During the last election campaign, Meretz urged its voters to save it from destruction by stressing the importance of having a left-wing party in the Knesset. “The left must not be tempted to vote for Zionist Union,” the party wrote on its campaign website. Its voters were convinced and gave Meretz five seats – enough to put it over the electoral threshold, though still the smallest faction in the Knesset. Yet now, as Yossi Verter recently reported, party leader Zehava Galon is “considering” merging her party with either Labor or Hadash, and is effectively putting Meretz up for a going-out-of-business sale.
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The election results actually underscored the importance of a liberal voice that fights for individual and civil rights and against the occupation and the settlements in the territories. The “center” and “center-left” parties are a paler version of the right: Moshe Kahlon joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist coalition, while the ostensible leaders of the opposition, Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid, are veering sharply rightward in a desperate effort to appease what they see as a strengthening of nationalist and religious sentiment among the Jewish public. The Joint Arab List, under the leadership of Ayman Odeh, is trying to encourage civic discourse and is fighting the occupation and militarism, but hasn’t raised a strong voice against religious coercion and social conservatism. The Arab MKs were absent, for instance, from a meeting of the Knesset’s gay caucus.
Meretz was created to raise the twin banners of peace and freedom – solving the conflict with the Palestinians alongside the upholding of civil rights and freedom from religion. This was the salient legacy of the party’s founder, Shulamit Aloni, who led it to 12 seats in the 1992 election. But in recent years, Meretz’s leaders have blurred its messages and moved closer to the “center,” and its voters responded by abandoning it, leading the party to the brink of disappearance.
On election night, Galon briefly considered resigning, but changed her mind. Now, perhaps because she has despaired, she has decided to abandon the message that “an independent Meretz is vital for Israel.” Instead of giving up her seat to a more determined leader who will raise the left’s banners high once more, she is seeking a political nest that will guarantee her place in the Knesset at the price of compromising the party’s ideology. But so far, there are no buyers for her merchandise. And by declaring that “it’s not the party that’s important, but the goal,” Galon is merely ensuring that Meretz will evaporate.
Israel needs a strong and independent Meretz more than ever. There is no other home for people who oppose religious coercion, now that Lapid has abandoned secularism in favor of a skullcap and prayer shawl. Nor will any other party remind the public that Israel can and should be a just, progressive country if it will divest itself of the occupation and the settlements, without giving up the principles that its founders instilled in it.
Without Meretz, the Knesset will be left with nothing but rightist parties that support the occupation and an Arab minority party whose struggle arouses respect, but which has little influence.