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Meretz hopes to restore Israeli left to its glory days

The growth of the Meretz Party in the polls has become a draw for young people who want to return the left to its glory days: “We will not apologize for our agenda. We are standing up against the right,” says Uri Zaki, who is responsible for the party’s reorganization efforts.
A supporter of the left wing Meretz party campaigning for municipal elections hangs balloons next to campaign posters of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in Jerusalem October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTX14JPY

Operation Protective Edge put a sudden stop to the momentum that the Meretz Party had been enjoying since the last elections in January 2013. In the months leading up to the campaign, the left-wing party has managed to soar in the polls, which gave it as many as 12 seats. Not only would this have doubled the size of its Knesset delegation, which won six seats in the last election, but the number 12 itself has mythical symbolism in Meretz's history. It represents the party’s glory days, back in 1992, when it was headed by Shulamit Aloni. In the elections that year, the party won 12 seats and joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government.

Ever since that record achievement, Meretz has shrunk considerably, losing its appeal and freshness, much like the rest of the Israeli left. In the 2009 elections, the party reached the low point of three seats. At the time, young people distanced themselves from it, and most of its voters and members were elderly. On the eve of the most recent elections, Meretz was about to vanish from the political landscape. Under the leadership of Zehava Gal-On, however, the party had a surprising recovery and walked away from the elections with a respectable outcome.

The revival of Meretz has turned the party into a lively arena for young people searching for a political home on the left. One such group, known as the “12-Big Left,” was founded a few months ago to recruit young members to Meretz, to give them more power in the party’s institutions and, eventually, to help them get elected to the Knesset. Its founders hope to restore the Israeli left to its glory days, when it had public support and influence, and to eliminate the stigma that Meretz has of being an elitist Ashkenazi (of Eastern European origin) party. The number 12 indicates how many seats they intend to win in the next elections. The “Group of 12” is part of a new phenomenon of reorganization, mostly by young people, who are committed to making the Zionist left more attractive, after seeing its public stature erode for so many years.

This reorganization effort in Meretz was gaining momentum throughout the country up until Operation Protective Edge. Its members were organizing conferences and political meetings all across the country. Then the war in Gaza erupted in July. First, the momentum stopped. Then, with the rise of the right, the trend turned negative. Wars are bad for the left, and especially for a party like Meretz, which opposed the operation almost from the outset, even though the operation had overwhelming public support. The electoral damage to the party was immediate. Meretz started to lose seats, dropping back down to six, the lowest it got in the polls ever since the elections.

In the last month, however, Meretz has begun to recover. According to recent polls on Channel 10 and the Knesset Channel, if elections were held now, it would win nine seats. At the same time, the “Group of 12” has also resumed operations. Meretz now has over 16,000 members, while at the eve of the last elections they were only about 2,700 members. Many of these new members joined the party as part of the reorganization effort.

The “Group of 12” is facing its first real test. In late December, the party will elect the 1,000 members of its Steering Committee, the party's most important internal organization, which elects the party’s Knesset list. The “Group of 12” will try to get as many young people as possible into the committee, so that when the time arrives, they can help them get representatives of the group into the Knesset. The group is led by the young leadership of Meretz, which includes Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, her partner and the former head of B'Tselem in the United States, Uri Zaki, Tel Aviv Alderman Mickey Gitzin, Deputy Mayor of Kfar Saba Ilai Harsgor Hendin, Raanana Alderman Shai Even and Bat Yam Alderwoman Katy Piasetzky.

Uri Zaki, former head of B'Tselem in the United States and one of the founders of the group “12-Big Left” on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Oct. 26, 2014.

As someone who plans to run for a seat in the next Knesset elections, Zaki told Al-Monitor that recruiting new Meretz members by the “Group of 12,” and especially by the party’s younger members, was relatively easy compared to previous years. “I myself was surprised to see how quickly Meretz recovered from the war in Gaza. I think that Meretz is the mirror image of Bennett and the HaBayit HaYehudi Party. Young people at both ends want to identify with something distinct. Zehava Gal-On turned Meretz into a party that lies outside the consensus, and young people like that. We have gone back to being trendy.”

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  But you are still considered a Tel Avivian Ashkenazi party. That is hardly a natural address for young Mizrahi [Middle Eastern] supporters from the periphery.

Zaki:  That is true, and that is one of the group’s objectives. It is a problem that we must recognize, and try to deal with it. It is inconceivable that some 50% of the Israeli public is not represented within the party. There is not a single Mizrahi Knesset member in Meretz, and there hasn’t been one since Ran Cohen, except for Mossi Raz, who only served for a short time. I have approached Mizrahi activists about joining Meretz on more than one occasion, and I was always told no. They didn’t want to go someplace where they would feel like outsiders. I feel like there is openness toward the Mizrahi issue in Meretz today. People recognize the problem, there is no more denial. We visit the development towns and meet with young people who understand that there is a connection between the diplomatic left and the socio-economical left, and that the two cannot be separated from one another. I can feel it when I visit the kibbutzim in the south. The young people there actually tell me that we must show greater solidarity with the localities in the south in everything to do with the just distribution of resources. The approach that they represent is different from that of the older generation. There is a generational component at play here.

Al-Monitor:  Do you really believe that Meretz can break through the glass ceiling in those places?

Zaki:  It won’t change overnight, but we have to start the process. I have seen how it became an issue that young people in Meretz are talking about and want to change. It has not been felt before with the same intensity. There is an understanding a party that is supposed to represent the value of equality cannot do so fully if it lacks genuine representation of the periphery.

Al-Monitor:  You returned to Israel a year and a half ago after spending several years in the United States as the representative of B’Tselem [Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories]. Didn’t you ever feel as if you were slandering Israel around the world?

Zaki:  Not even for a moment. The right won’t teach me what it means to be a patriot. From my perspective, authentic Zionism means striving to end the occupation and advancing human rights. After spending four years there, I can tell you that we are losing points with every passing day. A senior member of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] told me that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer understands America. He thinks that it is the same place it was in the 1980s, when he was ambassador to the United Nations, and the only people he takes into consideration are the Republicans. Netanyahu has turned Israel into a captive of the right’s agenda, and that is very dangerous. 

Based on my experiences during those years, I have reached the conclusion that the left must go on offense against the right. It must stop internalizing the right-wing vision of what it means to be an Israeli patriot, because what they are doing is actually destructive to Israel. We have a lot to say to them in response. In the end, if there is a significant divergence between the ideology of American Jews our age and what is happening on the ground in Israel, those Jews will begin to move away from us. What that means is that in another 10 years, the most important base of support that we, Israel, have in the world will be undermined. I am not willing to accept the criteria of the hypocritical right as to what it means to be patriotic. That is exactly the position that we are promoting in the “Group of 12.” We will not apologize for our agenda. We are standing up against the right, and that is what makes us again an attractive option.

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