Still smarting from the drubbing it received at the polls in the February 2009 elections, Israel’s New Movement-Meretz party has marked the summer of 2010 as its time of renewal.
Spearheading a membership drive that ends on August 30, Meretz leaders – including MKs Chaim Oron, Nitzan Horowitz and Ilan Gilon, and former MKs Naomi Chazan, Abu Vilan and Mossi Raz – have been crisscrossing the country, addressing crowds large and small, seeking to solidify the party’s base and re-grow its rank and file.
It won’t be easy, but it’s crucial that the party succeed, since Meretz today represents the last true bastion of progressive Zionism in Israel’s Knesset (notwithstanding the smattering of progressives in Labor and Kadima).
Meretz has, of course, lost much of the luster it held when it was formed by the Ratz, Mapam and Shinui parties a full generation ago. The 1992 elections saw Meretz at its peak, when it scored 12 Knesset seats and served as an influential partner in Yitzhak Rabin’s “Oslo coalition”.
But the years, the shifts in both demography and public opinion in Israel, and, some would say, the strategic miscalculations of party leaders, have all taken their toll, and Meretz emerged from the 2009 elections at only 25% of its one-time strength.
One key problem that Meretz today faces is the gulf that appears to have grown between the party and Israeli civil society and protest movements, which once formed Meretz’s ‘hinterland’ and its breeding ground for senior leadership.
Two decades ago, for example, former Meretz MK Zehava Galon was the first executive director of B’Tselem, before going onto an illustrious party career. Former Meretz MK Dedi Zucker was a co-founder of this award-winning human rights organization. And former Meretz MKs Vilan and Raz were prime movers in Peace Now, Israel’s largest protest movement a generation ago.
But over the last decade – notwithstanding the New Israel Fund presidency of party stalwart Naomi Chazan and several lesser examples of linkage – the situation has changed, with a ‘new Left’ emerging that regards ‘politics’ as an irrelevant arena, and looks at Meretz as ‘yesterday’s story’, not built for today’s challenges.
“It seems to me that Israel is on a very dangerous crossroad, perhaps even past it. And Meretz is acting as if it’s business as usual… Meretz cannot limit its work to the Knesset. The real game today is in the public arena, and Meretz is not taking part in it…
“Meretz Knesset Members can use their immunity and lead the protesters in Sheikh Jarrah into the disputed part of the neighborhood, to which the police only allows the settlers… Meretz officials do come to the demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, but they never lead it. They vote against the Nakba law or the boycott law, but they would not defy them…
“The problem is that voting is not that important right now. There is an overwhelming majority for these kinds of bills in the current Knesset… Even if Meretz had six or seven seats instead of just three, it would not have changed much. Not with eighty members of Knesset on the other side.”
Fellow blogger Yossi Gurvitz similarly told Meretz leaders: “You’re too polite. You’re playing a parliamentary game that doesn’t exist here anymore. You need to be more forceful.”
And the leaders of many Israeli human rights organizations with whom I’ve met, while continuing to admire Meretz’s positions, tend to regard the party as ‘out of date’ and cut off from today’s important battle zones – the court system, international media, and, more and more, direct action protest.
But for the Israeli left to fully rebuild itself, legal petitions and street demonstrations won’t be enough. The parliamentary and non-parliamentary spheres must once again learn not merely to co-exist but to cross-fertilize and reinforce each other’s efforts.
In one sense, Sheizaf is right: With Israeli democracy hanging in the balance, Meretz leaders need to start ‘taking off the gloves’. And to appeal to a new generation, the party will need to change its idiom, alter its style and urgently start welcoming young leaders from outside the Meretz mold and fold into its upper echelon.
But Sheizaf also overstates his case: A Meretz with “six or seven seats” (and why not ten?) instead of just three, will have the man- and woman-power to go beyond its fundamental, and necessary, parliamentary role (promoting legislation, playing watchdog in Knesset committees) and provide support and cover for the ‘new Leftists’ battling in the trenches.
But for Meretz to double or triple its size, the new Left will need to recognize that the sphere of politics, however unromantic, is a crucial arena that progressives must exploit to the fullest – and that they abandon at their own peril.
All sides – the new Left and the old, the Left of direct action and that of political wrangling, the principled and the practical – must reforge the alliance that once existed before it is too late.
May Meretz’s energetic efforts to achieve renewal, replenishment and rejuvenation be crowned with success!