Israel Pulse

Israeli left-wing party moving in the 'right' direction

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Article Summary
Tamar Zandberg, who is expected to assume leadership of left-wing Meretz, has sparked controversy by saying that she will not rule out joining a coalition that includes the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu.

The decision by longtime Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On to step aside for the upcoming primaries to make way for a younger leadership symbolizes more than just a generational shift. Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, likely to be crowned on March 22 as Gal-On’s successor in the left-wing party, is signaling a clear shift in political strategy, shelving the Gal-On style “purism” that has ruled out any type of partnership with right-wing parties.

Zandberg wants to “exert influence from within” and is therefore willing to join a government in which hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is a member. In a Feb. 13 Haaretz article, Zandberg argued that one cannot change politics from the outside. She has not retracted her statement to the effect that she does not rule out joining a governing coalition that includes Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beitenu. When asked by Al-Monitor whether she supports a partnership with a party that advocates the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens and whose top leadership is suspected of corruption, she responded, “Meretz will not join any calls for a transfer [of Arabs], of course, nor will it lend a hand to corruption. I am striving for Meretz to be part of a left-wing government that makes peace and promotes social justice. Not part of any other government.”

Uri Zaki, Zandberg’s partner and head of the Meretz Governing Assembly, was less diplomatic about the stamp of approval she gave Yisrael Beitenu. “Liberman will not determine for us whether we join the government or stay out,” Zaki said.

Knesset member Ilan Gilon, who pulled out of the leadership race for health reasons and declared his support for Zandberg, also opposes the approach that precludes partnership with the right. Speaking with Al-Monitor, Gilon said that Meretz should join any government that adopts two of what he calls the party’s three-part “partition plan,” a reference to the 1947 UN decision on the creation of the State of Israel. He listed the three as a redivision of the country, redistribution of its wealth and reorientation of relations between matters of state and religion. Liberman favors the separation of religion and state as well as the redivision of Israel — as long as the latter includes the transfer of Israeli Arab towns and villages, along with their residents, to a future Palestinian state.

Gal-On is unconvinced of Zandberg's approach, to put it mildly. “I was disappointed to read that Tamar Zandberg held out her hand to the most corrupt man in Israeli politics, Avigdor Liberman,” Gal-On wrote on Facebook. “What’s the big idea or ‘new spirit’ in ingratiating one’s self with the deepest, most racist political right, the closest to fascism that exists?” She sarcastically welcomed the fact that Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the ultra-right Kach who was assassinated in 1990, is no longer a Knesset member, “otherwise someone would suggest sitting with him in the same government, too.” Gal-On stressed that Meretz views itself as a legitimate and influential member in a center-left government led by Labor Party Chair Avi Gabbay or centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. She noted that even Gabbay, “not exactly a left-wing ideologue,” in her words, and with Kulanu at the time, quit his position as environmental protection minister in 2016 when Liberman was appointed defense minister.

The dilemma over partnering with Liberman is not a theoretical debate. Following the next general elections, Meretz may well have to make do with two of the three principles laid out by Gilon. To protect Israeli democracy and defend the country’s disadvantaged, Meretz may have to postpone its vision of peace until a more favorable time for the political left. The latest poll conducted for the Peace Index of the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University suggests that the alternative to continued rule by a messianic government comprised of right-wing parties is a secular government consisting of the center left and right wing.

The findings by the periodic Peace Index survey, details of which were obtained by Al-Monitor, show that 59% of Jewish Israelis affiliate themselves with the political right, 26% with the center and only 15% with the left. The votes of the 20% Arab minority would not affect the governing coalition, because both Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the Gabbay-led Zionist Camp, in which Labor is the main party, have ruled out a partnership with the Arab parties. The poll, conducted last week, points to stability in these trends over many months. The suspicions of corruption swirling around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have not affected the balance of power among these three blocs, and there is no reason to assume that it will change dramatically before the next elections, currently scheduled for November 2019.

Although the latest public opinion polls reported by the media show Netanyahu’s Likud retaining its support and even expanding it, well ahead of Yesh Atid and the Zionist Camp, Israel's president is not bound by law to task the head of the biggest party with putting together the country’s next government. In some cases, such as the 2009 elections, the party that won the most Knesset seats, Kadima, was relegated to the opposition. In the 1980s, the Labor Party, headed by Shimon Peres, formed a national unity government with the Likud, led by Yitzhak Shamir. Peres was unable to implement the so-called London Agreement he had reached with Jordan’s King Hussein, under which Israel would hand over the West Bank to Jordanian patronage. He managed, however, to pull back Israeli troops in Lebanon, redeploying them into a “security strip” in the south along the Israeli border, and rescued the Israeli economy from galloping, triple-digit inflation.

In the past, Meretz has joined governments with agendas not wholly compatible with its own. At the beginning of the 1990s, for example, it joined Yitzhak Rabin's government alongside the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Shas in the hopes of blocking the West Bank settlement enterprise. Without Meretz, Rabin would not have been able to form the governing coalition that enabled him, albeit barely, to sign the 1993 Oslo Accord with the PLO. At the end of that decade, Meretz marched alongside Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak all the way from US-sponsored negotiations with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 to the ensuing Taba talks.

Although neither of these two governments reached a lasting peace with the Palestinians, Meretz could not have afforded to abide by its principles from seats on the opposition benches. It also may not be able to afford such a place for itself and for what remains of the embattled political left on the day after the next elections.

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Found in: zehava gal-on, meretz, tamar zandberg, avigdor liberman, yesh atid, avi gabbay, coalition government

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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