Our Israeli khaver, Avshalom (Abu) Vilan, MK, has released a bombshell in calling for his own Meretz party to merge with Labor. Not unexpectedly, this has not made him popular within the Meretz Knesset caucus. Abu may have had the misfortune of being a premature prophet. He also may have committed a tactical error in raising this publicly at this time, especially with Labor looking so weak in the wake of the Lebanon war and Meretz seeming to be holding its own. On the other hand, Labor’s weakness may be precisely the window of opportunity needed by Meretz to begin a process that would forge a reinvigorated and unified Zionist left in Israel.
One source reporting on this is Haaretz, Sept. 28. The following is Ron Skolnik’s abridged translation of an article that appeared in Hebrew on Maariv’s website:
MK Avshalom Vilan, representative of the kibbutzim in Meretz, is calling for a unification of Meretz and Labor. “Meretz as a party has spent itself and must cease to exist as an independent entity and join up with the Labor Party,” Vilan wrote in “HaDaf HaYarok,” the kibbutz movement newspaper. According to Vilan, Kadima is a dead horse, and a few khaverim should be brought back from it, and unite forces between [Labor and Meretz] in order to create a single front. “When I look at the political map, we point the way, but we’re not on it.” Vilan added: “We’re always right, but always alone and don’t influence processes.”
About a month ago, Maariv first publicized the initiative to unify the two parties, which emanated from the kibbutz representatives in the two parties. But that did not diminish the anger this evening when Vilan published his letter. Most of the anger at Vilan came from the members of his party, who are fuming about the initiative.
Meretz faction chair, MK Zehava Galon, sharply criticized Vilan, saying he wasn’t relevant. “Meretz is more relevant than ever. Its necessity is clear, against the background of Labor’s failures in all spheres. But in Meretz there are elements who are not relevant, since they view themselves as a pale appendage of the Labor Party”.
The assessment in Meretz was that if there will eventually be any unification between the parties, it will be when the historic remnants of Mapam, the Kibbutz Artzi wing in Meretz, will become part of Labor. “The entire party will not unite with Labor,” said a senior figure in Meretz. “Maybe a small part of the Kibbutz Artzi. Meretz will continue to exist, and if Abu wants to leave, he’s invited to do so, and the sooner the better.” It should be noted that when Amir Peretz was elected to lead Labor, ex-Meretz Chairman Yossi Sarid claimed that the differences between the parties had blurred, and that a union between them should be sought.
Vilan has been roundly criticized by senior Meretz officials. “Abu needs to cause a provocation so that they know he exists,” said a high-ranking party members. “He’s ‘Left-Light’. Whoever was elected on behalf of Meretz and says such a thing is kicking the people who brought him into Knesset”. Voices in Meretz also said Abu’s call is “stupefying, just at the time when the Labor Party is in a tough spot and losing the trust of the public, while Meretz is keeping its strength.”
Haim Oron, the senior representative of the kibbutzim in Meretz, who is very popular in the party, said this is not the time to deal with the next elections. “I don’t understand why Abu is bringing up this issue at this time and what he wants. It doesn’t make sense… The last elections and recent events proved that Meretz is a stable element that talks about peace moves and changing social priorities. That’s the job of Meretz. When the political picture becomes more clear, we’ll discuss options,” said Oron.
There are at least three relevant models or precedents for this present situation: the first two are Israeli and the last, and most relevant, is American. In 1965 Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda ran a joint list in the First Alignment. In 1968 these two parties plus Rafi formed Labor. A year later they formed a joint list with Mapam in the Second Alignment, this lasted until 1984. In 1965 Herut and the Liberals formed a joint list, Gahal. In 1973 Gahal, the Free Center and the State List formed the Likud, midwifed by Sharon. Both the Ma’Arakh and the Likud dominated Israeli politics for the next generation.
The more relevant precedent is the formation of the Republican Party in 1854. The Republican Party was formed from three separate parties: the Free Democrats/Free Soil Party, the Whigs, and about a third of Northern Democrats. The Whigs are the equivalent of the Labor Party. The Whigs only two elected presidents were both former generals. Since Golda Meir Labor has only been able to elect former senior generals as prime minister–with the exception of Shimon Peres. Peres is the equivalent of longtime Whig leader Henry Clay. Clay ran for president five times and was never elected, but barely lost in 1844 to James Polk. Peres ran for prime minister seven times and was elected only once and forced to form a National Unity Government with rotatzia.
The Republicans became successful only in 1856 after most Northern Whigs perceived the Whig Party as being beyond hope. The Free Soilers were formed in 1848 out of three smaller parties. At least two of these parties bear a resemblance to the parties that made up Meretz in 1992. (The third was the equivalent of Rafi.) Labor’s loss of support since 1992 has been much greater than that of the Whigs from 1848, when Zachary Taylor was elected president, to 1856.
The solution to the peace camp’s problems will come partially from the creation of a new center-left party composed from elements of Labor, Meretz, the Pensioneers, and even Kadima. But without a winning candidate and a good policy it will still lose. John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate, was a popular explorer who beat the Know Nothings for the spot as the “official” opposition party. Lincoln was the ideal candidate four years later to attract the marginal voters in the lower North in order to enable the Republicans to win.
Labor must decide to get away from the Whig formula of generals and amorphous vague policies. The Republicans adopted the Free Soil platform of containing slavery. Once the left can develop a politically credible policy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it will then be time to arrange a merger, not before.