By Yossi Mekelberg*
It is the worst-kept secret in Israeli politics that the progressive left is in retreat and, tragically, almost resigned to its fate of operating at the margins of power, while the right, in one form or another, is powering ahead.
For decades now, the narrative of peace and social justice — and especially their close relationship — has had a dwindling audience and those promoting it have failed to inspire. They have failed young people in particular. Hence the decision by one of Israel’s most distinguished left-leaning politicians and human and social rights activists, Zehava Galon, to come out of retirement from front-line politics and join the contest for leadership of the Meretz party. Her return has been welcomed by the country’s liberal left groupings with a mixture of joy and relief at what is seen as a last chance of saving Meretz and probably their entire political camp from oblivion.
Meretz will hold its primaries toward the end of this month, when Galon will be up against retired former Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, who is somewhat of a maverick. Galon is expected to win this race comfortably.
It is a rare occurrence in politics for a party to be united in its wish for a former leader to come out of retirement and to proactively encourage their return. This can be attributed to both Galon’s personal standing among party members and supporters and also, sadly, to the dire state of the left in Israel and lack of any other viable candidates. Meretz has struggled to find an inspirational, determined leader with a coherent vision of the direction the country should take. It has long sought someone who sees the value and necessity of a fair and just solution to the conflict with the Palestinians that will end the occupation, while understanding why this is essential to maintaining a democratic state based on respecting human rights and social justice within the borders of the Green Line.
After quitting politics four years ago, Galon is back to fill this vacuum, which is Meretz’s natural playing field. She commands the utmost respect among the liberal progressive left as a genuine proponent of these values, having a long and distinguished track record of putting peace with the Palestinians and human rights for all at the top of her own and Meretz’s agenda. In her long career, she can also take credit for being one of the founders and the first general secretary of the human rights organization B’Tselem, which for many years has served as a mirror to Israeli society in reminding it of the ugliness of the occupation and blockade of Palestinians and their land.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that, since Galon announced her return, Meretz is improving its standing and is more likely to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent, a target that seemed less achievable only a few weeks ago. Without crossing that threshold, there was a genuine risk of the disappearance of a party that has its roots in the Labor Party of the 1970s. Meretz never aimed to become a contender to replace Labor; its purpose was more to serve as the political and moral compass that Labor had lost after spending too long in power before and after Israel was founded.
Currently, instead of Meretz being a thorn in the side (in the most positive meaning of the phrase) of Labor to encourage it to stay true to its values, both parties are almost on a par in their electoral appeal. One of the big challenges for Meretz — and Galon if she wins the primaries — is to justify the party’s decision to join the Naftali Bennett/Yair Lapid-led coalition and participate in a government that has been more right than left, presiding over the expansion of settlements and doing little to alleviate the oppression of the occupation of the West Bank or the blockade of Gaza, not to mention lacking any sign of a peace initiative.
Galon was of course not part of that government or even an MK during this time. Instead she has directed her boundless energy toward founding the Zulat think tank that has set itself the task of reviving the discourse concerning Israel’s democratic and humanistic nature and its values, ending the occupation and advancing a written “humane and progressive constitution that will fortify the protection of human rights.”
However, despite all the criticism aimed at Meretz for joining the coalition last year, there was a political logic to it and it is hardly a stain on the character of the party. In essence, it was a sacrificial move to avoid another election and to prevent a far-right government led by a defendant in a corruption trial of the utmost severity.
For Meretz and the left in Israel, the forthcoming general election is a rearguard battle for relevance and even existence. But as Galon herself admits, the real battle is in its infancy: It is to appeal beyond the intellectual and affluent progressive sliver of Israeli society and find new support from those who have fallen under the spell of the right and the far right despite being the main victims of their misguided policies.
Between now and election day, new alliances might emerge on the left, including one that sees Meretz running in one list with Labor. But whatever the future holds, Galon’s return gives the progressive left a massive shot in the arm, as she is one of the rare breed of politicians who has a coherent worldview and values, is a feisty campaigner and activist, and who has a track record of seeing her plans through to fruition. It now remains for this to be translated into votes on election day.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg