New Meretz leader apologizes for using anti-leftist adviser, but denies lying

Tamar Zandberg says she made an ‘error in judgement’ by taking advice from divisive campaigner Moshe Klughaft

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg seen in the Israeli parliament on October 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg seen in the Israeli parliament on October 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Newly elected Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg issued a lengthy apology Sunday after it was revealed that she had consulted with a political adviser known for his controversial campaigns against Israel’s left-wing, without updating relevant authorities.

In a Facebook post titled, “I apologize,” Zandberg said her decision to consult with Moshe Klughaft, who was previously behind corrosive campaigns against left-wing NGOs and activists, was a “mistake” for which she was sorry.

“It pains me that I have disappointed so many of you so quickly. And I therefore want to say first and foremost that I apologize,” Zandberg wrote.

While claiming to “take responsibility” for the decision, Zandberg also hit back at critics who have accused her of betraying her left-wing supporters, taking particular aim at Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay, who lambasted her connection with Klughaft.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg casts her vote at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zandberg became the new head of Meretz on Thursday night, after a resounding victory over rival Avi Buskila, a former head of the Peace Now anti-settlement group, in the party’s first-ever leadership primary. Zandberg won 71 percent of the votes cast compared to 28% for Buskila. Accepting victory in front of a crowd of party loyalists at its headquarters in Tel Aviv, the 41-year-old Zandberg, who has been an MK for Meretz since 2013 and a party activist for many years, said she planned to lead the Israeli left to better days.

But the revelation that she had received advice during the race from Klughaft, notorious for his fierce campaigns slamming left-wing groups, has thrown the new charwoman into direct confrontation with critics, who feel she has betrayed Meretz’s proud left-wing identity.

“It was an error in judgement,” she said. “I apologize to the journalists and I apologize to the members of human rights organizations and the New Israel Fund. There are no patriots and lovers of Israel that are greater than they are. I am proud that Meretz is the only party standing alongside these organizations when everyone else is silent, stuttering or joining the attack against them.”

Klughaft was behind a 2016 campaign “outing” Israeli artists as “foreign agent moles” over their ties with left-wing groups, an initiative he told Hadashot news on Saturday that he regretted, as well as a campaign that portrayed New Israel as a subversive force and went after its president at the time, Naomi Chazan, personally. He has also been credited with significantly boosting the political profiles of hawkish Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked over the past decade.

Former Jewish Home party strategist Moshe Klughaft (screen capture: Hadashot)

Her apology to journalists appeared to relate to her repeated denials to reporters last week, when she said she had not consulted with Klughaft.

She nonetheless insisted that she “did not lie about my connections with him,” saying that he did not fulfill any official role on the campaign and had offered her pro bono advice after taking an interest in her candidacy.

She did not mention the Sunday morning announcement that State Comptroller Yosef Shapira is set to probe Zandberg for failing to disclose her consultation with Klughaft with authorities in real time, as required by law, meaning that his unpaid advice could be considered an undeclared donation to a political party.

Instead, she slammed what she called and “unrestrained attack on Meretz and the left,” charging that the criticism over her links to Kulghaft have been “exaggerated beyond reasonable or reasonable proportions.”

Zandberg’s involvement with Klughaft was condemned on Saturday night by Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay, who branded the adviser a “propagandist who is responsible for the polarization of political discourse, [taking it] to a dangerous place.”

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay speaks at a conference held by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“If this is the new Meretz, it would be better if it didn’t pass the electoral threshold,” he said.

In her post, Zandberg fired back at Gabbay, asking rhetorically: “Avi Gabbay, do not you have shame?” before launching into a harsh critique of the Zionist Union leader’s apparent efforts to reach out to right-wing voters.

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.

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.”

Michael Bachner, Marissa Newman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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