Two years after joining Israel’s flagship far-left Meretz party, Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan announced his candidacy for the party’s leadership on Wednesday morning, ahead of its yet-to-be-scheduled primary.
“I am announcing that I will run for the leadership of Meretz in the upcoming elections… with the aim of building a strong and proud Zionist left that is fighting for the image and future of the State of Israel,” Golan said at a press conference convened in Tel Aviv to announce his candidacy.
Golan is challenging party chief Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who led the party through a tumultuous year — both returning Meretz to the government for the first time since 2000, and failing to control its lawmakers, which contributed to the breakdown of the coalition.
Meretz is currently fighting against forecasts that it may not garner sufficient votes to cross the Knesset’s electoral threshold, and is forming its strategy for the upcoming November 1 election, according to party sources.
“I am running because I believe that the values of the left should lead the State of Israel,” said former IDF general Golan.
“I believe in democracy, in equality, in social justice and in peace. I believe in the vision of the nation state of the Jewish people that fortifies the security of its citizens and gives full equality of rights to each and every one without, without differences for religion, gender, race and status.”
Golan alluded in his remarks to a controversial speech he delivered in 2016 as IDF deputy chief of staff, in which he suggested a parallel between 1930s Germany and present-day Israel. Already six years ago, he said on Wednesday, he warned of “dark processes taking place in Israeli society.”
He sparked ire during his current Knesset tenure as well, when earlier this year he called a group of settlers “subhuman” after the terrorist murder of Homesh outpost yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman. Golan later walked back the statement.
“These are not ordinary elections. These are elections that will determine whether Israel will continue to be a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “These are choices that will decide between [David] Ben Gurion’s way and [ultra-right MK Itamar] Ben Gvir’s way. Between progress and darkness. Between growth and destruction. As great is the danger, so great is the responsibility.”
Golan painted a picture in which his “corrupt” and “messianic right-wing” political opponents are “striving with all [their] might to change the face of our beloved country.”
Presumably referring to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for three corruption cases, Golan said he was terrified by “leaders whose wretched corruption calls out to heaven.” He also said he was horrified by “Jews, flooded with hatred and religious fanaticism, who attack IDF soldiers and beat Arabs only because they are Arabs, who vandalize property and gravestones.”
“After 38 years in the IDF… this is my most important battle and for anyone who wants our children and grandchildren to build their home here,” he added.
While Golan said that “change is necessary” to “build momentum and form a party together that we can be proud of,” it is the incumbent, Horowitz, who brought him into the Meretz alliance with a protected spot in January 2020.
Following the announcement, Horowitz rapidly tweeted that he welcomed Golan’s candidacy.
“Meretz is a democratic party, one of the few in the arena, and I am proud of that. Yair is a worthy person and a friend,” he wrote. Meretz is one of only a handful of parties which allows voter input into its candidate list.
Horowitz also previewed some of his campaign points, writing that “Meretz has brought great achievements in government and changed reality more than any other party,” specifically in the realms of “health, the environment, women’s rights and LGBT [issues].”
Horowitz is Israel’s first openly gay party leader.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Wednesday, outgoing Meretz minister and lawmaker Essawi Frej dismissed both Golan and Horowitz as inappropriate for the role, and said he would prefer to see the return of a former party leader, Zehava Galon. (She explicitly shut down this possibility in a morning interview with 102FM radio.)
Frej’s criticism of Golan centers on Arab-Jewish partnership, something that Meretz promises, but has in practice struggled to deliver to its parliamentarians.
“My agenda is Arabs and Jews, which not exactly Yair’s agenda,” said Frej. “He said, ‘I’m a proud Zionist’ and it’s a different agenda.”
Arab-Jewish partnership is a cornerstone issue for a party whose lawmakers write their names in Hebrew, Arabic and English on Twitter. But it felt the strain of joining an ideologically diverse coalition.
Rebel Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi contributed to toppling the government by splitting with the coalition on issues that went against “my conscience.” Citing dissatisfaction with the coalition’s treatment of issues related to Arab society, the Muslim lawmaker briefly quit the coalition in May, and refused to abide by coalition discipline after she returned.
She will not be running in the upcoming primary; nor will Frej.
Horowitz’s inability to keep his party in line led to criticism from both outside and within Meretz.
Frej called the party “a jazz concert, without a leader.”
“He’s a great parliamentarian, but he had to know how to connect Meretz better to its members,” Frej said of Horowitz. “We should have acted more as a unit.”
While Frej said that Meretz continues to weigh the possibility of running again on a joint list with the Labor party, Labor leader Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has dismissed the idea.
Michaeli may be uninterested as serving as Meretz’s electoral life raft, but if the far-left party does not cross the 3.25% threshold, its votes will be wasted and seats redistributed among all successful parties. In an election where every seat may count, this could have consequences for a center-left bloc or one again united by opposition to Netanyahu.
Meretz’s election committee is expected to convene in the next two weeks to finalize a primary date, and to decide whether to hold a separate leadership election.