Party veteran, ex-Peace Now head face off in Meretz leadership race

Candidates Zandberg and Buskila hope first-ever open primary will mark new beginning for languishing left-wing movement

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

​Meretz knesset member Tamar Zandberg during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, in the Israeli parliament on December 7, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
​Meretz knesset member Tamar Zandberg during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, in the Israeli parliament on December 7, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Meretz members were voting Thursday in the first-ever leadership primary open to the entire party, with current MK Tamar Zandberg facing off against former Peace Now chairman Avi Buskila, in a battle to lead the left-wing party out of its marginal opposition role.

Voting opened at midday in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with other polling stations set to open their doors in the afternoon and evening across the rest of the country. In total, 31,680 party members will be able to cast their votes for one of the candidates, both of whom are offering a vision of a revitalized Meretz holding an integral place in the Israeli political scene.

Announcing her candidacy in January, the 41-year-old Zandberg, who has been an MK for Meretz since 2013 and a party activist for many years, said she would “try to lift up the party and the Israeli left from the depressed state into which it has fallen.” She added that her goal would be to win 10 seats in the Knesset in the national elections, a feat the party hasn’t managed in 15 years.

“I call on you to join me and return Meretz as the large and relevant party that we all yearn for it to be, a party that comes down from the bleachers and makes its way to the playing field,” Zandberg said in a statement Wednesday.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg in the Knesset, February 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zandberg has vowed to change the perception of Meretz as a perpetual opposition party —  the last time it sat in the government was 17 years ago under Labor prime minister Ehud Barak — even suggesting a willingness to join a coalition with arch-nemesis Avigdor Liberman, who leads the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu.

“I will not forget my promise, we will be part of a central-left coalition and we will return again to the government. There is a strong sense of change in the air and starting today, we stop apologizing and start winning,” she said on the eve of the primary.

The former psychology lecturer began her political career as a parliamentary aide to former Meretz MK Ran Cohen. In 2008 she was elected a party representative to the Tel Aviv Council, where she chaired the Women’s Affairs Committee and worked to expand the city’s services for secular Israelis. In the previous elections she entered the Knesset from the fourth slot on the party’s list.

Buskila, 42, hails from a less conventional background for someone seeking to lead one of the only Israeli parties proudly declaring itself left-wing, having grown up in what he describes as a traditional Likud-voting Moroccan family.

Before being appointed Peace Now director-general in October 2016, Buskila, who is openly gay, worked as an advertising executive specializing in the LGBT community and made a name for himself as a prominent social activist. He stepped down as head of Peace Now in order to run for the Meretz leadership.

Dovetailing with Zandberg’s message of instilling new life into Meretz, he has presented himself as a fresh face for the party, which he says is in desperate need of new leadership and new ideas that cannot be provided by an incumbent lawmaker.

Former Peace Now director general Avi Buskila. (Elad Malka)

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Thursday, Buskila said Meretz voters must now decide if they want the”same old” or a revolution.

“Everyone understands that if Meretz continues to choose the same old faces, it will once again be struggling to clear the electoral threshold, as it has in recent elections,” he said. “Starting Friday morning, Meretz under my leadership will begin its journey back to the heart of the Israeli public. We will stand at the forefront of social struggles and reach every corner of this country in order to listen, to engage in dialogue and to solve problems.”

Zandberg was left as the only party lawmaker running in the race when, on a single day last month, chairwoman Zehava Galon abandoned her bid for reelection and veteran Meretz MK Ilan Gilon dropped out of the race due to health issues.

“From conversations with activists around the country in recent weeks, I understood that they want new leadership,” Galon said in a statement at the time.

Galon, 62, resigned from the Knesset in October to focus on reforming the party’s internal election process. Set to be replaced after Thursday’s election, she has served as Meretz leader since 2012, and as a Knesset member since 1999.

Moments after her announcement, Gilon released a statement saying he too was abandoning his campaign.

“With a heavy heart, I am dropping my candidacy as Meretz leader,” said Gilon on Facebook. “I experienced a medical issue that limits my ability to continue the campaign as I would have liked. I will continue to serve the public as the Meretz faction leader in the Knesset — and advance the values for which you sent me to the Knesset.”

Meretz head Zahava Galon (right) and Meretz MK Ilan Gilon during a party meeting at the Knesset on November 25, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcements left Zandberg and Buskila as the two front-runners in the party’s first-ever open primaries, with internal polls suggesting Zandberg now has the lead going into election day. The two are also joined in the race by outlier candidates Ofir Paz de Porteguez and David Kashni, both veteran party activists.

Meretz’s primaries were previously a two-stage process in which party members elected delegates to the party’s top committee, which then selected the Knesset list. But calls grew in recent years for the party to switch to a more transparent primary system that also allows non-members to have a say.

Galon initially pushed for open primaries that would have allowed any Israeli citizen to choose the Meretz leader regardless of party affiliation, while Gilon resisted the efforts to change the primary voting system. In the end, it was a compromise deal presented by Zandberg that won out, allowing anyone to sign up as a member of Meretz up to a month before the primaries and vote for the party’s slate.

Advocates of the move hope it will expand the reach of a dwindled and sidelined political left and potentially draw votes from the center-left Labor party, which has hemorrhaged supporters in recent months.

Since his election as Labor leader last July, Avi Gabbay has sought to move the party rightward in an apparent bid to bolster its standing, and has made a number of comments at odds with Labor’s historical stances.

Avi Gabbay at a meeting with supporters in Kadima on March 13, 2018. (Gili Yaari /FLASH90)

In December he said preserving a “united” Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty was more important than clinching a peace deal with the Palestinians after insinuating that the left “forgot what it means to be a Jew,” though he later walked back those comments. And in October, he said he would not evacuate West Bank settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, and days later called the settlement enterprise “the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism.”

The most recent polls show the Zionist Union sinking from its current 24 seats to just 12, with Meretz going from its current five to seven, a trend the party hopes will continue with its new leader.

With the votes being cast electronically, results are expected at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, just half an hour after polling stations close. Should none of the candidates receive 40 percent of the vote, a second round will be held next week on March 28 between the two candidates who received the most support.

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