INSIGHTS: Can a Labor-Meretz Merger Reinvigorate the Israeli Left?

INSIGHTS: Can a Labor-Meretz Merger Reinvigorate the Israeli Left?

Can a Labor-Meretz Merger Reinvigorate the Israeli Left?
By Ron Skolnik

A merger between Labor and Meretz, the t wo predominantly-Jewish parties that constitute Israel’s center-left, seems to be fast approaching. What is far less certain is whether this combination can provide the reenergized leftwing alternative that Israeli society badly needs.

Let’s start with a flashback: When the official results of Israel’s June 1992 elections were announced, the country seemed to finally be turning a political corner. After fifteen long years, the pro-settlement, anti-compromise Likud party was no longer going to lead (or co-lead) the governing coalition. With the First Palestinian Intifada grinding into its fifth year, and the First Gulf War having generated the beginnings of a regional diplomatic initiative (the “Madrid Process”), voters chose the Labor Party, winner of 44 seats, to be Israel’s foremost political force. Labor’s junior coalition partner and main ally was Meretz, the new, politically rambunctious, left-Zionist alliance, which had won 12, making it Israel’s third largest party. Israel’s liberal and progressive forces seemed to be ascendant.

Three decades later, both components of the once powerful political tandem are now in tatters. After years of gradual, stop-and-start electoral decline, Meretz failed to enter the Knesset in the November 2022 elections, gaining only 3.16 percent of the vote – below the 3.25 percent minimum threshold (and two-thirds less than its 1992 showing). The blow was not only political, but financial as well: The State of Israel provides funding only to those political parties who actually make it into Knesset, meaning that Meretz ended the 2022 campaign saddled with significant debt. Meanwhile, since chair Zehava Galon’s resignation in late 2022, no senior party figure has stepped up to take over, rendering Meretz politically rudderless.

Labor’s fortunes have arguably been even grimmer. While Israel’s “founding party” managed to enter the Knesset in 2022, it did so only barely, garnering a measly 3.7 percent and becoming Israel’s smallest parliamentary faction. Indeed, its most recent result represents a greater than 90 percent loss of its 1992 vote share.

Since the election, Labor’s poll numbers have sunk even further, and consistently fall well below the threshold line. Many of those who supported it in the past harbor a lingering resentment toward Chair Merav Michaeli, who firmly rejected Meretz’s pre- election proposal to pool the parties’ votes as a joint electoral slate. At very least, such an arrangement (in which each party would remain independent) would  have  ensured  Meretz’s  continued  Knesset representation alongside Labor – and might even have added enough anti-Netanyahu seats to prevent the formation of the current far-right government.

With both parties continuing to lack luster, the idea of combining forces has remained on the political agenda.  Nearly  a  year  ago,  for  example,  Labor MK, Rabbi (Reform) Gilad Kariv, demanded a full merger, arguing that the differences between the two parties had become “microscopic”.

Now the moment of truth is arriving. Last December, a deeply unpopular Michaeli announced that she would be stepping down from her party chair role. Labor has scheduled a May 28 leadership primary, and the results of that race will likely determine the merger’s fate. Meretz’s interim leadership group has already endorsed the idea of an amalgamated party in principle; all that’s left is for Labor to agree.

Enter Yair Golan, former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff and former Knesset Member and Deputy Minister, who  has  emerged  as  the  leading  candidate  to succeed Michaeli. (While rumors are circulating of possible other candidates, no one has yet put their name forward at the time of this writing.) Announcing his candidacy in late February, Golan made clear that his aim in running was to bring Labor and Meretz into a political union under a new name and fresh brand. Golan’s March 18 campaign video suggests that the party might be called “The Democrats”. Meanwhile, he has already received the endorsement of half of Labor’s Knesset faction, MKs Kariv and Naama Lazimi.

Golan first drew media attention in 2016, while still in uniform. Addressing a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, he compared the fascistic trends in modern-day Israel to those that had plagued Europe in the 1930s. Golan was bitterly attacked by rightwing political leaders, and some believe that the speech caused him to be passed over when the next Chief of Staff was appointed.

Retiring from the army, Golan entered politics in 2019. He first joined the center-left political party created  by  former  prime  minister  Ehud  Barak, “Democratic  Israel”,  which  ended  up  running together with Meretz and the Green Movement. When Barak soon disbanded the initiative, Golan was left without a framework, and eventually joined Meretz. There he continued to be overshadowed by more veteran political figures, including Zehava Galon  (by  whom  he  was  roundly  defeated  in  a leadership contest) and Mossi Raz.

After  the  2022  elections,  however,  Golan’s reputation  began  to  soar.  With  Meretz  out  of Knesset and its senior representatives dropping out of political life, Golan became a leading figure in the protest movement, calling for nonviolent “civil rebellion  against  the  Netanyahu  government’s anti-democratic “reforms”. Then, on October 7, he became something of a national hero: Upon hearing the awful news, Golan donned his old uniform, grabbed a weapon, and drove his car to the border with Gaza, where he rescued Israelis under Hamas assault at the ill-fated Nova music festival.

A man with significant military “cred” in a country at war, Golan might indeed be the best electoral bet for Israel’s center-left in the near term. Initial polls show a Golan-led merger garnering a respectable, if not spectacular, seven to nine seats.

But, it must be asked honestly, does Golan offer the sort of compelling vision around which the Israeli left can build itself anew in the years ahead?

Golan revealed his electoral approach and basic philosophy  in  the  primary  campaign  he  waged to become Meretz’s chair in 2022. As opposed to a burgeoning trend on the left to promote joint Jewish-Arab political work, Golan sought to steer Meretz headlong toward the political center so that it would become less “purist”, in his words, and more palatable to more Jewish Israelis – especially those who vote for Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s center-right National Unity. Golan railed against those in Meretz urging it to become a party with Jewish-Arab co-leadership, saying such voices should be “silenced and suppressed”.

Golan’s  terminology  also  shows  how  far  he  was from  Meretz’s  traditional  role  as  pusher  of  the political envelope: He generally eschews the word “occupation”,  he  explained  in  2022,  since  his broader,  more  centrist  target  constituency  finds such language off-putting, and it prefers not to think about Palestinian suffering. Golan has also openly questioned whether a Palestinian partner exists and he uses the term “separation” from the Palestinians, rather  than  “peace”,  another  word  increasingly avoided by the mainstream. Based on his numerous media interviews, there is no indication that Golan has meaningfully changed his approach.

Golan’s aim, then, seems to be the formation of a new center-left party that manages to grow by being similar enough to the centrist parties to peel away a share of their voters. In the absence of any bigger or unique ideas, however, would such an accomplishment really be much of a game-changer? And would it not make more sense for this kind of liberal party to band together with Yesh Atid?

Since the collapse of any real peace process in 2008,  after  Prime  Minister  Ehud  Olmert’s  fall from  power  (Netanyahu’s  participation  in  John Kerry’s  2013-2014  peace  initiative  being  more posture than substance), Israel has been in need of a counternarrative that presents a bold alternative to the paths put forward by the mainstream right (eternal occupation and creeping annexation) and the far-right (expulsion). Golan, on the other hand, seems to be offering something more akin to a pallid rearguard action of a fading Labor Zionism, and it is fair to question whether his party would infuse the left with the energy it so desperately requires.

New  upstart  political  frameworks  are  being created,  however,  even  if  they  currently  occupy the political fringe. “All Its Citizens”, for example, recently founded by Avrum Burg and Faisal Azaiza, is a party dedicated to the principle of absolute, constitutionally-guaranteed   equality   between all  Israeli  citizens,  Jewish,  Arab,  or  other.  The party models this pursuit via its joint leadership structure.  All  Its  Citizens  embraces  words  like “occupation” and “peace” that have fallen out of favor, and it rejects the idea of a frosty “separation”. Instead, the party believes that peace will need to be based on “partnership” between the two national peoples who share the same homeland between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

While All Its Citizens still lacks any mass appeal, it has already begun the type of “subversive” work that Meretz once took pride in by challenging stale political and societal norms – work that sometimes requires years of effort before coming to fruition.

Israel’s February 27 municipal elections showed that such efforts might already have some ballot box viability. Election day saw several local Jewish- Arab  election  slates  competing  for  city  council spots, and though not all managed to gain seats, a few did. These included the “We Are All the City” slate in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which picked up three councilors with 7.6 percent of the vote, and “The City Majority” slate in Haifa, with three percent, enough to elect one. That one was Sally Abed, one of the prominent leaders of the Arab-Jewish “Standing Together” movement; and while, as a nonprofit, “Standing Together” itself was not legally or financially involved in either of these electoral efforts, as private citizens, its dynamic activists were a driving force in both.

It is still not clear what role, if any, Standing Together or its members will seek to play in national politics once new elections are called. But for the many leftwing Israelis who feel uninspired by the current choices, the movement offers an attractive option and the 2024 municipal elections could be seen as a promising test-run.

Deep societal transformation is slow and takes much more time to accomplish than the several months of a single Knesset election campaign. Political groups working for a truly shared Jewish-Arab society, or a shared Israeli-Palestinian homeland, are therefore unlikely  to  be  rewarded  with  major  electoral victories any time soon. But for fundamental change to be made, there must be always be those who “go ahead of the camp”, take political risks, and point the way forward. A merged Labor/Meretz party, be it called “The Democrats” or anything else, will soon need to decide what it wants to achieve and what role in Israel’s future it wishes to play.



Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political columnist and public speaker, whose articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Haaretz, Al- Monitor, Tikkun, the Forward, Jewish Currents, & the Palestine-Israel Journal.


  1. Ralph Seliger April 5, 2024 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Thanks Ron. This is very informative. A couple of months ago, I read a long interview with Golan in Haaretz. He’s very much a maverick, maybe too much for his own good.

    Because of the four-seat threshold, the “All its Citizens” party is probably a non-starter. But its dedication to a shared Jewish-Arab society is a worthy purpose. It would be a shame if Golan is not open to this goal.

    • Ron Skolnik April 5, 2024 at 11:34 am - Reply

      Thank you, Ralph. The vote threshold is an obstacle, to be sure, especially when the need to remove the current government is so glaring and pressing. But unless the Israeli left is able to present a compelling narrative that actually competes with those of the ‘old-guard’ right (eternal occupation, creeping annexation) or far-right (violent expulsion), I don’t see any fundamental change occurring. And then the no-solution, no-hope reality will inevitably bring voters back to the right. Indeed Israelis have been drifting consistently rightward for the last 20+ years, and I see little so far to suggest that Labor-Meretz will present any exciting new vision to challenge that trend.

      All Its Citizens has actually hinted that they might start their political “career” in partnership with another list (Hadash?) We shall see. I’m hopeful that Standing Together might get involved in some way, too, but there’s no news on that so far.

  2. Hillel Schenker April 6, 2024 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Ron, A good review of the situation. However, I’m afraid that “All It’s Citizens” has no chance of making it into the Knesset,and I can’t imagine a Hadash readiness to run together with them. As for Yair Golan, I’m also troubled by his avoidance of the words “peace” and “occupation.” However, I think he gave a much more detailed and constructive presentation of his approach at the webinar run by UnXceptable. Much will depend upon who his allies in the new merged party will be, including representatives from חוזה חדש New Contract, the protest movement. People like Eyal Waldman who said he wants to enter politics, are clearly talking about the need to place the occupation on the agenda, and the need to work for a two-state solution.

    • Ron Skolnik April 9, 2024 at 12:33 pm - Reply

      Thanks for those thoughts, Hillel!

      1. I agree that “All Its Citizens” has little chance to make it into the Knesset next time, which is why I refer to the party as “political fringe”. But the question I “insinuate” is whether the Israeli left should perhaps stop thinking about the next election and start rebuilding from scratch, this time on a joint Jewish-Arab basis, as Standing Together and All Its Citizens are doing. There might be no other choice but to sacrifice the short term in the interest of a deeper societal transformation. It’s hard to imagine Yair Golan laying the groundwork for this necessary next phase, but I’d be happy to be pleasantly surprised.

      Perhaps part of our disagreement is my tendency not to believe that ANY Israeli government in the near term (under Gantz, under Lapid, etc.) will be willing to take the big steps necessary to end the Occupation, the main scourge at the center of Israel’s woes. So simply removing the Likud and its far-right allies seems more like a temporary reprieve, not a cure. And as long as the occupation continues and sentiment of supremacy continues to percolate, Jewish Israelis will continue to drift rightward philosophically in the absence of a compelling, alternative counternarrative to listen to.

      2. I saw Golan on the UnXceptable webinar, but don’t share your view that his approach there was constructive. To the best of my recollection and understanding, he proposed unilateral separation, didn’t specify how much of the West Bank Israel would leave vs. hold onto and argued, not particularly dissimilarly to Netanyahu, that Israel would retain complete security control in any areas it leaves. To me, his presentation seemed muddled and vague at best and at worst a new way to eternalize the Occupation de facto. I hope that I’m to be disabused of my impression!

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