair Zehava Galon at a conference in Jerusalem this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Tsadok

Twenty minutes before the arrival of the guest of honor, the shift manager at the Phi club lays out a faded black carpet at the entrance of the pub. Soon, Zehava Galon will set foot at the popular bar ahead of next month’s leadership primary for Meretz. She is expected to beat her rival Yair Golan; and according to polls, also lead the party to five Knesset seats in the November 1 election, averting the party's dreaded scenario of failing to cross the electoral threshold.

Two tough women will determine the fate of the Israeli left

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Less than three years after declaring that the party she once led had ended its historical role, Galon is back to ensure that her earlier statement does not become a reality.

The fact that the event is being held in Tel Aviv tends to reinforce the indictment against the party that its base is limited to a particular sector and locale. But these are days of an internal party struggle, prompting Galon’s campaign managers to risk reinforcing the clichés about Tel Aviv. They send her to “share shots” in a pub – just like she did in the 2015 campaign. One can forgive them; there is logic behind the decision.

The first to cross the carpet are members of Galon’s campaign staff, among them, her son Nadav. On her decision to return to politics, he says that as a regular citizen he supports it; as her son, he’s against it. He has a real role there, not just as a family member. When his mother concludes her speech, he waits at the entrance, tablet ready, as he tries to enlist new party members.

Galon's appearance wasn’t a fruitless mission as much as a redundant one. It was a captive audience. The light yet direct tone of the invitation, with its talk of “sharing shots,” hinted at a wish, perhaps a surreptitious one, to blend into an existing scene. Perhaps it was appealing to people wavering between Meretz and Labor, or between Meretz and disregarding one’s civic duty entirely.

The backdrop was a bar selling beer and cocktails with a sound system. It wasn’t aimed particularly at people happening to pass by. Drinks weren’t provided, and certainly not to Galon – who came equipped with a water bottle which she never opened. Her status as a reveler is so well established that she didn’t have to drink the shot glasses she raised. They were a promise not meant to be fulfilled, but more of an attempt to speak the local language. After all, that’s what one does in a pub, right?

Galon at the Phi club in Tel Aviv earlier this week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Galon arrived reasonably late, 30 minutes behind schedule. If our hands had memories, Galon’s would have experienced one big sense of deja-vu. Her polite gestures indicated that she knew nearly all the 80 people in attendance. Those she hadn’t known before became acquaintances after introducing themselves and sharing their stories. It seems that they, or their fathers, had all done their military service with Ran Cohen, one of the Meretz’s founders.

As Galon ascended the podium, the audience crowded into the space across from the DJ. “We waited for her return, and it came,” said one of her supporters welcoming her.

Meretz finds itself in an unusual position. It has been a part of the governing coalition for the past year – a rare situation for a party that has little room on Israel’s current political map. On the one hand, it has realized a dream it hardly dared imagine. On the other hand, its very existence as a party, even one in the opposition, is in doubt. In this war between everything or nothing, Galon’s role is one of a well-known general.

“Standing in front of many people does it for me,” Galon said, in an uncharacteristic comment in a speech that mainly stressed the altruistic motivations behind her return – that this was something she didn’t quite want but derived from the need to save a party that may not exist without her. Golan’s name was not mentioned. It didn’t make sense to engage in internal squabbles when the party needs everyone's help. The main thing was the big picture, the image of Netanyahu.

Meretz MK Yair Golan. He is running against Galon in the party's primary election next month.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“This was a crazy year for the country,” she began. “The demonstrations achieved the unbelievable; we managed to get Netanyahu out of [the prime minister's residence on] Balfour Street… establish[ing] a government of change."

"Who would have believed that we could rebuild the remnants of what he left behind? There must be a [political] left here, a big one. I call on leftists, on Arabs and Jews who believe in the struggle for equality, to return home to Meretz, so that Netanyahu has no chance of returning to power,” Galon proclaimed.

She reiterated some of the combative statements made recently against the left and painted a terrifying scenario: “[Itamar] Ben-Gvir will be public security minister, [Bezalel] Smotrich will realize his fantasies at the interior ministry,” she said referring respectively to the Kahanist MK and to the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party.

She warned that Israel is “moving toward a world with no middle class. Only the strong and the weak. This is the price we are now paying after 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule.”

Galon speaking with supporters at the Phi club in Tel Aviv earlier this week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

After 10 minutes of exciting the already enthusiastic audience, Galon made her way to the crowded exit. She shook the left hands of people whose right hands she’d shaken on the way to the podium.

On her way out, after appearing for less than an hour, Galon left the social event that included chats between old friends, documented by a photographer who turned the memories into magnets as is custom in today’s ceremonies. Three young latecomers elbowed their way to the bar, with one asking, giggling, “what’s going on here?”

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