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Israeli leftist leader digs herself a hole

Instead of offering the dwindling Meretz a new beginning, the leftist party's newly elected chair, Tamar Zandberg, lied to her supporters.

Tamar Zandberg, the new chair of Meretz, has entangled herself in a web of lies with the revelation that she consulted a right-wing strategist, Moshe Klughaft, during her campaign to lead the leftist party. Her actions are much more than a personal blunder. Zandberg’s crash just three days after a resounding victory in her party's primaries on March 22 forced Meretz, once considered at the forefront of the Israeli left, to come face to face with its internal leadership crisis. What it sees is not pretty.

Over the past decade, Meretz lost huge numbers of supporters. It shrank so much that it is now a small party whose continued existence is sometimes questioned. Yet, despite its crises, the party has always managed to survive and hold fast to its ideology, even as Labor, its big sister on the left, seemed to abandon its principles and inch toward the right.

Zehava Gal-On had resigned as party chair on Feb. 28. In all her years, Gal-On stuck to an uncompromising political line in all matters concerning a two-state solution, opposition to the occupation, struggles over human rights and Meretz’ social democratic ideology. Zandberg may have grown up in Meretz, but unlike Gal-On, she brought a new attitude to her primary campaign, declaring, for example, that she would have no problem sitting in a coalition with Avigdor Liberman, chairman of Yisrael Beitenu. In this, she ignored that Liberman has always been a red flag for Meretz, considering that he espouses a racist worldview and a far-right ideology.

Zandberg wanted to astound everyone by presenting herself as a new and updated version of Gal-On. No one thought she had a chance, but as time passed, it became clear that Meretz was taking a cue from Labor, which elected Avi Gabbay as its new leader last July. Meretz also wanted to shake up its ranks and stop running in place. Zandberg got lucky when two of the most prominent candidates for the party's leadership, Gal-On and Ilan Galon, both announced on the same day that they were dropping out of the race.

Once that happened, it became clear that Zandberg, an ambitious 42-year-old, would have an easy time taking over from Gal-On. Her main rival, Avi Buskila, director general of Peace Now, lacked political experience. Thus, the battle over the leadership of this important left-wing party became a struggle between two lightweight politicians lacking any significant depth or public support.

Zandberg offered a breath of fresh air. She is a young, ambitious modern woman whose public statements showed daring. Very quickly, however, it became clear that a huge question mark hung over her readiness and maturity to serve as head of Meretz, an icon of the Zionist left.

A closer look at the party's leaders until Zandberg reveals that they all represented the committed diplomatic left willing to lose seats and sit in the opposition if that was what it took to remain true to their principles and worldview. They were ideologues and respected as such, even by their political rivals.

The party’s first chairwoman, Shulamit Aloni, was a natural leader in her trailblazing campaigns in support of human rights. The party gained its greatest electoral victory under her leadership in 1992, winning 12 seats and playing a key role in Yitzhak Rabin's government. In many ways, Aloni's successor and rival, Yossi Sarid, continued along her path. In 1999, he served as education minister in Ehud Barak’s government. The second intifada and a growing sense of public frustration over the diplomatic process, however, took its toll on Meretz. The party lost its appeal, and with it its strength. Nevertheless, Sarid’s successor Yossi Beilin was able to make Meretz influential again, even with only five seats.

Beilin was one of the architects of the 2003 Geneva Initiative, which had a dramatic impact on the national agenda. It proved that there was a partner for peace on the other side. This initiative compelled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to implement the 2005 disengagement from Gaza rather than face a diplomatic vacuum.

Haim Oron and Gal-On, Beilin's successors, were highly regarded members of the Knesset known for their refusal to compromise their principles. They kept the banner of the diplomatic left aloft even when public sentiment in Israel shifted to the right. Meretz' core supporters may have dwindled over the years, but those that remain continue to hold loyalty to the party’s values in the highest regard. They remain committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards, preserving their integrity and always telling the truth while engaging in direct dialogue with the party's representatives. For all these reasons, they were hurt by Zandberg’s behavior.

Zandberg managed to stumble into every possible pit in a very short period of time, delivering blow after blow to the soft underbelly of her electorate. She consulted with Klughaft, who devised the “No Apologies” campaign for pro-settler HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett. Klughaft is best known, however, for some of the aggressive and even acerbic campaigns against the left, portraying it as a dangerous cabal of post-Zionist traitors funded by anti-Israeli sources. That Zandberg met with him infuriated the party faithful.

Throughout Zandberg's campaign, journalists had repeatedly asked her whether Klughaft was advising her. She denied it unequivocally. It was finally revealed that she had been lying when Klughaft himself exposed their relationship during a television profile about him.

Zandberg continued to trap herself in her own lies until she was finally forced to admit that she had indeed engaged him. Once she realized that she was on a collision course, she posted a video apology to Facebook, admitting that she had made a mistake.

In retrospect, Zandberg ran an arrogant campaign counter to her party’s DNA. That said, Meretz members ignored some worrisome signs. It should have been a red flag when on Feb. 4 Zandberg called Meretz under Gal-On a “purist party pleading for its life,” simply because Gal-On had criticized her for saying she would not rule out a coalition with Liberman.

Even if Meretz now regrets the series of events that pushed Gal-On out, its members realize that they will have to come together around Zandberg to avoid another big disturbance in the party. The promise of a brighter future that the new chair brought with her election disappeared within 72 hours of her victory. It was quick, and it was painful.

Rather than enjoying the momentum of a fresh start, Zandberg faces a major crisis with no apparent way out. Now it remains to be seen whether she has delivered a mortal blow to a party whose importance in a cynical political system cannot be understated.

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