New Meretz leader rejects offer to join gov't

Haim Oron wins party primaries in landslide, beats colleagues Ran Cohen, Zehava Gal-On.

haim oron 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haim oron 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Meretz MK Haim Oron succeeded in avoiding a runoff race, defeating MKs Ran Cohen and Zehava Gal-On to become the new leader of Meretz on Tuesday. With more than 95 percent of the votes counted, Oron won about 54% of the vote, Cohen some 28% and Gal-On 18%. About 75% of Meretz members voted in the race for party chairman. "This election is just the first step toward the real challenge that begins now, to return the young people to Meretz and make it influential again," Oron said. I think it's possible, if the party is united." Oron said there was no chance of him joining the government, which he criticized for failing to remove illegal West Bank outposts. Coalition chairman Eli Aflalo (Kadima) and Labor chairman Ehud Barak called upon Oron to lead Meretz into the coalition. He said Oron was a "responsible person and would be welcome in the government." Outgoing Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin, who supported Oron, congratulated him and wished him well running the party. Beilin, who had decided against running for reelection as Meretz head, denied reports that he had decided not to run for the next Knesset. "I have no intention of leaving politics," Beilin said. "There are a lot of people who want me to, but I don't intend to give them the pleasure." Gal-On, meanwhile, said she was "very satisfied" with the results of the race, which she said were a "very big achievement" for her. "I ran against two much more experienced politicians, and I succeeded in relaying my message to many new people," she said. Oron won in almost every kibbutz, including every vote in his home kibbutz of Lahav in the Negev. Cohen won in development towns and Gal-On in most Arab and Druse villages. Oron defeated Cohen in Tel Aviv by one vote, 260-259. There were only two reports of problems at polling stations. Police came to a polling station in Pardess Hanna after firecrackers were thrown there. The Gal-On campaign asked to disqualify three polling stations in the northern Arab town of Deir el-Asad, because her representatives were not allowed to enter. Violence broke out at the polling station. A Cohen supporter named David Kashan, who lives in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter, threw a fit at United Kibbutz Movement headquarters, where the votes were counted, complaining that the kibbutzim had an inordinate amount of power in deciding the race. "An Iraqi will never be chairman of Meretz," Kashan said, referring to Cohen, who was born in Baghdad and made aliya when he was 11. Out of Meretz's 14,400 members, 6,000 live in cities, 5,000 in kibbutzim, and the rest in Arab towns. The turnout was the highest - some 90% - in kibbutzim, where people only had to walk a short distance to vote. Kibbutzniks voted overwhelmingly for Oron. The tall, lanky Oron has been known since his teen years in the Hashomer Hatza'ir Zionist-socialist youth movement by the nickname "Jumas," which is Arabic for "sycamore tree." Born in 1940 in Ramat Gan, he moved to the Negev at the age of 18 to help build Kibbutz Lahav, where he still lives in a community whose farms are known as Israel's largest breeders of pigs. Oron became the youngest-ever secretary of the National Kibbutz movement at age 28 and gradually rose through the ranks until he was first elected to the Knesset in 1988 and served as minister of agriculture in Ehud Barak's government in 1999. Among the founders of Peace Now and the drafters of the Geneva Initiative, Oron is now known as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's point-man when he relays secret messages to jailed Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences for murder and receives frequent visits from Oron. Oron currently heads the Knesset Ethics Committee. Asked if an Oron-led Meretz would be more Left than it has been under Beilin, Oron said, "What do you mean, more Left? Should we divide Jerusalem in four and not in two?"