Meretz in Crisis

In the midst of the High Holidays, the Knesset met in special session to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Likud attacked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for making concessions. Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila replied, but the real argument for the defense, barnstorming for the peace process, was by MK Haim Oron of Meretz. The MKs from Olmert's right-wing coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, squirmed on their deerhide-upholstered chairs. They would have been more comfortable had Oron accused Olmert of being too right-wing.

Even within Meretz, the leftist party that currently looks like a modest memorial to what the Israeli left once was, not everyone liked the speech. A brisk argument has been raging over the past several weeks: Should the party behave toward Olmert as it did toward his predecessor Ariel Sharon in 2005; in other words to protect him despite the criminal investigations and the Lebanon war, merely because he was leading the peace process. Or should it behave like a real opposition?

Oron and party chief Yossi Beilin are on one side of the argument; as long as Olmert continues to negotiate with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (and as long as Olmert is not indicted or given the boot by the Winograd Committee), they will support him. On the other side is Zahava Gal-On, who argues that Olmert does not have the "legitimacy" to conclude an agreement with the Palestinians because of the war and the corruption. In any event, she believes, at the moment of truth he will not have a Knesset majority for an agreement, and Meretz cannot protect a second prime minister while ignoring its own identity.

For now, the disagreement is theoretical because in contrast to the first half of 2005, the coalition does not depend on Meretz's votes. But Beilin admits that if a vote is held the day before the Annapolis summit and Meretz has the deciding vote, it will not bring down Olmert's government.

Oron prefers to be clever: In any case, he says, if 56 MKs were to support bringing down Olmert then the remaining votes needed would be found and there won't be a dependence on Meretz's five votes. Oron does not hide his own bias: He encourages and advises Olmert, passing on information to him from the Palestinian side, while aiming deadly criticism at Labor Party Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "Barak," Oron says, "stops, blocks, doesn't do what he could as defense minister to improve the lives of the Palestinians, all so that in the future it can be proved that there is no partner for dialogue and then he, Barak, will say: 'You see? I was right.'"

Meretz's problem goes deeper than the Olmert issue. Unlike its fellow opposition parties, Meretz has not flourished. It had hoped that the election of Barak - with his hard-edged, right-wing image - as Labor chairman would help. Nor has Labor's participation in the government brought Meretz more votes.

According to the Haaretz-Dialog poll in Haaretz this weekend, if elections were held today Meretz would win only six Knesset seats. Meretz's "leftism," which gave it double-digit Knesset representation in the 1990s, is no longer novel: Large parts of Labor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, Olmert - they are all there now, as is even Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) when it comes to agreeing to transferring Arab neighborhoods into Palestinian hands.

And regarding Oron's whispering campaign against Barak: The poll found Barak's approval rating is highest among Meretz voters, 63 percent of whom expressed satisfaction with him.