Meretz no longer has the right to exist as an independent political entity. But its worldview, values and ideology definitely do, more importantly than ever given Israel’s downward slide towards becoming a fragile democracy. Meretz has been shrinking for years, facing extinction. What’s required now is the establishment of a new and wide-embracing entity, a social democratic party based on its underpinnings.
Meretz was established as an amalgamated party of left-wing Zionist bodies, including Shulamit Aloni’s Ratz party, Mapam, led by Yair Tzaban and Shinui, led by Amnon Rubinstein. At its founding in 1992, it won 12 Knesset seats. Four years later, led by Yossi Sarid, it garnered nine seats. Following the 1999 election for the 15th Knesset, it rose to double-digits again, with 10 seats. Since then, over two decades, the party has had difficulty getting more than five Knesset seats (in 2013 it received six), hovering between treading water and disappearing beneath the electoral threshold.
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This is a result of the deep-seated changes besetting Israeli society, which is consistently moving to the right. The perceived failure of the Oslo Accords and of Camp David II, with which Meretz was identified more than any other party, and the terror attacks of the second intifada drove away half of its voters. But one can’t lay the blame only at the feet of external causes and Israeli society – Meretz itself, its voters and elected representatives, share the blame for its predicament.
Although generalizations are usually problematic, the impression, after many decades in which it’s been around, is that the party never really made an effort to find its way to the core of Israeli society, mainly to its peripheral areas. It was happy to entrench itself in its comfort zone, which could be metaphorically defined as being concentrated in a square delimited by four streets in central Tel Aviv. Meretz clung stubbornly to a one-dimensional discourse about the Palestinian issue, even when reality dealt a blow to the party and to anyone believing in a two-state solution, following the recent peace and normalization accords with four Arab countries.
The striving for social justice also didn’t embed itself in people’s hearts, perhaps because it wasn’t a fire in the bellies of party members themselves, but rather seemed to be mostly lip service. Thus, instead of donning the mantle of a leftist social democratic party, Meretz donned the mantle of a bourgeois left, suitable also for the upper tenth of the wealthy tier of the Israeli populace. In the area of personal conduct, its leaders were not always paragons of integrity and sincerity. Maladies that afflicted other parties beleaguered Meretz as well, with its leaders often embroiled in turf wars and ego-driven moves in their efforts to form their slate for the Knesset.
MK Tamar Zandberg, who vied for the role of party leader against her rival Ilan Gilon a few years ago, is a good case in point. She is responsible for one of the ugliest moments in the party’s history. To achieve her goal, she hired Moshe Klughaft, one of the many “strategic advisers” who change parties like they change socks, with the public constantly exposed to their crooked moral compass.
Klughaft was one of the more despicable spin-weavers, running contemptible campaigns for Israel’s proto-fascist groups such as Im Tirtzu, targeting left-wing organizations such as the New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence. Despite him being an unbridled propagandist, with some responsibility for the extremist tones taking over any political discourse, Zandberg did not hesitate to secretly recruit him and subsequently lied about it.
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In the past, Meretz reluctantly agreed to alliances with other parties or personalities. Before the last election, public pressure compelled it to link up with a former general, Yair Golan, as well as Labor and Orli Levi-Abekasis’s Gesher; the latter two betrayed their Meretz supporters, joining Netanyahu’s coalition after the last 2020 election. The problem with that last failed partnership, like its predecessors over the past decade, was that it was a one-time tactical move which dissolved at the first opportunity.
It’s high time for the leadership of Meretz to rise above considerations of honor and ego and do what is necessary at this point in time. It has to gather under one roof all the forces – organizations and individuals – who share a modern social democratic worldview. This can include the remnants of Labor, leaders of the Israeli Arab community, and the new parties of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, as well as that of former journalist and MK Ofer Shelah, which were regrettably established as separate parties.
Young people, who out of desperation are considering emigration, the third generation of Israel’s socioeconomically poor periphery, who have had enough of the toxic discourse of identity politics, and people formerly in the defense establishment who are espousing a tough stand on security issues but who worry about the fate of democracy here and the implications of a binational state, people who cherish human rights and understand that unrestrained sales of weapons to dictatorial regimes is immoral – all of them need a worthy social democratic party that will promote a true welfare state.
A country that diverts its budgets from defense to health, education and other social services, and recognizes that unstoppable privatization as a medicine to fix the economy is a mirage. It should in tandem strive for realistic agreements with the Palestinians, even if the chances of that happening are slim, while understanding that Palestinian leaders must also bear responsibility for their actions or lack thereof.
Israel needs a large social democratic umbrella movement, which will etch on its banner all the values that Meretz represented over the years, but in accordance with the new reality. Above all, the Zionist left and liberals must understand that what is needed is to dig deep as well as to come up with a multi-year plan, not just a move intended to maximize the number of votes it gets in the upcoming election.