Whither Meretz?

There are some people in the Left who wish to portray the elections to be held on March 22nd to the leadership of Meretz, Israel’s Left-Zionist party, as personal ones. On the one hand, we have Zehava Gal’on, who initiated the elections under the banner of opening the party to new members who now have the right to vote directly to party’s leader post (unlike the old situation where only the party’s Central Committee members were entitled to vote); and on the other hand we have Ilan Gil’on, the veteran socialist lawmaker, the party’s Bernie Sanders who adheres to the old socialist-Zionist platform of Meretz’s predecessor, the late Mapam party. However, the struggle between Gal’on and Gil’on is not personal at all; in fact, it is a bitter internal, ideological war within Meretz on how the party should look like.

Meretz was founded in 1992 as a joint list between the late Shulamit Aloni-led Ratz party, a moderate liberal formation; the socialist Mapam party, led by the veteran Marxist politician Yair Tzaban; and the ultra-liberal Shinui party, led by Amnon Rubinstein. It was agreed that the party’s identity won’t be socialistic nor liberal but social-democratic and Zionist. In 1997, Shinui decided to split from Meretz due to what it grasped as the party’s socialist agenda; Mapam and Ratz merged into one unified party led by social-democratic lawmakers like Haim Oron (Mapam) and Ran Cohen (Ratz). After Oron and Cohen left the Knesset, the two party’s factions were led by Zehava Gal’on, former general secretary of Ratz, and Ilan Gil’on who headed the youth movement of Mapam. Past difference that were blurred during the 1990s and early 2000s became clear more than ever: it is not just that Gal’on is a zealous liberal whilst Gil’on is a reddish socialist; the former is, in many ways, post-Zionist whilst the latter is Kibbutz-style orthodox Zionist. In addition, Gal’on is a dedicated oppositionist with fervent anti-occupation stands; Gil’on is not addicted to the anti-occupation discourse and is more moderate than his rival in terms of creating coalitions.

The ideological strife within Meretz exists between socialists and liberals, Zionists and post-Zionists. There are prominent party leaders like Tamar Zandberg and Mossi Raz who are not so enthusiastic to identify themselves with classical Zionist positions and there are many party members associated with Gal’on who were thinking during the past how to ally with the anti-Zionist, Communist Hadash party. There are other members like Avi Buskila, former secretary of Peace Now organization, the self-proclaimed post-Zionist MK Tamar Zandberg, and the social activist Avi Dabush, who is closer to the Gil’on than Buskila, who run for the party’s leader post, but many comrades argue that none of them will climb to the second round where Gal’on and Gil’on will fight each other head-to-head in order to win the majority of votes of more than 20,000 people who joined Meretz during the last months. It is obvious that the voters would have to decide which legacy will prevail: the Zionist-socialist heritage of Mapam or the post-Zionist liberal agenda of Ratz. In case Meretz will be crazy enough to stick to post-Zionist ideas à la Gal’on, it seems that the party’s fate is doomed. Gil’on and Co. will have to decide if and how they wish to end the historic partnership with Ratz in order to carry forward to historic mixture between socialism and Zionism.

About the Author
DAVID MERHAV is a journalist writing for The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report and The Forward. Since 2008, he is working as journalist & Op-Ed columnist in Makor Rishon daily, Hebrew conservative newspaper published in Jerusalem; He also served as the Public Relations director for the Jabotinky Institute in Israel.