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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit
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It’s time for an umbrella party

If Meretz, Labor and Yesh Atid join together, they'll vie with Likud, and return Israel to the familiar healthy democracy that depends on two strong competing parties
Labor leader Merav Michaeli (left), Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center), and Meretz leader Zehava Galon (right). (Flash90)
Labor leader Merav Michaeli (left), Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center), and Meretz leader Zehava Galon (right). (Flash90)

Much ink has been spilled lately on the question where do Meretz and Labor go from here? Should they merge or try to resuscitate individually? Unfortunately, such a union would be a mere palliative — probably only temporarily holding back the eventual disappearance of both parties. A more drastic solution is called for: a union of all Center and Left parties under one umbrella.

The knee-jerk reaction that many will have regarding such a proposal runs along the lines of: Israel doesn’t have any tradition of umbrella parties, certainly not very large ones. This is simply not true.

To briefly recap Israel’s political history: back in the mid-1960s, a middling party called Herut merged with the relatively small Liberal Party (itself a merger in 1961 of the General Zionists and the Progressive Party) to form Gahal, then in 1973 added several more mini-parties – the Free Centre, the National List, and the Movement for Greater Israel – to become the Likud, adding Ariel Sharon’s Shlomtzion Party immediately after the 1977 elections that brought the Likud to power. Needless to remind anyone, the Likud has been the dominant party in Israel since then.

How large did it become? In 1981, it garnered 48 seats in the Knesset (that’s 16 more than it achieved in the elections two weeks ago). Moreover, even that wasn’t enough to form a government because the Labor Alignment almost matched it with 47 seats! In other words, there certainly is an Israeli precedent for two huge parties, almost akin to the US situation of the Democrats and Republicans virtually monopolizing political power. American politics is not pretty (no democracy is; “beauty” is not the point of healthy politics), and occasionally infighting within a party can be as volatile and vituperative as the give-and-take between the two parties, but it works.

The 1981 outcome? The Likud managed to easily cobble together a governing coalition despite its mere one seat advantage. Unfortunately, its economic policymaking was disastrous (hyperinflation of 400%!!) and in the ensuing 1984 elections Labor received 44 seats to the Likud’s 41 — still two very large parties with each having more than a third of the Knesset’s total seats. The outcome of that election was far more positive: a National Unity government between these two parties (two-year rotation of the prime ministerial office), very successfully repairing the economy by stopping inflation in its tracks.

In short, Israel certainly has a tradition of large parties competing, and also working together in productive bipartisanship. And all this with a voting threshold that was far lower than today’s 3.25% — i.e., today, it is far harder for a small party to enter the Knesset, as Meretz (and Balad) learned to their dismay.

Can this merger mania be successfully repeated today? I would argue yes. The ideological differences between Meretz, Labor and Yesh Atid are not all that great – certainly no larger than found within some other democratic countries’ leading parties e.g., British Tories; today’s American Democrats and Republicans; and so on. On the Palestinian issue, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid recently called for an ultimate two-state solution, just as Labor and Meretz demand – the only difference being the extent to which this is practical given Palestinian intransigence (at least in Lapid’s eyes). On socio-economic issues, there is some distance between middle class Yesh Atid and Social Democratic Labor and Meretz, but here too nothing inherently unbridgeable.

Had such a union run in these elections, they combined party would have garnered at least 32 seats – tying the Likud, thereby immediately rendering (current PM) Lapid as a formidable candidate for prime minister in the future. One can further argue that many voters chose Benny Gantz’s Statist Camp party (Ha’Makhaneh Ha’Mamlakh’ti) over Lapid’s Yesh Atid because the latter wasn’t close to Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls; had the polls shown a dead heat, that could have brought even more voters to support the newly merged and enlarged “Yesh Atid” party.

And there’s another ramification, this one longer term. Many Likud voters support the party due to historical animosity towards Labor, for what they perceive as the slights and wrongs done to them by Mapai (today’s Labor) back in the 1950s and 1960s. These are now third generation Edot Ha’Mizrach (somewhat incorrectly occasionally called “Sephardic Jews”) who heard horror stories from their parents and grandparents. However, if the “Labor brand” disappears from the political map, this might well start a historical process of leaving the past behind, given that there’s no more Labor Party “to kick around anymore” (to paraphrase Nixon after losing to Kennedy in 1960). Indeed, as a (somewhat gross) generalization, most Likud voters are found in the lower-middle class and would normally support a Social Democratic party for economic reasons.

Obviously, there are other elements in this overall picture – too complex to be addressed here. For instance, where would Lieberman’s Russian voters gravitate to? Could the merged party successfully attract non-anti-Zionist Israeli Arabs, especially those already deeply integrated economically and professionally into Israeli society?

A final question: would Meretz and Labor go for such a union? The answer to this is that in the mid-to-long run they might not have any choice. Meretz has no representation in this new Knesset; Labor’s support is mostly found among an aging population of Mapai supporters who won’t be around much longer (the main reason it has steadily declined over the past few elections). Their first step would be to unite between them (just as Herut did with the Liberals back in the 1960s to form Gahal); the next step would be the uber-merger with Yesh Atid (again similar to Gahal’s absorption of other parties to become the Likud in the 1970s).

A healthy democracy needs two strong parties vying with each other. It worked in Israel several decades ago; it’s time to return to that tried-and-true system, so vital for a functioning democracy.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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