Analysis: Meretz plays inside baseball and strikes out

Opening up the party primary beyond its central committee could have brought fresh faces to the party's recycled list.

Meretz campaign video with Zehava Gal-On (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Meretz campaign video with Zehava Gal-On
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Anyone expecting new, shining stars on Meretz’s candidates list Monday night was sorely disappointed. The party’s primary campaigns took place with a lack of buzz that continued even after the slate for the 20th Knesset was voted in.
The party’s central committee reelected its leader, Zehava Gal-On, and all of its incumbent MKs – Ilan Gilon, followed by Esawi Frej, Michal Roisin and Tamar Zandberg – except for Nitzan Horowitz who didn’t run.
Gal-On can repeat that Meretz will get 10 seats and guarantee a center-left government all she wants, but 10 seats for Meretz is more likely to take away from Labor-Hatnua than to add mandates to the center-left bloc, and second, in the last three weeks, the party’s poll averages were 5.6, 6.1 and 6.0.
As such, the sixth spot is the last realistic one for Meretz these days. Horowitz’s departure gave Meretz a chance to bring in a new star as No. 6. A fresh face could have attracted attention and new voters, but the central committee voted in former MK Mossi Raz (2000-2003), instead. No. 9 on the list, Avshalom “Abo” Vilan, is also a former MK (1999-2009).
Of course, that’s nothing personal against Raz, an environmentalist, workers’ rights and peace activist who valiantly represented his party in English in some of the last election’s Jerusalem Post debates, which tend not to have the most Meretz-friendly audiences.
But No. 7, human rights lawyer Gabi Lasky; No. 8, Movement for the Western Negev’s Future founder Avi Daboush; No. 10, Uri Zaki, the former US director of B’Tselem; or No. 11, Revital Lan Cohen, a Kfar Saba city councilwoman and leader of The Coalition of Parents of Special Children, could have brought some freshness to the list if one or more of them were in more realistic spots.
Yes, as several Meretz officials, including Gal-On, pointed out, Frej, Roisin and Zandberg were only in the Knesset for two years, so calling them “old faces” is an exaggeration, plus they and Gilon are all hard-working, active parliamentarians who faithfully represent the party’s positions at every opportunity.
Plus, other parties with primaries – Labor, the Likud and Bayit Yehudi – reelected their incumbents, but they all have several newcomers in realistic spots. However, the difference between Meretz’s primary and that of other parties is that the people who elected Meretz’s list are a glorified interest group, while the others have tens of thousands of members who can vote.
Meretz struck out in its primary because of its inside-baseball method. The party that is so focused on democracy has a system that is most similar to its polar opposite on the Zionist political spectrum, Tekuma.
Meretz has 16,000 members, who elect 1,000 central committee members, who then vote in the party primary.
Primary candidates often put forward associates to run for the central committee, to try to guarantee their election to the list, and bring in new Meretz members expressly to vote for those associates.
In the primary, each candidate – there were 23 this time – can choose one or two of the following categories in which to run: Seats one to five, seats five to 10 or seats 10-15.
The system shrinks the voter pool to people with very specific interests and it doesn’t rank the candidates by their net number of votes, which scares off potential “star” contenders.
Channel 10 reporter Raviv Drucker made a similar argument earlier this week, pointing out on his blog that Labor MK Merav Michaeli wanted to run in Meretz in 2009 and that Labor MK Stav Shaffir, No. 17 on the Labor list Zuheir Bahloul and Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer, who ran in the previous Labor primary, all could have been good fits for Meretz, and, in fact, some of them considered it.
However, Drucker wrote, they learned that “Labor primaries, with all their disadvantages, are an afternoon picnic compared to trying to win in an election in the Meretz central committee.”
Gal-On tried to defend herself against the claims of Meretz primary voters being a tiny, exclusive and unwelcoming club, focusing mostly on the low budget that candidates are allotted as a way to prevent corruption.
The party limited campaign spending to NIS 20,000, reflecting benefits of this system for candidates – they only need to campaign to 1,000 people, so there’s no point in taking out ads and they don’t need to do serious fund-raising.
In addition, Gal-On was right when she wrote on Facebook that in Meretz’s primary, “there’s no cannibalism or hit lists.” The atmosphere at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, where the vote took place Monday, was very friendly, or as Zandberg’s spokeswoman put it, one of “hugs and handshakes.”
But none of those pluses can cover the lack of buzz around the primary. Meretz needs to make potential voters beyond the 1,000 central committee members feel involved, like the party is theirs, too, or risk losing them to parties in which the ranks are more open.