Among the shocks of the recent Israeli election was the disappearance from the Knesset of two stellar Meretz Members of Knesset, Avshalom (better known as Abu) Vilan and Zehava Gal-on. Abu is a frequent guest of ours here in New York and visited us again on Friday, Feb. 20, to provide his views.
Meretz, in its alliance with the “New Movement” – an impressive group of former supporters of the Labor party, environmentalists and other social activists – appeared to be on the verge of contending with a much-weakened Labor party for the main parliamentary home of the Zionist center-left and left. Instead, the war in Gaza intervened and the joint New Movement-Meretz list fell from poll readings of at least eight seats to an actual result of three – down from the outgoing delegation of five.
Abu provided his analysis of what went wrong: There was some defections of traditional Meretz support by staunch doves to the bi-national, predominantly Arab and non-Zionist Hadash party; these voters were disappointed by Meretz statements of support for the initial stages of both the Lebanon war of 2006 and the recent Gaza war.
Basically, the party leader in both cases endorsed the principle of Israel’s right to self-defense against Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. As the Lebanon war ground on, Meretz called for a cease-fire. In the case of Gaza, it warned from the beginning against a ground invasion. But for some Meretz activists and supporters, this position was insufficiently dovish. Still, Abu indicated that this loss to Hadash was a relatively minor 5,000 votes.
A more serious blow came from a basic misunderstanding of Israel’s complex electoral system. Many Meretz votes were lost to Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party, falling for the line that if Kadima won more seats than any other party, Livni would be able to form the next government, which would be more moderate than a government headed by Netanyahu and Likud. While Livni is more moderate on the peace process than Netanyahu– who ran at the head of a very right-wing list and on a platform that would retain all settlements and not compromise on Jerusalem– it is not the party that wins the most seats that gets to form a government, but the party that heads the largest ideological bloc of compatible forces. This is normally the party that wins more seats than any of its competitors, but it does not have to be. To be continued…
The criticism of Meretz from the left is that the war was unjust and unnecessary to prevent rocket attacks as real negotiations over the embargo could have kept the cease fire going. The dispute is not about the right of Israel to defend itself.
If it is any consolation, Meretz would have gotten four seats (but Labor would have received one less seat) had Israel assigned seats using the same formula that the US uses to assign the number of congressional seats to states. Also Yisrael Beytenu would have received one less seat but Habayit Hayehudi would have received one more seat.
The U.S. formula is more proportional than the US formula. The Israeli formula is designed to favor large parties to encourage parties to merge.