‘If only Israelis would vote according to their political conscience’

From three small rooms in a rundown Tel Aviv office block, Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On resolves to revive the left and save Israel from the dire consequences of occupation

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

It’s one of the often-recited truisms of Israeli politics: There’s almost nothing left of the left; the center-right will continue to rule the country in the foreseeable future.

Really? For what it’s worth, Zahava Gal-On, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, argues that a good chunk of the Israel public identifies with left-wing ideologies and, she claims, they’re keen to vote for leftist parties like hers in the next elections.

“I am very optimistic for the next round; Meretz is on the right track,” Gal-On, 56, told The Times of Israel recently. “From surveys we have conducted, we know that 20 percent of the Israeli public considers itself left or center-left,” she added. “Twenty percent — that is close to 24 Knesset seats. The left has potential.”

Gal-On, a mother of two from Petah Tikva, knows that Meretz — which currently holds three out of 120 Knesset seats — is not going to become a governing party any time soon. “But I certainly see that if people who consider themselves leftist vote for Meretz we would be able to play a role in the upcoming coalition constellation.”

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

It doesn’t look that way, she allows. “But it’s possible — there are so many different parties and each has its voters, which makes various coalition permutations possible. At the end of the day, what’s important is the size of the electoral blocs. If there is a large center-left bloc, it is possible to defeat the current right-wing government.”

If only the citizens of this country would actually vote according to their political conscience, Gal-On laments. Instead, she says, people cast their ballots strategically. Because leftist voters sought to prevent a second premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu (after his first in 1996-99), they voted for Kadima in 2009, which was headed by Tzipi Livni at the time, and thought to be the only realistic alternative to the Likud. Indeed, the centrist Kadima party became the strongest party, but Livni failed to construct a viable coalition and Netanyahu installed his center-right coalition.

“The majority of people on the left simply stayed at home and didn’t come out to vote,” says Gal-On, who took over the Meretz helm in February. “According to my estimation, this time there won’t be a strategic vote like last time. It will be a vote based on values and ideologies, and everybody will vote for the party they think represents himself or herself the best. Therefore, I think Meretz has a good shot.”

The polls disagree. The last handful of surveys all predict merely four seats for a party, which, in the late ’90s — when Shulamit Aloni, Naomi Chazan and Yossi Sarid were in charge — had 12 seats. Nobody knows for sure how the 2013 elections will turn out, of course, with new parties emerging and the expected comeback of some old heavyweights. But almost all forecasts suggest the current bloc of right-wing and religious parties will again prevail, securing somewhere in the region of 64-66 seats.

Still, predictably optimistic expectations for her party aside, Gal-On is on to something when she says that Israel has more left-wingers-in-spirit than actually vote for leftist parties. A survey by a new left-wing think tank called Molad recently found that 32% have a “favorable” opinion of “the left,” and 33% share the left’s values.

According to the poll, presented by Yossi Verter on Thursday on the front page of Haaretz, one out of two Israelis espouse “clear left-wing positions on matters of war and peace.” An even higher percentage agrees with leftist views regarding socioeconomic issues, the poll found.

‘You can’t talk about democracy as long as there is an occupation, because the occupation eats democracy’

Yet the new think tank, headed by former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, a former Laborite, estimates that it would take about 10 years for the Israeli left to fully rehabilitate itself. “There’s a dramatic distance between the public’s positions and the way those positions are presented in political discourse,” Burg said.

Verter, analyzing the poll, agrees. The numbers project the Israeli left as “a lost cause,” he writes. “The public views it as being non-serious, irresponsible, not credible, elitist, alienated and devoid of realistic solutions to Israel’s security problems. If the ‘left’ were a commercial product, the firm that produces and markets it would have gone bankrupt years ago.”

Visiting Meretz’s party headquarters, one might get the impression that the left did indeed go bankrupt years ago, quite literally. Tucked away in a gloomy corner on the top floor of a rundown central Tel Aviv building, the command center comprises three small and spartan rooms. Gal-On’s office looks more like the makeshift HQ of a recently opened small business than the nerve center of a political movement determined to reestablish itself as a national force.

Meretz' national headquarter is located in Tel Aviv's Beit Alfa Street (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Meretz national headquarters are located in Tel Aviv’s Beit Alfa Street (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

But Gal-On will not be discouraged. As the Knesset’s only Zionist party unapologetically representing left-wing positions (the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, which has four seats, is to the left of Meretz, but does not consider itself Zionist), Meretz is bound for a great comeback, she believes.

“Kadima is a centrist party and so is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. And if part of Kadima breaks off and creates a new party with Livni, they will also be in the center. Even Labor presents itself as a centrist party,” Gal-On says, noting that Labor’s chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich last year defended the settlement enterprise.

“There is a clear political differentiation: Meretz is Israel’s left-wing party; I am proud to say I am a leftist.”

For Meretz, the designation “leftist” is a badge of honor, and emphatically not a dirty word. “Crazy leftists — crazy about democracy, freedom and a normal life,” reads a campaign poster in the party’s headquarters. “Disengaged — from Gaza, from Lebanon and tomorrow also from Judea and Samaria,” reads another. These two signs sum up much of the party platform: dismantling settlements and withdrawal from the West Bank, as well as separation of church and state, and religious pluralism.

Gal-On, who was born in Vilna and came to Israel when she was 4, likes to talk about Meretz being a “rounded left.” Her party, she says, has a comprehensive Weltanschauung in which all issues on the political agenda are interconnected.

Meretz has positions on the social justice movement, the economy, questions regarding the military draft of the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs and, of course, the Iranian threat. While she told The Times of Israel firmly that “Meretz is not a pacifist party,” Gal-On recently proposed a law that would demand more Knesset oversight before Israel can start a war with another nation, seeking to prevent the prime minister from being the sole decision maker on issues of life and death.

According to Gal-On, one issue is the root of all that’s evil in the State of Israel: the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “You can’t talk about democracy as long as there is an occupation, because the occupation eats democracy,” Gal-On charges. “And you can’t talk about social justice and equality without talking about freedom and an end to the occupation.”

While she opposes boycotts against Israel, Gal-On herself boycotts products from the settlements in the West Bank. “I buy blue-and-white, and for me that stops at the Green Line,” she says. “I am not willing to buy settlement products. It’s a non-violent, legitimate way to protest.

“Everybody is busy dealing with social and economic issues, but the strategic issue — which, in my eyes, is absolutely critical for the future of Israel at the present time — is to return to negotiations with the Palestinians,” she continues. “Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves with a one-state solution. There won’t be another choice.”

Gal-On is referring to the increasing boldness with which some right-wing lawmakers, including MKs from Netanyahu’s Likud party, demand that Israel annex the West Bank, thus making the creation of a Palestinian state impossible.

It is actually Netanyahu who makes a renewal of talks impossible by requiring that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. ‘I don’t understand this idiotic precondition,’ Gal-On says. ‘We need to define our identity for ourselves. We don’t need the Palestinians to do it for us.’

Virtually all proponents of a one-state solution say they would grant full Israeli citizenship to Palestinian Arabs living in the annexed areas. Gal-On is skeptical.

“They might claim that, but I don’t believe them. This would become an apartheid state,” Gal-On fumes. “I think their goal is to rule over the land and afterwards to think about the best way to get rid of them [the Palestinians], perhaps forcefully transferring them. I don’t believe that it’s realistic to give the Palestinians voting rights to the Knesset. The people who propose that don’t really see the Palestinians as future citizens of Israel. They want to rule over the land; the Palestinians were always air and will remain air” —  in other words, they aren’t taken seriously.

“I believe it’s in Israel’s strategic interest that there be a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel,” she goes on. “Otherwise, there will be an apartheid state here. I don’t want to live in an apartheid state. I want to live in the State of Israel, a state for the Jewish people but also for all its citizens.”

As settlement construction continues, eroding the territory earmarked for a Palestinian state, Gal-On is worried that time is running out for a two-state solution, and the annexationist dreams of the right wing are becoming reality.

“I’m very concerned that the Israeli public is starting to buy into that notion, that there is no partner with whom we can make peace. I also think there is no partner, but Prime Minister Netanyahu is no partner, either.” A little later during the interview, she denies having said she believes there is no partner. “I only said Netanyahu is no partner,” she insists.

So what does she think of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? “I don’t determine who is the leader for the Palestinians. Abu Mazen is their representative. Is he good, not so good — it doesn’t matter,” she says, using Abbas’s nom de guerre. “As long as he is the Palestinians’ representative — and he is a moderate — we need to start talking with him again. I am afraid that whoever comes after Abu Mazen will be even worse.”

She acknowledges that it is Abbas who currently refuses to negotiate, demanding that Israel first release Palestinian prisoners and freeze settlement building. But she seems unfazed by that. “Preconditions are a part of the give-and-take of negotiations,” she says. It is Netanyahu who makes a renewal of talks impossible by requiring that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, she says. “I don’t understand this idiotic precondition. We, the people who live here, need to define our identity for ourselves. We don’t need the Palestinians to do it for us.”

Meretz MK Zehava Gal-on walks in Hebron as right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir shouts in an earlier confrontation in June 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On walks in Hebron as right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir shouts in a confrontation in June 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To break the stalemate, Gal-On proposes a regional conference in Turkey, in which Israelis and Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks would get together and “start a process of conversation and reconciliation.”

“Israel is becoming more and more isolated in the world: We fight with the Turks; there’s a new government in Egypt — something needs to happen. We live in this region; we can’t act as if we weren’t here.”

Gal-On criticizes not only Israel’s right-wing government, but every citizen who is complacent about the status quo. “Since they built the separation wall, there have been no terror attacks. The Israeli public doesn’t pay any price for the ongoing occupation,” she says. “People sit in cafés, and despite [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz’s cuts, life is good. Seriously, life in Israel is amazing, and people don’t feel any urgency; they don’t even care one bit about the Palestinians and that it’s not ethical that we’ve been occupying them for 45 years now.

“When I look at Israeli society I get depressed, because most of the people here are right wing or close to the right wing,” she says.

So what is Meretz, the proud champion of the leftist agenda, proposing to do about it? “Well, our job is to continue saying these things,” Gal-On concludes. “We need to keep on talking about this; we cannot give up.”

And then she adds a line quite out of kilter with her earlier optimistic electoral predictions: “It’s difficult” to keep sounding the alarm, she says, “because we’re not making ourselves popular.”

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