The Labor – Meretz Merger and the Future of the Left in Israel

In the end, it seems, he just couldn’t take the pressure. Following a sustained campaign by Israel’s liberal establishment, led by Haaretz, Amir Peretz along with Gesher leader Orly Levy finally agreed to a joint run with Meretz in the upcoming elections. At first glance, at least, Labor-Gesher appears to have gotten the better end of the deal – Peretz and Levy will be given the first two places on the joint Knesset list, while Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz will be in the third position. Additionally, the combined party’s ballot paper will read “emet” (truth,) as Labor’s has traditionally.

That is small consolation, however, for the likely death of the dream of refashioning Labor into a significant working class, social democratic force. The odds were always against Amir Peretz achieving that goal – the party received less than 5% of the vote in the last elections, and has been stagnant (at best) in recent polling. Unfortunately, Peretz’s decisions haven’t always helped. But his supporters could still hold out hope that Labor-Gesher, with more time to prepare than before the September elections, would run a better campaign, that they would learn from the failures of the last round, or simply that they would benefit from an unexpected, fortuitous turn of events.

All of those possibilities still exist, of course, but they seem much less likely now that Labor will be running with the millstone of Meretz around its neck. Meretz, perceived with good reason as the party of the liberal Ashkenazi elite, has never been more than an extremely marginal presence in the Israeli periphery – it took less than 1% of the vote in periphery towns like Akko, Dimona and Ashkelon in the last elections – and of the 25 people who have served in the Knesset for Meretz since the party’s founding, only 2 have been Mizrahi. The party has never placed much importance on the socio-economic issues which Peretz and Levy have sought to emphasize – Meretz’s September 2019 campaign was based largely on opposition to the haredim, in a sought of bourgeois (and much less successful) version of Avigdor Lieberman’s campaign. While Nitzan Horowitz and the rest of Meretz can be expected to fall in line with Peretz and Levy’s economic program, it is clear their hearts lie elsewhere, and voters are sure to take notice.

The potential dangers of the joint run for Peretz, already much remarked upon by his supporters, are clear. If the new Labor-Meretz list underperforms, the failure will be laid at his doorstep, and the Haaretz hacks who have spent the past several weeks blasting Peretz for his refusal to merge with Meretz will shift their fire to his continued leadership of the party. Even should the united party somehow obtain respectable results but fail to advance in the periphery, Peretz’s opponents will claim that he has failed in his raison d’etre and demand that he abandon his post, preferably to be replaced by an Ashkenazi who is less enthusiastic about raising their taxes.

Against this background, it is hard to see what the potential upshot is for Peretz. Meretz, as mentioned above, has virtually no support in the periphery and is an extremely weakened state even in its former strongholds: in 3 of the last 15 polls, it failed to cross the electoral threshold. Even were all its voters to opt for the new, united list, the boost to Labor would be extremely minimal.

There are, in my view, two central conclusions to be drawn from the unfortunate results of the Labor-Meretz unity saga:

The first is that the socialist left is desperately in need of a strong, independent voice in the Israeli media. Haaretz, which is Israel’s paper of record and is generally seen as the only left-wing Israeli newspaper, has displayed unceasing hostility to Amir Peretz over the past several weeks, portraying him as irrational, petty, and untethered from reality. While the newspaper ran article after article calling for Labor and Meretz to merge and depicting any possible opposition to the idea as absurd, almost no representation was given to supporters of Amir Peretz’s social democratic project. Readers were left to attempt to figure out on their own what Peretz was seeking to do with the Labor party, and why he and his supporters might oppose a potential joint run with Meretz. Haaretz’s coverage during this time was plagued with personal insults, factual errors, and what can only be called journalistic negligence. A few examples will have to suffice.

1. Personal insults lobbied against Peretz include Ravit Hecht asking him “what planet [he] live[s] on,” Yossi Verter calling him “pompous,” and his proposal for Meretz, Labor and Blue and White to unite “lame” and “pathetic” and stating that “every child” should have known it couldn’t work.

2. In the same column linked above, Yossi Verter describes “checks” that were performed at polling stations in the periphery which showed that Labor-Gesher in September received less votes there than Labor did under Avi Gabbay in April. This is flatly untrue, and Haaretz should be embarrassed that one of their senior politics writers was not only unaware of that but also that he did not bother to attempt to confirm the claim. If Verter had done so, he would have found that Labor-Gesher in September improved on Labor’s results in the everywhere in the (Jewish) periphery, and often by large margins: Labor’s vote more than doubled in development towns including Ofakim, Netivot, Yeruham, Dimona and Kiryat Shmona, and it also increased by over 50% in places such as Ramle, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beer Sheva. My examination of the results, in fact, did not reveal a single town in the (again, Jewish) periphery where Gabbay obtained more votes than Labor-Gesher in September. Verter and Haaretz owe their readers an explanation.

3. Finally, in what she intended to be a wide ranging article exploring the dilemmas of the Israeli left and suggesting possible solutions, the first politician whose diagnosis Ravit Hecht sought was former Labor MK Ayelet Nachmias Verbin. Hecht does not explain why she chose to speak with Nachmias Verbin for the article, given that she is a little known former backbencher (and given that, moreover, Hecht failed to speak to a single support of Amir Peretz’s social democratic camp.) Hecht quotes Nachmias Verbin as stating that “Israel needs an ideological center” and that Shelly Yachimovich, Labor leader from 2011-2013, “took the party to the most [sic] furthest left edge of social democracy…it dragged the whole image of the party leftward, beyond what its potential electorate was able to swallow.” Of course, describing Shelly Yachimovich as the “furthest left edge of social democracy” is a frightening display of historical and political ignorance. But beyond that, Hecht does not ask Nachmias Verbin why, if that is the case, Labor under Yachimovich received 15 seats in 2013 – a number it can only dream of now – and why Labor under the far more centrist Avi Gabbay received only 6 last April? More importantly, Hecht does not inform her readers that Nachmias Verbin has a clear material interest in promoting the “ideological center” and opposing social democracy – Nachmias Verbin is the heir (and former CEO) to a plastics company and was considering as recently as two months ago running to lead the Israeli Manufacturers Association – perhaps the most important employers’ organization in the country! Some journalists might have thought that was worth mentioning when discussing her political views.

The socialist left, if it continues to be a force in Israel following the March elections, will need to find a platform which is not quite so allergic to class politics and material analysis. While Siha Mekomit (and its English version +972) and HaOketz have at times provided an outlet for those friendly to social democratic politics, their reach is limited and their main focus is elsewhere. Davar gives significant attention to labor issues, but its reach is similarly limited, its status as the house organ of the Histadrut is a serious constraint, and much of its journalism leans too heavily on regurgitated quotes. Telem, a new publication styling itself a “journal for the Israeli left,” perhaps holds out some hope, but it is too early to tell what degree of independence from Israel’s liberal establishment it will attempt to stake out.

Secondly, the sense of the politically possible in Israel has shrunk to depressingly small proportions. What passes for political strategy in Israel has increasingly become an effort to determine what party mergers might be beneficial, and what passes for political analysis has become an effort to determine what effect those mergers might have. The possibility of introducing new policies or campaigning on a strategically chosen set of issues in order to attract new voters has begun to seem positively outlandish. When Amir Peretz declared his intention to attempt to do so, he was greeted with scorn and his refusal to accept the supposedly obvious need to merge with Meretz was widely ridiculed.

Virtually no one stopped to ask why, if Meretz was in danger of failing to pass the electoral threshold, was it necessary for the party to run together with Labor, rather than its voters simply shifting their support to the latter party? In other words, what makes Meretz as a political entity so uniquely valuable that its continued existence must be preserved by a joint run with Labor? These questions went unasked because they are unanswerable. No party has any right to its voters, and unfortunately a joint run Labor is no guarantee that Meretz’s voters will follow; it is only a guarantee that Labor’s message will be muddled by an “ally” with which it has little in common. The sooner that the Israeli left gives up its insipid obsession with mergers and technical blocs and starts focusing on winning new voters, the better.

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