Meretz’s Participation in the “Government of Change”: A Post-Mortem
By Ron Skolnik
“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double”
Over its twelve months in the now lame duck government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, Israel’s Meretz faced a thankless political predicament, encapsulated above in the lyrics of the British band, The Clash—remain in the predominantly center-right coalition, and severely compromise the progressive party’s principles, or leave and pave the way for a virulent version of rightwing Zionism, led by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the disciples of the racist Meir Kahane. “Thankless,” because the alternatives between which Meretz needed to choose were both damaging to Israel’s future—just in different ways and with different timelines.
Ultimately, with the news that the government’s two co-leaders have agreed to call for new elections after their coalition had irreparably fallen apart, Meretz was freed from its dilemma. Nonetheless, its quandary is likely to remain relevant for the foreseeable future—at least as long as the Occupation continues and the threat of Netanyahu looms.
Meretz entered the Bennett/Lapid “government of change” last year, we will recall, as part of a desperate effort at national salvation. After four rounds of indecisive elections in less than two years, and with an increasingly authoritarian Netanyahu holding on to power as “transitional prime minister” while on trial in various cases of corruption, eight widely different parties with one thing in common—aversion to the danger Netanyahu represents—came together in a narrow, unlikely, and unwieldy coalition.
The fundamental idea seemed sound: Create a government that would “right the ship”—end the demagogic incitement (against Arabs, against leftists, etc.), restore good governance, and bolster Israel’s core democratic (within the Green Line, that is) institutions, particularly the judiciary, whose independence “defendant Netanyahu” remains intent on destroying. For Meretz, however, such participation came at a steep price: Agreeing to the demand of the coalition’s rightwing anti-Netanyahu parties that the “Palestinian issue” be frozen—that there be no diplomatic engagement with the Palestinians toward a political solution, alongside no move toward formally annexing the occupied West Bank.
The rub, however, was that the mechanisms of Occupation and de facto annexation never stopped churning: As has been the case for decades, the drive to control the Occupied Territories at the expense of the Palestinians living there required no decision about the area’s statutory definition. So, while the pro-annexation parties in the government, Yamina and New Hope, indeed upheld their part of the bargain not to push for a change to the West Bank’s official status, steps furthering the area’s annexation in practice proceeded as before.
As the price of compromise with its rightwing and centrist partners, for example, Meretz was forced to accept the approval of major expansions of West Bank settlements for Jewish Israelis. And it needed to acquiescence in the expulsion of Palestinians, including in the South Hebron Hills, where the government also did exceedingly little to prevent ongoing settler violence designed to get Palestinians to “self-expel.”
In addition, in order to maintain the fragile coalition, Meretz legislators were compelled to sacrifice their principles and vote in favor of blatantly discriminatory “perennial” laws requiring periodic renewal by the Knesset. Last year, for example, Meretz agreed to support an extension of the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel by barring their family unification with spouses from the Occupied Territories. Just recently, Meretz MKs, in the interest of keeping a flailing government afloat, voted to renew a set of “emergency regulations,” which grant Jewish Israeli settlers a superior legal status in the West Bank, exempting them from the military law to which all Palestinians there are subject.
Meretz figures argued throughout that, despite the sizable “frogs” they were regularly forced to swallow, they remained a moderating influence in the government—that, without their presence, the situation would be even worse, and that, should (Heaven forbid!) the current government be replaced by one led by Netanyahu and his racist, homophobic, anti-democratic allies, the results would be far more tragic. This claim is not to be dismissed lightly.
Meretz has also pointed proudly to its accomplishments. The party’s chair, Nitzan Horowitz, in his service as Health Minister, leveraged the office to expand the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and Arab citizens. Tamar Zandberg utilized her position as Minister of Environmental Protection to advance Israel’s first piece of climate legislation, which includes a commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.
Furthermore, Meretz’s Esawi Freij, the Minister for Regional Cooperation, and only the second Arab citizen to serve in the Cabinet, used his role to mend ties with Palestinian leadership and regional Arab leadership in order to create a future platform for full-fledged political negotiations. Freij’s senior position, together with the participation in the government of Ra’am, the United Arab List—the first-ever Arab party in Israel to be an official part of a ruling coalition—were also cited by Meretz as examples of the Jewish-Arab partnership that (even if shaky) was furthered by the government’s very existence.
There certainly can be value in Meretz’s participation in a government of this type, even if it entails difficult concessions. The question, however, is where is this leading? At the start, Meretz leaders seemed to believe that their seat at the table would restore faith in the party’s relevance by showing that it could deliver. For years, it has been hanging on by a thread at the ballot box, with many voters choosing more centrist parties, like Labor or Yesh Atid, out of a sense that a “too principled” Meretz was doomed to an everlasting and ineffective stay in opposition. Meretz leaders also felt that their involvement could help “re-legitimize” it in the eyes of sympathetic, but hesitant, voters, after years of intense delegitimization (e.g., “leftists are traitors”) by the Israeli right.
But if the expectation was that the “government of change” would be Meretz’s fountain of youth—that hope has been dashed by poll after poll, which show Meretz not only not gathering new support, but actually losing it—and in some cases failing to clear the minimum threshold needed for Knesset representation.
Similarly, hopes that the coalition would weaken Jewish Arabophobia and cultivate the idea that Arab citizens should have equal rights and an equal say in the country’s governance have, to date, proved far too optimistic. Recent polls found that between 62 percent and 77 percent of Jewish Israelis are now against having an Arab party in a future coalition, and that 60 percent of Israel’s Jewish public endorses segregation—up from 45 percent last year. Meanwhile, other polls indicate that Israeli voters continue to trend rightward, with the bloc of parties loyal to Netanyahu having increased their support by over 10 percent, compared to the results of the March 2021 election.
Meretz now enters an election campaign in a weaker position than before, with a more limited ability to cite its unique value to the voter. When asked to choose between its anti-Occupation stance and its commitment to Israeli democracy within the Green Line, it chose the latter. And while Meretz’s senior leaders handled their ministerial responsibilities admirably, they tended to refrain from speaking out on Occupation-related topics, allowing their party colleagues in the Knesset to do the heavy lifting.
Perhaps that was due to their desire to focus on their jobs and perform them professionally (which they did). Perhaps it was aimed at maintaining harmony with their rightwing colleagues. Either way, the implied message was that Occupation was not only off the government’s agenda, but possibly the party’s as well—or, at very least, that it had been relegated to secondary importance. This is not to say the party made wrong decisions—only an observation that, in practice, it now looks much less different than before from the centrist Yesh Atid and the center-left Labor.
This represents a major problem in terms of Meretz’s electoral “brand.” Based on polls, there is almost no chance that elections can produce a center-left government in today’s Israel. As a result, Meretz could (as a best case) soon be forced to make the same choice as last year. But if voters believe that Meretz will behave little differently than Yesh Atid or Labor, then why not simply vote for a larger party, one guaranteed to cross the vote threshold?
On the other hand, if the party signals that its anti-Occupation position could sabotage a second anti-Netanyahu government, many voters might migrate to Yesh Atid or Labor for the exact opposite reason! Evidence of this comes from a recent internal poll, which revealed that more than 90% of Meretz voters rejected the idea that sacrificing its principles in the government obliged it to quit and bring it down.
This unenviable electoral position also has severe implications for the anti-Occupation camp overall. For years, Meretz has been the only party that has both delivered a consistent anti-Occupation message and drawn the lion’s share of its votes from the Jewish public. The wrong campaign messaging by Meretz leaders could cause it to disappear from the political map. On the other hand, a continued decision to make the Occupation “expendable” will communicate to Israel’s Jewish majority that even the “bleeding hearts” of Meretz now regard the issue to be essentially an “Arab concern.” It will be taken by an ascendant right as a signal of final ideological victory.
Of course, the worst-case scenario, but arguably the more likely one, is that the upcoming elections (likely to be held in late October or early November) will lead to a Netanyahu-led government supported by the far-right and ultra-orthodox parties, with some of Israel’s most fanatical politicians in key Cabinet positions. If that’s what turns out, then the “government of change” will have amounted to little more than a brief holding action. And Meretz’s participation in it will have been a finger in the dyke, so to speak, which delayed the “deluge,” but ultimately failed to prevent it.
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.