Despite Plunge in Polls, Israel's Labor Not Rushing to Join Meretz

A senior Labor Party official suggested that a joint slate would cause a split in his party, and Meretz members are concerned that it would come at the expense of the party's left-wing positions

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Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay, gestures as he delivers a speech during a party conference on January 10, 2019.
Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay, gestures as he delivers a speech during a party conference on January 10, 2019. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Despite the poor showing in the polls for the center-left Labor Party, party officials appear reluctant to run on a joint ticket in the April 9 Knesset election with the left-wing Meretz party.

Labor is currently projected to drop to five or six seats in the 120-seat legislature from the 18 it currently holds (the party received 24 in an alliance with Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah). Meretz, meanwhile, is forecast to garner around four or five, similar to the five it holds today.

Members of both parties expressed concern this week that the polling numbers show they might be at risk of being shut out altogether since parties need enough votes for at least four Knesset seats, the current minimum in Israel's proportional representation system.

The Labor Party will be holding primaries on Monday that will determine its Knesset slate, while Meretz follows suit three days later.

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Tamar Zandberg at the Meretz headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

"There's a feeling of helplessness," one Labor Party Knesset member said. "There's a sense that we have made mistakes all along the way, that we didn't understand what the elections are, that we waged a right-left fight and social ideological debate instead of playing the correct game – a fight over 'Bibi – yes or no,'" referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname, "even at the expense of blurring our ideology."

The Labor Party's attempts to potentially link with Benny Gantz's Hosen L'Yisrael party or Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid have not borne fruit at this point. For his part, one source in Labor said he thought in the end the three would each run independently.

By contrast, sources at Meretz expressed optimism. The results of intensive polling that the party has conducted have indicated that the party's policies are supported by a pool of voters, including by a number that would amount to five additional Knesset seats who said they did not vote Meretz in the last election in 2015. The party has therefore launched a campaign highlighting its left-wing values in a bid to woo these voters.

Labor Party Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, called on the chairman of her party, Avi Gabbay, to consider a joint slate with Meretz, but said it should only be pursued if it would boost the combined number of seats that the two parties get. Gabbay had rejected such a linkup several times in the past and last week told a community forum that there were significant ideological differences between the parties.

In Meretz, the prospect of a joint slate hasn't been rejected out of hand but party sources said they would not agree to run together if it would blur Meretz's left-wing ideological plank. For his part, a senior Labor Party figure said such a move would inflict critical damage to his party.

"The separation between Labor and Meretz is good," he said. "A linkup could fundamentally break Labor apart. It would split up. The [ideological] center in Labor would not find its place as part of a left-wing party and would have a hard time advocating messages of this nature."

There are also those in Meretz who are not terribly enamored with joining forces with Labor and one senior party source said it should only be pursued if the platform remained left-wing – policy positions that he said the Labor Party has sought to downplay recently.

Over the past week, Gabbay has shifted campaign tactics. While in the past he insisted that he would be the next prime minister, now he has been focusing on attracting center-left votes, with a commitment that he would not sit in a Netanyahu-led government. Opinion polls have not yet reflected any positive impact from the change in tactics.

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