by Daniel Amir
After five years in charge, Zehava Gal-On is stepping down as leader of Israel’s left-leaning Meretz. Gal-On’s shoes may be hard to fill for the party’s next leader, but he or she also has an important opportunity to give the party a much needed makeover. With the Israeli public increasingly showing preference for parties on the right of the spectrum, and the center ground dominated by parties sending out mixed and opportunistic political signals, Meretz has the opportunity to carve out a space for itself as an important counterweight to the rhetoric coming from the camp of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu may not be around forever. If Israel’s attorney general makes the decision to indict the prime minister on grounds of corruption and breach of trust as recommended by Israel’s police, the Israeli right will find itself squabbling in search of a new leader. Likud will inevitably suffer a difficult period as figures including former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Transport Minister Israel Katz vie to succeed Netanyahu. Without the presidential figurehead that Netanyahu has become, the right may find it difficult to form the sort of coalitions that have kept Likud afloat since 2009 and leave more room for the centrist Yesh Atid. The latter, headed by the apparently charismatic Yair Lapid, has polled at around 24 seats out of the 120 in Israel’s Knesset.
Whether Lapid leads a future government or not, Meretz still represents the leftmost potential coalition partner for a non-Likud government. Israel’s United Arab List, despite polling well, has come under fire too consistently from voices on both ends of the political spectrum to be included in any coalition for the next Knesset, whatever its makeup. Controversial comments by figures like MK Hanin Zoabi have come to vilify the List in the eyes of much of the Israeli public. The responsibility for the creation of a popular left is in Meretz’s hands.
Still, the party has bigger issues than the fact that the political tide is against it. Meretz has suffered accusations over the years of being predominantly middle-aged, middle-class, and Ashkenazi. In a country where the center-periphery grievances that frame these accusations have come to the fore over the past decade, this is something of a toxic brand. In order to fight for the kind of social and political justice that has made up its traditional platform, Meretz first has to convince voters that it is well-placed to represent the Israeli public as a whole.
Ashkenazi, Tel-Avivi Tamar Zandberg, long a favorite in the leadership race, came out on top in the recent vote. She sees her party (and no doubt Israel’s future) as “egalitarian and pluralist and secular” and justifiably argues for the importance of women on the center stage of Israeli politics. But Zandberg still exemplifies the archetypal Meretz voter. Her main competitor, Avi Buskila, on the other hand was young, Mizrahi, and gay. Now victorious, Zandberg must now convince potential Meretz voters that despite appearances, her party stands to represent Israeli Jewish society as a whole as well as Israel’s disenfranchised Arab population.
Real success for Meretz, then, depends on actual grassroots mobilization. Only around a fifth of the party’s roughly 12,000 members are under 20, and Meretz seems to be lagging by clinging to its time-honored contingent of voters rather than forging new frontiers. The party needs a much better media infrastructure to outflank its competitors and refocus its online campaigns to the party as a movement. There are so many examples of leftist parties that strike sexy, innovative, youthful tones, and Meretz must occupy a similar space and reinforce alliances with civil society organizations that champion social justice and combat corruption outside the Knesset as well as within it. Attacks by the right against these organizations may make such a move unpopular, but Meretz stands to gain from this distinction.
This is not just a question of demographics; Meretz has to strike the correct tone on its policies too. It has to make clear to Israelis that it wants a just future on both sides of the Green Line and toe the line of Israeli identity and Zionism carefully, since accusations of anti-Zionism have hurt the party’s chances in the past. Still, an attempt to reach out to voters should not come at the cost of values: this is arguably where the party’s greatest strengths lie. Zehava Gal-On helped to lead the way in this regard when last year she was one of the few prominent Israeli politicians to speak up against the potential pardoning of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, despite currents inside and outside of the Knesset that hailed him as a hero. This was far from a populist or popular policy, but it was the right one.
If you can’t beat the Likud, then, be right, principled, and steadfast. Israel’s political sphere needs a compassionate voice more than ever, and Meretz has a chance to step into that position as others fly in the face of Israel’s uncertain political future. Meretz as it stands may not be the party many Israelis want, but the job of its new leader will be to make it the party Israel aspires to support.
Daniel Amir is a graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington. @Daniel_Amir1.