One small step for Stav Shaffir, one large step for Israeli politics

One small step for Stav Shaffir, one large step for Israeli politics

Boldly abandoning Labor to form an alliance between Meretz and the Israel Democratic Party, the young lawmaker may be a ‘traitor’ now but welcomed back by colleagues later

Biranit Goren

The writer is the editor of Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel's Hebrew-language sister publication.

Labor party MK Stav Shaffir, February 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Labor party MK Stav Shaffir, February 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Stav Shaffir brokered a merger between Meretz and the Israel Democratic Party to form a new left-wing party Thursday morning, proving herself to be in the same league as some of the most canny politicians in the country’s history.

The spirited 34-year-old, who entered politics after leading 2011’s large social protest, has made a name for herself in the past six years serving as MK for the Labor party. She has been outspoken in Knesset committees, clashing with older and more experienced politicians throughout her tenure.

Two weeks ago, she ran for the Labor leadership. She came in a surprise second, overtaking Itzik Shmuli. Winner Amir Peretz, shortly after retaking the party chairmanship, made his plans clear — a merger with former right-wing MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, clearly signaling that the future of Labor was to become a social democratic party.

Shaffir, meanwhile, made no secret of her belief that Labor should merge with Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, or with Meretz — or, preferably, with both. Last night, she made that merger happen, but without Peretz.

She now faces backlash from her former party colleagues for “desertion,” or even “betrayal.” But she need not worry too much. History shows the political memory is short and politicians who switch parties on their own side of the aisle find themselves again reuniting down the road, from a stronger position.

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

Peretz, for one, was heard saying Wednesday that Shaffir had committed “outright mutiny,” but he himself is proof positive that such a move can be worthwhile in the long run: When he lost to Shelly Yachimovich in the battle for the Labor leadership in 2013, Peretz jumped ship, joining Tzipi Livni to form Hatnua.

Two years later, Hatnua and Labor joined forces to become the Zionist Union. And four years after that, Peretz was not only back at Labor but elected its head.

Shaffir can thus be heartened by the prospect that those who now see her as a traitor will one day elect her to lead them.

If anything good can come of the tectonic shifts in Israeli politics, it’s the removal of party brands that are well past their sell-by date and carry mostly irrelevant and at-times-damaging historical connotations.

When Naftali Bennett retired the National Religious Party (NRP) brand in favor of Jewish Home, in 2013, he instantly revitalized religious Zionist politics. Meretz should take a leaf out of his book. The phrase “ended its historical role” has been brought up frequently the last few years in reference to Meretz. But there will always be a need for a true, unabashed left-wing party in Israel.

The problem is that Meretz has primarily become identified with kale salad and elitist Tel Aviv. And so, just as the NRP disappeared into history along with the image of the Bible-toting, sandaled voter, so should Meretz vanish along with its hipster, out-of-touch stereotype.

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (L) and Labor head Amir Peretz announce their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The Democratic Camp seems well-suited to replace both the Meretz and Labor brands. Yet, while the new party makes Labor redundant on the left, it does not make it redundant as a social democratic party. Peretz, along with Levy-Abekasis, will now focus on distinguishing the party from Blue and White and the Democratic Camp, and filling the social slot that is sorely missing right now on the Israeli political map.

If Peretz and Levy-Abekasis focus solely on social messages, Labor has a real and viable chance to reach new voters and clear the electoral threshold in the elections in September. If it rids itself of its name, it may even rid itself of its historical burden and attract votes from both sides of the aisle. But for this to happen, Peretz and his colleagues need to refrain from bickering and displays of bitterness against Shaffir and others who join the Democratic Camp.

After all, they may all one day find themselves once again united.

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