Like That Citroen in Troubled Waters

"Look at what they're busy with there," muttered Meretz-Yahad MK Ran Cohen in disgust, as he left the hall where the members of the Meretz convention were discussing a long list of technical and formal matters. "Instead of dealing with the social and economic issues to which we can contribute something, or the Palestinian issue, they are masticating 60 percent yes, 60 percent no. This is really distressing me."

The 60 percent yes or no was something that touched upon Cohen directly: Would he, and his fellow faction member MK Haim Oron, have to hurdle an almost insurmountable barrier - 60 percent support - in order to be reelected to the Meretz list for the next Knesset? In the end, some sort of interim solution was found, but that, after all, is not what is important. What is important is that Meretz, perhaps for the first time in its history, has found itself without a "case." Without a knockout, catchy statement of why people should vote for the party. In 1992 it was there to "energize" Yitzhak Rabin ("Meretz" means "energy" in Hebrew). In 1999 - Barak. In 2003 it focused on the social issues.

And thus, as it grows weaker and shrinks, it is going into the 2006 elections in the worst possible situation - sunk in unprecedented internal quarrels. It is headed by a brilliant leader, one of the most brilliant there is, but devoid of charisma, tied to an outdated format called "the Geneva Initiative" and worst of all, without an agenda. The social field has been taken over by Labor Party Chair MK Amir Peretz. The Palestinian arena is held exclusively by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin starts talking about Geneva, he seems to be boring even himself. True, in terms of integrity and unsullied reputation, Meretz-Yahad is the leading party.

However, as impatient interviewers say on the radio, this isn't the topic at the moment. The public wants Sharon, with all the affairs and the shadows and the doubts that go with him, because he is perceived today as the only politician who is capable of getting Israel out of the mud. In 1996 in the United States, when president Bill Clinton was running for a second term amid the many reports about his improper behavior, a cartoon was published in one of the newspapers: A middle-class woman, in a grubby apron and with rollers in her hair, says to a Republican political activist who has knocked on her door: "Forget it; I'm voting for the scum."

In its situation today, Meretz-Yahad is like that 1989 Citroen that was caught yesterday tied to a raft offshore at Bat Yam. It has no control over its fate, the stormy waters will take it where they will and whatever happens, happens. Its fate is influenced not by what it says or does, but rather by external events, and especially by the Labor Party's situation during the last week or two of the election campaign.

"If the polls show a difference of four or five Knesset seats between Peretz and Sharon, our voters will rush to save Peretz," says MK Avshalom Vilan. "If the difference is eight or nine Knesset seats, they will come back to us."

MK Haim Oron calls this strategic voting. "People will see what the picture is more or less, and then they'll decide. We will propose to them that they deposit their votes in Meretz's safe. That is where they are most secure. I'm not going to compete with Amir on the social platform, but we will remind people that we didn't discover society and the economy just during the past two months like [Labor MKs] Buzi [Isaac Herzog], Ophir [Pines-Paz] and [former Labor Party chairman] Shimon [Peres], and we haven't taken a vacation from peace for eight years like Peretz. And if Peres thinks that during this past year he was vice premier by the grace of God, then Sharon at least knows thanks to which Knesset faction's votes he was prime minister, and with whose votes he succeeded in carrying out the disengagement. Ultimately, if there is a peace process we will support it more than anyone else, as we did during the past term."

The option of removal

Factually, Oron is right. But according to the latest public opinion polls, at least, the electorate is not grateful to Meretz-Yahad for the responsibility it evinced in the Knesset last year. Who even remembers it? It is also not a relevant argument for the future. Not when there are two parties, Sharon's Kadima and Peretz's Labor, that are committed to advancing the peace process, and not when the Likud, because of which Meretz had to come to Sharon's aid, is down for the count. Meretz is like one of those agile and skilled technicians who assist the race cars along the track: They do wonders in changing a wheel and filling the oil within seconds, but the one who wins all the glory is the driver. In Meretz they are aware of this, and therefore Yossi Beilin and MK Zahava Gal-On were the first to say, immediately after Sharon's resignation from the Likud, that they would be prepared to join a coalition with him. On the one hand, this expresses political maturity; no staying in the opposition for the sake of being irritating. On the other hand, when Kadima and Labor have 60 Knesset seats (in the public opinion polls), the question of whether Beilin will be environment minister in the next government doesn't really interest the nation.

The attempt to remove Beilin from the leadership of Meretz-Yahad, which failed Monday at the convention, would have ended otherwise had his four fellow faction members enlisted in the effort. Zahava Gal-On, who supported Beilin in the primaries for chairmanship of the movement and is now one of his sharpest critics, Vilan - who also supported Beilin but today is no longer enthusiastic, Ran Cohen - who lost to him and Oron - who also has something to say about Beilin's conduct - decided, without discussing it in advance, not to cooperate with those who proposed supplanting Beilin. At least not openly.

In private conversations, some of them reject the option of removing Beilin in the future. Vilan has told his people in Meretz that if during the next two months the polls show a total crash and "special circumstances arise," it may be necessary to consider a move. In those conversations Vilan reminded his interlocutors of Haim Bar-Lev's concession to Rabin of the defense portfolio, on the eve of the 1981 elections, after the polls showed that Rabin enjoyed greater popularity. The problem is that today it is hard to see in Meretz someone of Rabin's stature who will rescue the party. Up until a few days ago, MK Yossi Sarid had hoped to be called to the flag again, but the switchboard did not collapse under a barrage of phone calls and the telegraph office was not paralyzed. Sarid drew his conclusions and resigned, a dignified and proper resignation.

His successor as Meretz chairman, Beilin, is finding it hard to impose his leadership on the party. More precisely, he is choosing to do this in ways unknown there before his arrival - Mapainik ways, as in the old Labor movement, shady changes in the regulations and amendments to the constitution that transfer many powers to him. But in fact on Monday, when he had to deal with a laughable attempt to depose him that was organized in part by a group of activists who intend to desert to the Labor Party, he should have acted differently - he should have come to the podium right at the beginning of the meeting, said this was unacceptable and demanded an immediate vote of confidence in order to put a stop once and for all to the subversion. Even his rivals in the faction acknowledge that had he done so, he would have won the sweeping support of 500 (out of 1,000) convention delegates, in an open, public vote that would have made it difficult in the future for anyone who wants to organize another removal.