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Meretz reshuffles Israeli left's political deck

The decision to hold open primaries for the party’s list offers Meretz a chance to rejuvenate itself and rebrand as a dynamic leftist platform.

Israel's Meretz Party decided to change its internal election system Jan. 7, transferring power from the 1,000 members of its Central Committee to a primary system open to all the party's members. In this way, Meretz hopes to restore the relevance it lost after a decade of crises and political indolence. This change could have a major impact on the division of power within the center-left bloc in the next election scheduled for 2019.

Meretz will try to reinvigorate its voter profile over the next few months. It hopes to relaunch itself as a political home to supporters of the left, who are unwilling to accept Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay's sharp turn to the right. If successful, the move could generate a dramatic change in votes within the leftist bloc. Voters aligned with the Zionist Camp or Yesh Atid will be able to shift their allegiance to Meretz, if the party has the good sense to rid itself of its (justified) image as an elderly, elitist party. It could become a political home to the liberal Zionist left.

This new move, orchestrated by Meretz Chair Zehava Gal-On, transferred internal party elections from the Central Committee to all members of the party, while opening the voter rolls to new members. It all began in September as an attempt to ensure her own political survival, after the party's Central Committee threatened to remove her. For the most part, Meretz is a small opposition party with limited influence. However, this bold gambit could have a butterfly effect, sending shockwaves across the entire political system.

Successful primaries in Meretz will create another voting option for supporters of the Zionist Camp and even Yesh Atid, who consider themselves center-left or even soft right. If the anticipated movement of voters is accompanied by a similar shift among the Likud's soft core of supporters to Yesh Atid and the Zionist Camp, the leftist bloc will grow.

Acting out of sheer desperation, the Labor Party surprised itself ín July by electing a semi-anonymous figure with little political experience as its leader. They chose Gabbay, who only joined the party a year earlier. Now it was Meretz's turn to take a bold step. Seemingly acting against the immediate interest of its members, it relegated the power to choose its Knesset list to its members.

In both these cases, the members realized that they must take extraordinary steps if they are to stop trudging in place while losing power and influence among the Israeli public. Over the years, the 1,000 members of the Meretz Central Committee made the party look like an exclusive private club, focused only on its internal intrigues. The party's candidates largely reflected the profile of the committee: elderly, Ashkenazi and aloof from most current political discourse.

As chair of Meretz since 2012, Gal-On's main achievement was navigating her party through two turbulent elections and somehow surviving. In the election before she became party chair, Meretz dodged annihilation by the skin of its teeth, winning just three seats after many of its voters moved to Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni. Once Gal-On took her new position, she managed to secure her reputation as a powerful chair. Over time, however, the party proved unable to improve its situation in any meaningful way, and a significant opposition group formed within the party and began taking measures to depose her.

Forced to make a decision, Gal-On bet the entire pot. On two previous occasions, she failed in her attempts to introduce open primaries in Meretz, in which every citizen could participate after paying a nominal membership fee. In the end, she was finally able to pass a compromise: The primaries would be open to all members of the party who joined Meretz at least one month before its internal elections. Considering how hard it is to institute any meaningful changes in this old, established party, the feat was nothing less than dramatic.

Primaries for the leadership of Meretz are scheduled to be held in March. So far, Gal-On will be up for re-election, with Knesset member Ilan Gilon challenging her, but this could change. The new election system will allow anyone who joins in time to submit their candidacy for leader, meaning that there could a surprise outsider candidate like Labor's Gabbay. Quite a few people have been considering the idea, though currently there is no specific candidate warming up somewhere. After all, in Israeli politics, there aren’t very many opportunities to jump into an election at the very last moment and take over a party that is virtually assured Knesset seats. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked did this on the eve of the 2013 election when they gave up their plans to run for the leadership of the Likud and found an opportunity to take over the national religious HaBayit HaYehudi, which was then in decline. Their success in this political gamble was transformative.

Even before Meretz decided to hold primaries, the party received a boost from an unexpected source. Gabbay's decision to veer sharply to the right bolstered Meretz in the polls, which now project that it could win as many as seven seats if the election were held today. Gabbay was busy flirting with Likud members by entangling himself in a series of controversial moves. He supported a law to expel asylum-seekers and announced that he opposed the evacuation of settlements. Most problematic, however, was his controversial statement: "The left forgot what it means to be Jewish." All of this caused many Zionist Camp supporters to shift their allegiance to Meretz.

With Lapid and Gabbay actively avoiding being branded as left-leaning, Meretz is just about the only natural option for ideologically liberal, secular Zionists who identify with the left. In private conversations, Gabbay says that a strong Meretz is good news for him, because he has been strengthening the leftist bloc by attracting right-wing voters. After the election, he concludes, having done so would allow him to form a coalition with Meretz. His assumption might have been valid were he talking about the Labor Party in the 1992 election, when it was headed by Yitzhak Rabin. At the time, there was no strong center party like Yesh Atid, hovering around 20 seats in the polls. In Gabbay's case, however, it looks like he is boosting Meretz and Lapid at the expense of his own party, which will have a hard time winning the next election and putting together a government.

There are currently 18,000 registered members of Meretz. The party's decision to hold primaries is a gamble that may well give it the momentum it needs to increase that number significantly. If it plays its cards right, Meretz could be the big surprise in the next election.

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