Whither Meretz? (Extract)

Party leaders have persuaded Haim Oron to take up the challenge of leading the shrinking left-wing movement out of the doldrums

19oron (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. The rumpled, gray-haired men arriving at former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni's home in up market Kfar Shmaryahu could have been picked out of a who's who of Israel's left-wing intelligentsia. They included luminaries like political gurus Elazar Granot and Yair Tsaban, academics Nissim Calderon and Dan Jacobson and novelist Amos Oz. The late November meeting of these eminent Meretz elder statesmen had been called to urge veteran Knesset Member Haim "Jumess" Oron, 67, to run for the dovish party's leadership. Tsaban told the story of how Granot, then leader of the small left-wing Mapam party, had handed him the No. 1 spot on its 1988 Knesset slate because polls showed the party would do better with Tsaban at the helm. Oron, a gangly, highly respected but low-key kibbutznik, who had never sought the leadership, would need the same kind of "the-party-needs-you" persuading. Despite fairly advanced plans to retire from politics, Oron mulled over the request-cum-fiat for a few days and in early December announced his candidacy. That meant that four of the party's five Knesset members - Yossi Beilin, the incumbent, Ran Cohen, Zahava Gal-On and Oron - would be running against each other in leadership primaries scheduled for next March. It also meant that Beilin would have no chance of winning, and soon afterwards he announced his withdrawal from the race. The Meretz old guard had rallied out of a sense of crisis. The breakdown of the Oslo peace process, the second Palestinian intifada and the "big bang" in Israeli politics which spawned a governing centrist alliance between left-leaning Labor and right-tending Kadima had all hurt Meretz. And the old guard did not believe that Beilin was the man to reverse the trend. The party, which garnered 12 Knesset seats in 1992, won only five under his leadership in 2006 and has been languishing in uninspired opposition ever since. In appealing to Oron, the elders made a two-pronged argument: Without stronger leadership, Meretz could easily become defunct; on the other hand, recent developments, failure of the Kadima-Labor coalition to make the most of new peace prospects with the Palestinians or to deal with pressing socioeconomic issues like health, education and fairer distribution of wealth have opened up new opportunities for a peace and social justice-oriented party like Meretz. Meretz leaders argue that, although the party is small, its issues are huge: peace with Israel's neighbors, the nature of Israeli democracy, reconciling economic prosperity with social justice, religion and state, independence of the Supreme Court. Whether Israel moves towards or away from the party's liberal vision will have a major impact on the country's future, they say. Aloni maintains that a Meretz revival is crucial now because its larger sister party, Labor, under former prime minister Ehud Barak, is rapidly moving away from once-shared humanistic and egalitarian ideals. "Barak is one of the most dangerous people in Israel today," she charges. "He is pulling Labor to the right, which makes Meretz very, very important." But can an election, a new leader and a sharper agenda revive Meretz's flagging fortunes? Or to put it more bluntly: Is there still place for a dovish social democratic party in a 21st century Israel driven by a privatizing economy and facing implacable foes like Hamas, Hizballah and Iran? Has Meretz run its historic course or are its best years yet to come? Meretz was founded in 1992 through a three-way union of Aloni's Citizens' Rights Movement called Ratz, the left-wing, socialist Mapam and the free-market, anti-corruption Shinui. Under Aloni's leadership, it emerged from the 1992 elections as the third largest party in the Knesset with 12 seats. It had four cabinet ministers in the 1992 Rabin government and played an influential role in peacemaking, civil legislation and educational reform. "Without Meretz, the Rabin government would never have been formed. And the rest is history," says Oron. From then on, however, the party found itself on a mainly downward curve. In the 1996 elections, Meretz won only nine seats, and Yossi Sarid ousted Aloni as leader. In 1999, with ten seats, it joined a Labor-led coalition under Ehud Barak but was tainted along with Barak by the failure of his peacemaking efforts and the ensuing violent intifada. In 2003, after two years of suicide bombings, Meretz mustered just six seats and Sarid resigned as leader. Under Beilin in 2006, the tally was down to five. Worse: Where Meretz had over 40,000 registered members in 1999, the current membership numbers just 14,000. From the outset, Beilin had been beset with leadership problems. Architect of the Oslo peace process, he is widely perceived in Meretz as a supremely talented political thinker, but not cut out to be No. 1. "Beilin is very smart, but not every smart person is capable of being a party leader," says Aloni. The day after the 2006 election, there were already calls for his resignation. Since then he has soldiered on under a continuous barrage of criticism from party activists including would-be successors like Cohen and Gal-On. Both fault him for failing to galvanize and lead public opposition to last year's second Lebanon War. "On the first day of the war, instead of standing firm against it as leader of the peace camp, he called for an attack on Syria," Cohen recalls. "I was there in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee when he did it, and I almost had an apoplectic fit." Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.