Contemplating Israel’s Splintered Opposition

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On May 10th, I attended a brown-bag lunch meeting with Meretz Knesset Member Michal Rozin, co-sponsored by the New Israel Fund and Partners for Progressive Israel; her talk was entitled “The Zionist Vision in Jeopardy.”  She was here in the U.S. as part of a Jewish Agency-funded tour, acknowledging that she’s the leftwing pole of opinions represented, but unabashedly presenting herself as a Zionist.  In this connection, she said that she’s opposed to Israelis living abroad having the right to vote, but in other ways, she very much welcomes the involvement of Jews around the world in knowing about and expressing their opinions on what goes on in Israel.

Ms. Rozin impressed me enormously as likable, considerate for the opinions of other, and passionately progressive on the issues — being a long-time advocate for cultural and religious pluralism, gender equality and the rights of LGBT Israelis and immigrant workers.  She mentioned the disappointment felt by leftwing Israelis in some positions taken by Labor Party/Zionist Union leader, Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, regarding the prospects for peace and some rightwing legislative initiatives — observing that if Labor presents itself as “Likud light,” the electorate is likely to prefer the real thing.

By the same token, she indicated that Yair Lapid is rising in the polls as a more dynamic leader than Herzog, but similarly criticized stands that his Yesh Atid party has taken.  In her view, Labor and Yesh Atid Members of Knesset are taking positions for the sake of expediency, believing that this is where the voters are at, rather than representing what most of these MKs believe is best.

Predictably, she also bemoaned the news that Herzog wants Labor to join the Netanyahu coalition.  But if Herzog were to get two major concessions that he’s said to have raised — that Labor replace the extreme-right Jewish Home party and that he (Herzog) be allowed to launch a significant peace initiative — then why not?  On the other hand, it would further discredit Herzog’s stature as a principled political leader if he were willing to join the government without winning important concessions.

When I asked Rozin about the difficulties of dealing with the United Arab List, she stated that the ultra-nationalist Balad party is problematic, calling it “rightwing.”  With time growing short and the number of questioners long, I refrained from complicating my question by making my usual query of Meretz spokespeople in recent years, as to whether Hadash and other conciliatory Arab MKs could free themselves of extreme elements like Balad and forge a new electoral bloc with Meretz.  I find it hard to see Meretz and most Arab MKs as having a meaningful impact on Israel’s future without such an alliance.

Rozin also repeated a common Meretz complaint about the electorate, that if most Israelis who see the issues as Meretz does, voted their conscience instead of for Labor, Lapid or Livini as in recent elections — Meretz could emerge with as many as “18 seats.”  Since the center-left parties would need to coalesce anyway to lead a new governing coalition, she sees it as a mistake that otherwise natural Meretz supporters vote “strategically” for another party list in the belief that the list with the most seats will form the government.

Given Israel’s multi-party system, which always requires a number of parties or lists to come together to form a majority government, she’s not exactly wrong, but she’s not entirely correct either.   The only real power that Israel’s president has is to decide which party leader to entrust first with the task of forming a new coalition government.  This is usually the leader of the list that’s won the most seats.

We witnessed a variation on that with Netanyahu’s victory in 2015.  Collectively, the rightwing parties did not expand their share of the electorate, and the electorate was very closely divided among rightist, centrist, leftist, religious and Arab parties.  With Netanyahu’s infamous last-minute claim that leftwing NGOs were driving Arabs to the polls “in droves,” Likud won seats at the expense of other rightwing parties.  But this meant that Likud finished first with 30 seats to the Herzog-Livni (Zionist Union) list’s 24, giving Netanyahu the first and best shot at forming a government.

So Israel’s electorate is not really rightwing, but the center-left is consistently stymied by the mathematics of coalition building.  Meretz and Labor are not inherently antithetical, but reviving something like the old Labor Alignment between Labor and Mapam (the latter a direct predecessor of today’s Meretz), or even a merger (khas v’kholila) seems never to be contemplated — with Meretz emphasizing its leftism and Labor struggling for years to find favor with the electorate as more centrist.

There is also a need for reasonable Arab MKs to be counted in a more progressive coalition — whether in an unprecedented way within the governing coalition, or supporting it from outside, as during Rabin’s tenure in the 1990s.  Yet this can never happen as long as more moderate MKs are tied down by the irreconcilably anti-Zionist Balad party.

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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