Failure to unite threatens survival of left-wing parties in March elections
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Analysis

Failure to unite threatens survival of left-wing parties in March elections

Both Democratic Camp and Labor enter another campaign flirting with electoral threshold; while some want them to merge, internal politics threaten further division

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

(Left side) Democratic Camp party leaders Nitzan Horowitz and Stav Shafir at faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush /Flash90) (Right side) Labor party head Amir Peretz, left, and Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis, right, announce they will again run together in parliamentary elections in March 2020, on December 15, 2019. (Courtesy Labor-Gesher)
(Left side) Democratic Camp party leaders Nitzan Horowitz and Stav Shafir at faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush /Flash90) (Right side) Labor party head Amir Peretz, left, and Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis, right, announce they will again run together in parliamentary elections in March 2020, on December 15, 2019. (Courtesy Labor-Gesher)

One of the final messages voiced by both the Labor and Democratic Camp parties before the September election was that a failure to vote for either of them risked them dropping below the electoral threshold.

But though both parties are facing similar prospects in the upcoming March election, the chance that they will unite into a single left-wing slate appears slim, and the threat of yet further splits is putting their survival in question.

The future of the Democratic Camp — an alliance between the decades-old Meretz party, now led by chairman Nitzan Horowitz, and the fledgling Israel Democratic Party, founded by former prime minister Ehud Barak — is in serious doubt. The united slate received just five seats in its election debut in September, after which the 77-year-old Barak returned to the political sidelines.

Notable remaining MKs are Stav Shaffir, who bolted Labor to help form the Democratic Camp, and former IDF deputy chief Yair Golan. Shaffir announced last week that she plans on running separately in the upcoming election, as the head of the Green Party.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak (2R), Prof. Yifat Bitton (2L), retired major general Yair Golan (R) and Dr. Kobi Richter pose for a picture during a press conference announcing the establishment of a new political party led by him in Tel Aviv on June 26, 2019. (Flash90)

Her decision to go it alone comes against a backdrop of frustration among a considerable section of Meretz members, who argue that their alliance with her and the Israel Democratic Party did not pay dividends in the previous election, resulting in just one more seat than when Meretz ran alone last April.

Meretz’s central committee convened Sunday to approve the use of the same list of candidates from September again in March. Subsequently, Horowitz said that the party will enter negotiations with Shaffir and the Israel Democratic Party over how or whether they will merge again.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, former Meretz MK Mossi Raz said that he hoped to see the Democratic Camp continue, and expressed support for as many mergers as possible for parties to the left of Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White. However, he added, Shaffir, Golan, and others should expect to be demoted further down on the slate “because with all due respect, none of them is Ehud Barak.”

However, the non-Meretz members of the Democratic Camp have different expectations. A source close to Golan argued that the one-seat difference does not tell the whole story regarding the contribution that Shaffir and the Israel Democratic Party brought to the table last September.

The source said that, in April, Meretz gained an extra nearly 30,000 votes from Arab Israelis who were disillusioned by the lack of a united Arab list. But when the majority-Arab parties reunited as the Joint List in September, “those voters deserted Meretz and won’t be returning in the next election either,” the source said. Therefore, he argued, the one-seat bump was really closer to two seats’ worth in terms of the number of new voters brought to the party in September.

The source rejected as “irrelevant” the claim that the Israel Democratic Party should expect lower spots on the joint slate because it is now without Barak, pointing out that the former prime minister had chosen to be placed at the unrealistic No. 10 on the list in September and would still likely support the list as a private citizen this time around without standing as a candidate.

Israel Democratic Party chair Ehud Barak (L), former Labor MK Stav Shaffir (C), Meretz chair Nitzan Horowitz, July 25, 2019. (Courtesy)

He then went on to assert that the option of an independent run for Golan with the Israel Democratic Party “is definitely on the table.”

Within Meretz, some have gone further than Raz, arguing that not only should Shaffir and Golan expect demotions, but that a re-grouping of the Democratic Camp should be avoided entirely. One Meretz official, who requested anonymity, said that Shaffir was “delusional” to expect that she could once again receive the No. 2 spot on a joint slate and that her move toward an independent run with the Green Party “shows that she’s not serious about a merger anyway.”

However, opponents of a Democratic Camp reprise have preferred to remain anonymous, with no Meretz official in recent weeks willing to go on the record against the alliance.

Responding to criticism of her conduct last week, Shaffir referred to Meretz party leaders as “the dinosaurs of the left.”

Partnering with Labor?

Meretz lawmaker Mossi Raz, pictured at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Horowitz told Channel 12 on Sunday that he was looking past the renegotiation of the Democratic Camp merger and hoped that a similar agreement could be made with the Labor party as well “as other forces on the left.”

He had been vocal in calling for a Labor-Meretz merger, both as a private citizen ahead of the April election and as Meretz chairman in September, arguing that a united left-wing bloc would be more effective in unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Raz, of Meretz, endorsed the idea as well, while recognizing the ideological differences between his party and Labor. “We are against the occupation — they refuse to even use the word. We think settlements are a crime — they support building in the blocs,” he said, arguing that Labor is closer on the political spectrum to Blue and White than it is to Meretz.

“Still, we must cooperate,” said Raz, who is currently No. 5 on the Meretz list. “The four parties to the left of Blue and White [Joint List, Meretz, Israel Democratic Party and Labor] must turn into three by the election.”

L to R: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Labor chief Amir Peretz and Gesher head Orly Levy-Abekasis in a meeting, November 14, 2019. (Facebook photo)

In the Labor party, however, which received just six seats in the last election, the leadership is even less enthusiastic at the prospect of a merger with Meretz.

Chairman Amir Peretz said earlier this month that he was focused on reestablishing his alliance with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher faction for the second election in a row. He argued that additional mergers were not currently on his radar, but that he would reconsider the possibility closer to next month’s deadline for filing party slates.

A senior Labor official who spoke with The Times of Israel argued that “a merger with Meretz would not expand the size of the left-wing bloc and that if anything, [his party] would prefer merging with Blue and White.”

Asked for his thoughts on such a prospect, Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah said his centrist alliance would not be involved in any additional mergers.

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