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It was to be expected that Yossi Beilin, in his announcement Sunday that he will not seek re-election as chairman of Meretz, would credit the declining fortunes of the party under his leadership as being a victim of its own success.
As he noted, several viewpoints that Meretz proscribed early on, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, have moved in recent years from the political fringes into the electoral mainstream.
"Our success in promoting our ideology and the fact that so many people have started speaking 'Meretzese' unfortunately hasn't translated into electoral success," he lamented.
Why not? Maybe because his assertion is simplistic and misleading. The fact is, Meretz's recent political woes, especially its drop to just five seats in last year's election (compared to 10 in 1999) are to a significant degree a downfall of its own doing.
What's more, Beilin's own ascendancy was itself a symptom of the party's growing disconnect from the potential constituency it would like to reach, a problem stemming from a significant ideological fracture on the Israeli left.
There's no question that the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 2000 remains the most significant blow to both Meretz's political fortunes and Beilin's personal ambitions. Despite the fact that Kadima and Labor have now renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, they are not, in fact, speaking "Meretzese."
The party, and Beilin himself when fashioning Oslo while still a rising star in Labor, always linked the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to an optimistic scenario wherein that would be just one part of a broader peace process resulting in a "new Middle East," where Israel and its Arabs would live side-by-side in peaceful coexistence.
Today, neither the Kadima or Labor leadership, nor the broader Israeli public they represent, believe in this vision or use such rhetoric. Instead, territorial compromise is advocated as a solution to the "demographic problem" so that Israel can remain a "Jewish and democratic state." The order of the day is pragmatic "separation," not idealistic "coexistence."
So there is a good reason why Beilin felt he had to leave Labor for Meretz after the outbreak of the second intifada - their policy goals may indeed be the same, but the original spirit of Oslo, of which he was a principle architect, lives on only in Meretz in the updated form of the Geneva Accords.
In choosing Beilin, a figure identified so closely with the peace process whose achievements lie entirely in the diplomatic sphere, Meretz also compounded another of its political shortcomings.
The party was initially intended to be an umbrella grouping of the Left, formed in 1992 by combining Mapam, the venerable socialist faction; Shulamit Aloni's Ratz, a pioneer of such progressive issues as feminism and civil rights; and Shinui, whose libertarian stance made it the foremost advocate of church-state separation.
Yet Meretz, by focusing so intently on the peace process, has seemingly failed to capitalize on the shifting landscape of Israeli progressive politics, leaving the door open for competitors on the Left.
The breakaway Shinui faction, before it self-destructed prior to the last election, scored greater success at the ballot box in pushing a secular agenda than Meretz has yet to achieve at any time. The Pensioners (Gil) Party racked up seven Knesset seats in the 2006 election by catching a wave of growing concern for social issues among exactly the kind of young, disaffected hip Tel Avivians who would seem a logical constituency for Meretz.
The party has also yet to produce a leadership figure closely identified with the emerging mainstream interest in environmentalism (such as President Shimon Peres, who's made it a keystone of his presidential platform), one reason perhaps why the still young Green Party has drawn voters away from Meretz in several local elections.
Beilin certainly deserves some blame for the party missing out on these opportunities. Nor is it easy to see how his endorsement of Meretz MK Haim Oron as his successor in the party leadership race to be decided on March 18, provides much of an answer to these issues.
Oron is indeed a likely successor to Beilin, given that his Mapam faction represents the Kibbutz Artzi members who comprise roughly a third of the Meretz voting membership. But the fact that Mapam is still the most powerful bloc in Meretz is precisely the party's fundamental failing. The shrinking kibbutz membership is an aging and insulated community with an outdated collective ethos out of sync with the concerns of the young urban progressives the party needs to attract and on some issues, such as property rights, is in direct conflict with the Sephardi proletariat that Meretz MK Ran Cohen has unsuccessfully courted for years.
It's worth remembering that in Israel's very first election in 1949, Mapam emerged as the second largest party with 19 seats. But changing demographics and a failure to more quickly adjust its outdated Soviet-oriented ideology soon relegated Mapam to permanent small-party status.
Today, its successor, Meretz, finds itself in a similar position - and it will take more than just replacing Beilin with another familiar face for the party to avoid being left behind as the Left marches on.
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