Meretz-Barak merger praised on left as Labor pressured to join in

Some say alliance with former PM and Labor defector waters down Meretz’s left-wing brand; Labor’s No. 2 indicates he may also jump ship, which could lead to party’s total collapse

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

People walk near election campaign posters showing Labor party leader Amir Peretz, left, and Ehud Barak, right, at the entrance of Jerusalem on July 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
People walk near election campaign posters showing Labor party leader Amir Peretz, left, and Ehud Barak, right, at the entrance of Jerusalem on July 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The second highest figure in the Labor party said he may follow former colleague Stav Shaffir and decamp for the newly formed Democratic Camp faction, as the creation of the new left-wing slate sent shockwaves through Israel’s political arena.

Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz, defecting Labor MK Shaffir, and former prime minister Ehud Barak announced Thursday morning that they had agreed to run on a joint list headed by Horowitz, after weeks of speculation and negotiations.

The merger was welcomed among many on the left as a way to keep votes from being drawn away by parties that may not cross the electoral threshold, but also drew grumbles of dissatisfaction from those who thought the move would dilute Meretz’s far-left brand.

Backing the merger, Labor No. 2 Itzik Shmuli urged party head Amir Peretz to reverse his decision against unification with Meretz or Barak, saying the party should throw its lot in the Democratic Camp.

“I very much hope that in the time that is left we will manage to bring the Labor party into such a merger,” Shmuli told Army Radio.

Hinting he could follow Shaffir out the door, Shmuli said he would “decide my future in politics in the coming week.”

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

If he did leave Labor, he said it “would bring it to electoral collapse and it might not pass the [Knesset] threshold.”

Shmuli first broke ranks with Peretz on Wednesday amid stewing chagrin over Peretz’s decision to merge Labor with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which is further to the right on the political spectrum. Peretz later said he would not bring his party into a union with Barak’s Israel Democratic Party or Meretz.

Labor Party MKs Itzik Shmuli (left) and Stav Shaffir (right) meet with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“A camp that is shattered into splintered parties is taking a dangerous, unnecessary gamble with its chances to grow and win, and also with the future of the party,” he said Wednesday. “It is irresponsible to accept the situation, which should be actively changed.”

Oshi Elmaliah, a close confidant of Barak, told Army Radio the new faction “would be very happy to see Itzik Shmuli and other people joining.”

The Labor party itself welcomed the Democratic Camp alliance, which it said “will prevent votes lost on a slate that won’t pass the electoral threshold and threatened to lose votes for the center-left.”

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party that is expected to dominate the center-left bloc in September elections, welcomed the move as “important” to prevent lost votes, but insisted his party would continue to be the main alternative to a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 26, 2019. (Flash90)

Analysts had predicted that a left bloc split into three parties — Meretz, Labor-Gesher, and IDP — would only draw enough votes for two of them to cross the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset, thus making it harder for the center-left to form a ruling coalition.

MK Tamar Zandberg, a former Meretz leader who is fourth on the Democratic Camp slate, said during an interview with Army Radio that the party is still hoping to woo former justice minister Tzipi Livni to join them, and that she could possibly be made party leader.

Livni retired from politics before the previous elections in April, which failed to produce a coalition majority leading to fresh elections being set in September.

Party slates must be finalized by the end of next week ahead of the September 17 elections.

MK Ahmad Tibi speaks during a special Knesset plenum session on the nation-state bill, August 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meretz MK Issawi Frej, placed sixth on the combined list, told Army Radio the merger “is not what I wished for” but that that he would nonetheless support the measure.

Arab Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi, chair of the Ta’al Party, expressed his regrets at the merger with Barak, a former IDF general seen by some as a security hawk, as it would diminish Meretz’s left-wing credentials.

“What has been created now is no longer the Meretz party, which was a leftist party,” he said.

On the right, Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein of the ruling Likud party told the Kan public broadcast radio that by joining with Barak, Meretz had lowered its standards.

“It is a bit of shame that in the campaign for survival a party like Meretz, which perhaps I don’t agree with on most things but is certainly an ideological party, is embedded in this union.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman told Army Radio that the Democratic Camp is “an irrelevant radical slate, I can’t see any serious party joining them in a coalition.”

“We at Yisrael Beytenu see zero chance of joining them in a coalition,” he said, and similarly vowed to not sit in a government with “messianic” parties such as those who comprise the United Right-Wing Parties.

Liberman, seen as a possible kingmaker in the upcoming vote, has insisted that he he will try to force a broad unity government.

Likud MK David Bitan predicted to Army Radio that Democratic Camp may win slightly more seats, but that it won’t be enough to see 10th-placed Barak return to the Knesset.

“The unity makes Meretz a tiny bit bigger and helps Ehud Barak to exit from politics,” he said. “We will find him going back to New York in a year’s time,” a dig at Barak’s ties with disgraced New York financier Jeffrey Epstein who is facing accusations of sex crimes involving minors.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the URWP took a dig at Shaffir, saying the merger was a boon for Labor because she was leaving the party.

“Stav Shaffir’s departure from Labor is good news which will enable it to perhaps return to what it once was — a grand Zionist and ideological left-wing party that supported [West Bank] settlement and Zionism — and not a branch of Meretz,” he tweeted.

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