By Amotz Asa-El
It’s been sixteen years since its finest moment, when the party won a solid one-tenth of the electorate, as part of the Israeli Left’s most decisive electoral victory since the time of Golda Meir.
Now, as the ideologically purist Meretz Party prepares to elect a new leader, its electoral prospects seem bleak, its ideological drive weak and its social roots dubious. Events have defied its trademark fusion of compassionate economics and contrarian diplomacy.
Meretz’s roots lie in a milieu of senior academics, authors, and activists who felt after 1967 that peace was obtainable if only Israel agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In the 1970s that circle joined forces with social activists who represented the second generation of the working-class immigration of the 1950s. Additional to these separate causes was the party’s demand for liberal reforms, ranging from gay rights to the introduction of civil marriages, instead of Israel’s insistence – from its inception – that all marriages and divorces be performed by clergy, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Druse.
Meretz’s founder and longtime inspiration was Shulamit Aloni, an outspoken and charismatic lawyer whose political career began as a thorn in Golda Meir’s side. In the 1980s Aloni managed to do the unthinkable, by aligning herself simultaneously with neo-Marxists and diehard capitalists, whose common glue was impatience with the war-torn Mideast and a quest for a more liberal Israel.
Yitzhak Rabin, who saw in Meretz a strategic ally, granted Aloni the Education Ministry. However, in what proved a proverbial failure to affect reality, she soon was forced out of that powerful position, which she had used to verbally provoke Rabin’s other strategic ally, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Her successor in that position hailed from Meretz’s capitalistic wing, and used that position to deregulate the higher education system, a move most Israelis welcomed but which had little to do with the party’s core agenda.
That was addressed in the Oslo Accords, for which Meretz took credit.
“We showed Rabin the way,” one of its leaders boasted at the time. The public also saw it that way – but in a negative sense. By this decade, as most Israelis have come to lament the original deal with Yasser Arafat, Meretz’s following has been halved, and polls indicate it is still declining.
It was against this backdrop that Aloni’s successor, former environment minister Yossi Sarid, resigned following the 2003 electoral debacle and was replaced by former justice minister Yossi Beilin, who failed in turn to restore Meretz’s following. This is despite Beilin’s much-heralded leadership of the Geneva Accord, which he and various Palestinians mocked up televised negotiations – whereby Beilin theoretically agreed to cede Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, and symbolically admit some Palestinian refugees to Israel.
All this baggage sufficed to win Meretz a new leader, but not new voters.
This is where the three candidates for Beilin’s succession come in, as they meet in an internal election following his resignation as party leader.
As one would expect, all candidates claim to offer a new spirit to a party that many claim has long become an anachronism. The leading contender is former agriculture minister Haim Oron, but he faces competition from former trade and industry minister Ran Cohen and party whip Zehava Galon.
In their social backgrounds the three indeed represent, albeit in different ways, a break from Beilin’s perceived elitism and lack of charisma. Oron lives in a kibbutz in the northern Negev and is famous for dressing simply, often showing up to Knesset meetings wearing sandals. Though born in Tel Aviv, he was educated in the Marxist Mapam movement, which – among other things – believed in Stalin until his death. Oron of course harbours none of that heritage today, but during his years in the Knesset he has established himself as a kind of Michael Foot, focusing on economic issues, especially expanding social welfare budgets and increasing taxation.
Cohen, a retired artillery colonel, was born in Iraq and arrived in Israel at age 13, quite a contrast to the studious upper middle class Beilin who has a PhD in political science. Cohen’s main political accomplishment came last decade, when he introduced and passed a bill that allowed tenants in government housing to purchase their flats. It was the kind of social cause which Beilin never brought to the front burner, which for him was always occupied by issues relating to the Mideast conflict.
Lastly, Galon, who specialises in issues of human rights and civil liberties, earned kudos with party activists when she managed to force – through an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court – the publication of the minutes of the Winograd Commission that probed the Second Lebanon War.
Between them, the three can reasonably claim that they represent aspects of Meretz’s legacy that had been neglected under the outgoing management. However, Oron is 68 and first entered the Knesset in 1988 while Cohen is 71 and has been a lawmaker since 1984. They run the risk of being seen as representing the party’s old membership and ageing electorate. Moreover, Oron embodies the party’s problematic economics, at a time when the middle class is generally happy with recent years’ liberalising reforms. Cohen, meanwhile, potentially symbolises the party’s failure to win over poor voters of Middle Eastern extraction, even after handing that electorate an accomplishment like affordable housing.
The 52 year-old Galon is younger and has been a legislator only since 1999. However, as a Russian speaker who arrived in Israel from the USSR as a child, she arguably symbolises Meretz’s painful failure to capture what should have been its electoral bonanza: the post-Soviet immigration.
The so-called “Russians” are predominantly secular and often face real problems concerning rights related to “personal status” – stemming from their frequent marriages to spouses whose Jewishness is doubted by Israel’s rabbinical establishment. Back in 1992, when Meretz won its highest-ever vote just as this immigration was arriving in droves, it was clear that a good portion of the party’s new following was “Russian”. However, in subsequent years, this electorate has increasingly opted for more conservative alternatives.
Meretz’s failure, therefore, is neither personal nor circumstantial. Rather, it lies in its self-proclaimed association with the Oslo vision, which to many Israelis connotes trauma; in its identification with an economics that reminds many of the socialism they don’t miss; and in its consequent loss of touch with vast swathes of the electorate. If its new leader fails to change any of this, the Jewish ideological Left may soon have to declare political insolvency.