Massive Shake-up as Heads of Israel's Left-wing Meretz Party Quit Leadership Race

Meretz head Zehava Galon steps down from party leadership and announces retirement, alongside second in command, longtime lawmaker Ilan Gilon

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg at the Haaretz conference in Tel Aviv, 2017
Tomer Applebaum

Meretz’s top legislators quit the party’s leadership race Wednesday in a surprise move that signals a changing of the guard at the outfit to the left of Israel’s Labor Party.  

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Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon, who has been in the Knesset since 1999, is retiring after leading the party for six years. “Conversations with party members around the country showed they want new leadership,” she said.

MK Ilan Gilon, meanwhile, said he was quitting the leadership race for health reasons but would remain Meretz’s floor leader in the Knesset. Both Galon and Gilon are in their early 60s.

The moves could open the door for MK Tamar Zandberg, 41, to lead the party. Zandberg, who last month announced she was entering the leadership race, wrote in a Haaretz op-ed that she would be slower to rule out joining a given party in a governing coalition.

On Wednesday, MK Mossi Raz, 52, also said he was quitting the leadership race. Meretz recently changed its method for choosing a leader, now opting for a primary.  Until then, the Meretz head was elected by about 1,000 delegates at a party conference. After the change, about 12,000 people joined the party.

A Meretz source said newcomers were likely to oust other long-serving figures in the party.

A recent survey predicted disaster for Galon in a Meretz primary and victory for Zandberg. Senior party sources also suggested that Zandberg had a comfortable lead over Galon, with even the older generation of party members, Galon’s base, leaning toward Zandberg.

In October, Galon stepped down as a lawmaker but remained party leader.

“While Galon is indeed an honest, intelligent politician with a rare sense of humor, worthy of all the superlatives that anyone who knows her can unhesitatingly come up with, at the end of the day she’s a politician,” Haaretz columnist Ravit Hecht wrote in October.

“To be more precise, she’s a politician who excels in last-ditch campaigns, like the one Meretz conducted before the last elections when the party was hovering dangerously near the electoral threshold,” Hecht added.

“Galon knows how to enthusiastically explain how Meretz needs to be refreshed, to open its ranks and conduct radical experiments like open primaries for the Knesset list, an idea that was rejected twice by the convention.”

While Galon is popular among Israeli Arabs, she was disappointed by low registration rates for the party in that community. All told, one-fifth of party members are 22 or younger.

Galon said Wednesday she did not regret her decision for a moment. “It has been a huge success,” she said. “My whole political life I have fought for the future, not my job.”

Zehava Galon and Ilan Gilon
David Bachar
Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon.
Ilan Assayag