Although every party strives to increase the number of people who vote for it, the cumulative effectiveness of a party does not depend only on the number of seats it occupies in the Knesset. Meretz has historical value as well as current and hugely important significance, but it’s a fact that it hasn’t been an attractive party for almost two decades. Thus, party chief Zehava Galon doesn’t need to justify raising the possibility of joining another party. She is right in facing up to reality. In at least two of the last four elections Meretz nearly caused serious harm to the left by teetering on the brink of the threshold for entering the Knesset.
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Meretz grew out of the earlier “Ratz” (the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace) party led by people who left Mapai, such as Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid. Ahead of the 1992 elections it was joined by two significant and well-entrenched parties, the leftist Mapam and the centrist Shinui. Despite ideological differences among its constituents, the combination yielded 12 Knesset seats.
Meretz was a lodestone for many people who were fed up with the establishment but did not dare to fully disengage from it: a Zionist left, well-versed in Judaism – both Aloni and Sarid knew their Bible well – that had as its goals renewing the diplomatic discourse, mending relations between state and religion, and the inculcation of liberal values. In terms of social issues, possibly due to inherent differences between its components, as well as its patently Ashkenazi roots, the party was always at a disadvantage.
It is commonly held that the decline of Meretz can be attributed to the fact that it didn’t adapt itself to a reality in which the majority of the public became more right-wing, partly because of the second intifada, as well as becoming increasingly conservative-traditional. However, it seems that Meretz lost its attraction precisely because it did succeed. Many of its principles, once considered radical, are now almost part of the consensus, although still far from being implemented.
The main banner it raised, supporting two states for two peoples, is accepted by most people now. When Aloni labored to rescind the law prohibiting homosexual acts she was viewed as a scandal- mongerer. Today, the Foreign Ministry markets Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the world. When Sarid protested against the first Lebanon war and left the Labor party, some people considered him a traitor. Today, even Begin’s disciples consider that war to have been a mistake.
Many parties became irrelevant when their values became legitimate. This happened to the General Zionist/Liberal party, which disintegrated as Israeli society became more middle-class. This is what happened to the Tchiya party, which proclaimed principles now espoused by Habayit Hayehudi, and it is now happening to Meretz. That is why it is preferable that the party join another one, in order to maintain its strength as a significant bloc. The question is – which one?
Joining the Joint Arab List is unseemly and unrealistic, since on many social issues the latter is far more conservative, and because of the risk that the left will again be perceived as favoring Jewish patronage. The Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh is spearheading a new phenomenon, which should be allowed to develop independently. Joining Hadash (the communist component of the Joint Arab List) is irrelevant, both due to its economic ideology and because in its present evolutionary state Meretz must work to implement its values, not just to flaunt them in their role as the opposition. This is only possible by detaching itself from the sidelines and joining a party that is striving to attain power.
Joining the Zionist Union would therefore be the right move to make. The timing is also right: The Zionist Union is going through a struggle between those who want to consolidate it as a centrist party and those who want to move it to the left.