Meretz Leader: We're the Last Party Standing on the Left

Meretz Party leader Zahava Gal-On is bullish on her party's electoral prospects and dismissive of so-called celebrity politicians. But she expresses hope about joining a center-left coalition.

While the larger Israeli political arena may have changed considerably, Meretz and its three Knesset members have barely changed at all. This might give some the impression that the staunchly left party has lost its relevance. But MK Zahava Gal-On doesn't see it that way.

The Meretz party chairwoman believes her party will emerge stronger than ever in the upcoming elections, benefiting from its status as the last truly leftist party in Israeli politics. Gal-On maintains that social justice cannot advance without an agreement with the Palestinians and warns against the budding corruption she sees in the Knesset and Netanyahu's government.

Gal-On speaks with TheMarker about social justice, economic concentration, unions, and why her party won't "blow to and fro in the wind."

Has Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich stolen the Meretz agenda?

I don't think so. Shelly has a one-track mind: fighting for social justice. Just a few weeks ago, the Social Guard [a Knesset watchdog group], which tracks MKs' voting records on social-justice issues, published its data on lawmakers and their parties. Meretz ranked highest, scoring 13 out of 13 on the group's list of criteria.

Somehow that message hasn't been transmitted to the public.

It's no secret that Meretz received a heavy blow in the last elections, but I think there is an opportunity here. Meretz is the only party in Israel today that considers itself leftist, with an all-encompassing left-wing worldview that makes the connection between the Palestinian issue and social justice.

People still depict you as someone who is first and foremost concerned about the situation in the territories.

I believe it is impossible to talk about social justice without talking about the need for a political compromise with the Palestinians. You asked about Yacimovich, well I think it's impossible to talk about a change in priorities while also greeting settlers and Haredim with arms wide open and while significant budget allotments are earmarked to them. We are talking about billions of shekels that are earmarked every year for the [settlements in the] territories, and I think it's related [to social justice].

Today Meretz has doubled its strength in the polls and I believe that it can be tripled.

The polls predict big numbers for Yacimovich and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, but Meretz is far behind.

We are the only party that has announced it isn't running for Prime Minister and who will stand in opposition to a Netanyahu government. If we do well in the elections, there will be a center-left government because then Labor, Lapid and others won't join a Netanyahu-led government and there will be a chance to change the voting blocs.  If that doesn’t happen, then Yacimovich and Lapid will compete for who will be the senior coalition partner in a Netanyahu government.

Meretz isn't really in the game of recruiting big names into politics either.

I'm not looking for diamonds in the rough. I saw what happened when Kadima took on all of the star political newcomers and received 28 Knesset seats. Only Meretz was there fighting in all the struggles, both against the government's anti-democratic measures and for workers' rights. Where were Kadima's Knesset members?

Are you saying a party full of celebrities is a party without an agenda?

I wouldn't say it that bluntly, but I want the party I lead to be comprised of committed ideologues, one that doesn't blow to and fro in the wind.

Your flagship piece of legislation this term was the proposed Economic Concentration Law. Do you think it will pass?

It's horrible what's going on with the Economic Concentration Law. I think a lot pressure was brought to bear on the prime minister not to advance the law. Here we are loosening the hold on the powers that be in terms of economic concentration. The tycoons will no longer be able to milk the public coffers. Why hasn't it gone to a vote?

The finance minister prides himself on the Retained Earnings Law that was passed because all of a sudden the government can take in another approximately NIS 3 billion. But in practice it is a tax exemption of between NIS 27 billion and NIS 30 billion for the most powerful companies in the economy. So the Knesset works for the benefit of those companies, but for the public we're supposed to be working for we can't pass the Economic Concentration Law?

Are you implying that Steinitz and Netanyahu don't want to address the issue of economic concentration?

I'm not implying it; I'm making it quite clear. I think it isn't clear that Steinitz and Netanyahu have an interest in fighting concentration in the economy.

The committee wrote a whole slew of recommendations, but when the law was brought before the Knesset Finance Committee it was stripped of all content. Suddenly, instead of taking four years to fully implement the law, they said it would take six. Instead of splitting up business groups with holdings in both financial and nonfinancial sector companies, they decided to apply it only above a certain investment threshold. The way this law came into being, it was already neutered from the start.  And now, they're trying to bury it altogether.

Are you implying that there is serious problem with the ties between Big Business and Big Government?

The capital markets have been offered up on a silver platter to Big Business, to the same wheeling and dealing tycoons. In fact, I think what [the tycoons] did was very damaging to our pension funds. Instead of separating the institutional investors and the tycoons, now they won't bring the law to a vote. What does that tell you?

Is there Big Business-Big Government complex in Israel?

Of course there is.

Where do you see it in action?

When the government wants to privatize significant public sector companies, like the Port of Eilat. The people who benefit from these asset sales are always the same group of people.

A public tender was announced for the Port of Eilat. The government even disqualified the Ofer family.

They disqualified them after I contacted the attorney general and presented a whole list of questions regarding the terms of the tender because the bottom line was that the way it was prepared the first time around, it was clear that it was tailored towards specific individuals or toward a predetermined outcome.

I want to go even further than this. Netanyahu's coalition works for the benefit of four key constituents: the first are the tycoons, Big Business if you prefer. Then there are the settlers and Haredim, who are the natural coalition partners for Netanyahu. The last constituent is the military establishment. If we look at the performance of the Netanyahu government in regard to these four interests, we see a distorted set of priorities. I think we also see all these ties between Big Business, Big Government and Big Media.

Big Media. Are you referring to Sheldon Adelson?

I'm taking about all of them, including [IDB Group controlling shareholder and former Ma'ariv newspaper owner] Nochi Dankner. I'm talking about everyone who takes over a newspaper to advance his own political agenda. I'm also talking about MKs who are planning their future, post-Knesset careers while still on the job.

Is there something rotten in the State of Israel?

I wouldn't make out the entire State of Israel as being corrupt. I think several systems were put into place here that permit corruption to grow unchecked. The tax system is full of loopholes and lacking bite. Instead of sinking teeth into those who use aggressive tax planning to avoid paying taxes, it has become enervated. Big Business is in control of Big Government.

If you were Finance Minister, what would you do to change the tax system?

Meretz proposed an eighth tax bracket with a marginal tax rate of 55 percent for those with income above NIS 65,000 a month. I proposed in the Knesset implementing a differential corporate tax rate. In other words, corporate entities that make profits of up to NIS 1.2 million, which are primarily small businesses, would have their corporate tax rate reduced to 20 percent instead of the current rate of 25 percent. At the same time, those entities that earn profits above NIS 1.2 million per year will have their corporate tax rate raised to 30 percent. The Capital Investment Promotion Law also needs to be reconsidered because in its final draft it didn't include benefits for companies that set up operations in Israel's periphery.

What is your party's position on organized labor?

The workers who are the most screwed in the economy are those who aren't unionized – temp workers, teachers, social workers, doctors and nurses. I think a strong Histadrut labor federation is needed to defend the rights of these workers.  Recently, we've seen several powerful unions backed by the Histadrut, which has become a kind of lobbyist for them. This comes at the expense of the Histadrut's own workers known as "second-generation workers." They're the ones who foot the bill.

What can be done to deal with these powerful unions?

The Histadrut would need to take an uncompromising stance with its powerful member unions. The Israel Electric Corporation employees' union and the Ashdod Port workers' union are running amok. When they make obscene salaries and still want raises, with the ever-present risk of a strike that will shut down the port or the economy, it's completely unreasonable.