Meretz - What Is It Good For?

If Meretz will not stand up for secular voters, then a more radical and aggressive secular party will surely emerge to fill the void.

The secular public seriously lacks proper representation in parliament. It was no accident that the Tal Law was extended for five years with scarcely a murmur. Nor is it any accident that civil marriage has been swept off the Knesset agenda. The religious and right-wing parties even dominate debates on the constitution - some constitutional debates are held by a panel of six or seven religious Knesset members and not a single secular one.

Shinui's disappearance enhances this vacuum, as does Meretz's dwindling to five Knesset seats, and its decision to renounce the secular agenda. Is there a link between the collapse of Meretz and its opting out of the war against religious coercion?

The 15 Knesset seats Shinui won in 2003 proved that a party that pledges to represent the secular public has a huge vote potential. None of these votes made their way to Meretz in 2006, proving what a heavy price this party paid for abandoning the secular flag.

Several other issues over the last few years hardly evoked a response from the secular parties. These include the education minister's decision to allow the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to drop the core studies program; the ultra-Orthodox parties' vendetta against Amnon De Hartoch, former head of support funding at the Justice Ministry; the ultra-Orthodox pogrom at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute; setting fire to the Alei Shalechet crematorium; the increase in sexually segregated bus lines; and the wave of proselytizing sweeping through high schools.

It's possible that Meretz MKs fell under the same illusion held by many secular people - that for another full decade they could pretend they are living in Europe - if they only ignore the existence of the ultra-Orthodox and the predictions that by 2020 one of four 18-year-old Jews will be a draft-dodging yeshiva student.

This approach is enhanced by the idea that in a multi-cultural society, it is improper to criticize an entire community. Perhaps some Meretz people were even glad to be rid of the secular agenda, which had become synonymous with Yosef Lapid's demagogic style, instead of understanding that they could confront the ultra-Orthodox without calling them parasites.

If Meretz has given up its civil liberal agenda, one may and should ask whether there is any difference between it and the late Sheli Party. Unless Meretz pulls itself together quickly, this may indeed be its fate: to dwindle to Sheli's tiny dimensions.

To his credit, outgoing Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin tried to return to a secular agenda. He attempted to place the ultra-Orthodox fighter against religious coercion, Dr. Tzvia Greenfeld, on the sixth slot of Meretz's Knesset list. Had she been elected, she would have voiced a courageous liberal stand. But Meretz only received five Knesset seats. Beilin then set up the secular lobby, but that too failed to gain momentum.

MK Zahava Gal-On is active in protecting women's rights in the rabbinical courts, but this is just one small part of the struggle against religious coercion.

Meretz's next test will be the place it allocates to religion and state affairs in the approaching primary, and whether they will be an inseparable part of the elected leader's agenda.

In previous election campaigns, Meretz tried (in vain) to appeal to the voters who care about social causes. Now it may try to take up the Greens agenda and again abandon religion and state issues. This would be a fatal mistake, which will not bring it the desired votes.

Politics abhors a vacuum. If Meretz will not stand up for secular voters, then a more radical and aggressive secular party will surely emerge to fill the void. This doubly underscores a pertinent question - if Meretz will not raise the secular banner, just what is it good for?