No Picnic for Meretz

Conclusion: Meretz is weak today not so much due to its functioning, but due to the strengthening hawkish sentiments among the Israeli public.

Meretz, which is holding elections two days from now to choose its leader, is reminiscent of the spider in Krylov's fables, who reached the summit of the mountain borne on the wings of an eagle and boasted that it, too, was capable of reaching such heights until a strong wind blew it into the abyss. Meretz boasts that it succeeded in "motivating" the center parties and uses that fact to explain its political weakness, but the truth is that this is only a wish: Kadima, Labor and the Pensioners Party were not "motivated"; they are implementing a security-diplomatic plan of action that is no different from that carried out by the rightist camp when it was in power, and this outcome invites a discussion of the question of why the Israeli left is so weak politically.

Meretz has existed as a political body for 15 years, during which the representation of the dovish electorate shrank from 12 MKs to five. Quite a few explanations can be heard for Meretz's weakness: leadership failures, a blurring of its original messages, organizational weakness and mainly the adoption of its views by larger and stronger parties, which ostensibly rendered it superfluous. The last claim is particularly groundless, because it ignores the present mood of the public and the conduct of the government.

Recent polls all predict that were elections to be held today, Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu would be elected prime minister. They are also consistent in their description of the distribution of the anticipated vote for the Knesset: some 68 to 74 seats for the right, as compared to 46-48 for the center and the left.

Moreover, the public views on negotiations with the Palestinians, as they are reflected in the polls, show a tough attitude: 71 percent are opposed to a discussion of the core issues, 66 percent are opposed to evacuating the settlements, 66 percent are opposed to concessions on Jerusalem (polls from late November 2007).

The government's policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians also reflects a tough line (not tough enough, in the opinion of a substantial percentage of the public): only a belligerent response to the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip; continuing construction in the settlements; refraining from evacuating illegal outposts and removing checkpoints; and revenge and preventative operations against armed Palestinians in the West Bank.

Conclusion: Meretz is weak today not so much due to its functioning, but due to the strengthening hawkish sentiments among the Israeli public. The results of the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza are seen by the public as clear proof of eternal enmity toward Israel on the part of all Arabs everywhere, and as proof of the failure of the approach that favors conciliation. Moreover, Meretz is often seen as an unconditional defender of the Palestinian side, even when Palestinian behavior infuriates any thinking person, and this is seen as testimony of treason and a betrayal of its commitments. Meretz also failed by not consistently and determinedly hoisting the ethical flag, which rejects the occupation by its very nature and points to the corruption that it is causing in Israeli society.

However, both the public mood and the conduct of the government invite a vigorous challenge on the part of the leftist camp: The leaders of the coalition parties are only pretending to be moderate in their attitude toward the Palestinians, and the prevailing public tendency to despair of achieving an agreement ignores Israel's part in perpetuating the conflict. Meretz has proof of the justice of its path. It called for rapprochement with the Palestinians when this was considered out of bounds, its representatives made contact with Yasser Arafat when he was a leper, it recommended the strengthening of Palestinian Authority Chair Mahmoud Abbas when this attitude was considered a joke.

Meretz, which has always constituted the ideological core of the camp that favors an end to the occupation and an almost total withdrawal from the territories, was the pioneer that pointed out the windows of opportunity that had opened in Israel-Palestinian relations; prime ministers who followed the paths that it marked arrived at these windows late, and they and their parties bear part of the responsibility for the fact that the hatches were shut.

Meretz retains its original role, despite the burnout it has suffered over the years: to be the ever-flashing compass showing the true path to conciliation with the Palestinians; to be the whistle that warns each time the government crosses the lines that delimit the arena of possible discussion with the other side; to flood the subterranean stream among the public (which also exists) that demonstrates a sober attitude to the conditions for an agreement with the Palestinians. Its voters must decide two days from now not only among three candidates, but also among three paths: Should the party turn to the broad dovish public (the viewpoint of Haim Oron); to the public that is interested mainly in social-welfare issues (the aspect emphasized by Ran Cohen); or to the public that is looking for a clear left-wing address (the approach of Zehava Gal-On)? Whatever the case, it won't be a picnic.