Meretz chief quits Knesset to fight for open primaries for left-wing party

Meretz chief quits Knesset to fight for open primaries for left-wing party

After 16 years in parliament and facing a leadership challenge, Zehava Galon looks to crack open Meretz’s ranks to ‘new blood’

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

Meretz party leader MK Zehava Galon speaks to thousands of left-wing activists during a rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Meretz party leader MK Zehava Galon speaks to thousands of left-wing activists during a rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The leader of the left-wing Meretz party, MK Zehava Galon, announced on Wednesday she was resigning her seat in the Knesset, saying the move would allow her to concentrate on her efforts to enact open primaries within her party.

Galon, 61, notified Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of her resignation and the reasons for her decision, her office said.

It is not clear if the move is the first step in the longtime lawmaker’s eventual resignation from political life, or if it is part of an effort to stave off an internal leadership challenge amid widespread opposition in the party to her primaries reforms.

She told Edelstein that she wants to “dedicate the coming months to her job as chair of Meretz, in order to change the election process and to enact open primary elections,” the statement said.

Left-wing Meretz party head Zahava Galon reacts to election exit polls March 17, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Meretz’s primaries are currently a two-stage process in which party members elect delegates to the party’s top committee, which then selects the Knesset list. Calls have grown in recent years for the party to switch to a more transparent primary system that also allows non-members to have a say — a bid that some in the party hope could expand the reach of a dwindled and sidelined political left.

On October 26, Meretz will hold a party-wide vote for committee delegates, and Galon reportedly plans to present her open primaries plan to a December meeting of the newly selected committee. The new committee is also expected to approve a party leadership primary in the coming months.

In a letter to party members this week, Galon wrote, “I love [having a seat in] the Knesset, but I love Meretz more. And I know that if Meretz doesn’t open up, it won’t exist. The left has a much larger and broader support base than the number of people who vote for Meretz. To realize that potential, Meretz must change. I’m convinced that my resignation from the Knesset will allow me, as chair of Meretz, to focus on advancing the open primaries idea and transforming Meretz into a large and inclusive home for all those who believe in our values.”

The party would suffer and shrink if it failed to inject “new blood” into its ranks, she said.

File: Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg attends a committee meeting in the Knesset on June 30, 2015 (Issac Harari/Flash90)

Galon has promised that if she loses in her bid to change the primaries process, she will resign as leader of the party.

Internal party gossip points to one key challenger in the next leadership race: MK and primary reform opponent Tamar Zandberg.

Galon has been a member of Knesset almost consistently since 1999 and took over the party leadership in 2012. Meretz currently holds five Knesset seats.

Galon is to be replaced in the parliament by the next in line on the party’s Knesset slate, former MK and currently the party’s secretary-general Mossi Raz.

The decision drew praise from supporters.

“The mission of opening of Meretz’s ranks to new audiences is vital not only for Meretz, but for the ability of the entire Israeli left to become attractive and open to new constituencies, and not to allow itself to become a narrow club with no future,” Meretz MK Issawi Frej said Wednesday.

“That the challenge Zehava has placed before us, and together we will meet it,” he vowed.

Frej, a backer of Galon’s primaries proposal, promised that all the plan’s supporters, including MK Michal Rozin, will “work to turn the open primaries from vision to reality, to turn Meretz into a pathbreaking party not only in its ideology, but also in its willingness to draw in new communities in the selection of its leadership.”

Galon drew praise, too, from opponents of the plan, though it was tempered by opposition to her reasons for quitting.

MK Ilan Gilon, who chairs the party’s Knesset faction, lauded Galon as “an excellent member of Knesset,” but said it was a “shame that she decided to resign, and I’m sorry about this odd move.

As an MK, “Zehava contributed immensely to the struggle against human trafficking, and for human and civil rights, and she will be missed in the Meretz faction and in the Knesset, where her work was more important than the party’s internal primary process.”

Outside Meretz, reactions were muted, with the exception of controversial Likud backbencher Oren Hazan, who acerbically congratulated Galon for vacating the parliament, which he said was “more beautiful” with her on the outside.

“Zahava, I welcome your desirable decision to finally resign from the Knesset, an expected development in light of the ugliness that was reflected in the mirror that I held up to you all the way. The Knesset today is more beautiful,” he said.

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