Tamar Zandberg crowned new Meretz leader after resounding primary win

Veteran MK promises to lead a ‘powerful left-wing force,’ suggests party could join government with hawkish Yisrael Beytenu

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

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

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg became the new head of the left-wing party Thursday night after winning a vast majority in its first-ever leadership primary, delivering a resounding victory over her rival Avi Buskila, a former head of the Peace Now anti-settlement group.

Zandberg won 71 percent of the votes cast compared to 28% for Buskila. In total, 16,954 of the 31,680 eligible party members voted, representing a voter turnout of 53.6%. She had been widely expected to carry the ballot.

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.

“We will be here for the huge public that has not given up on Israeli democracy, on justice and equality,” she said. “Everyone who understands that the occupation is an existential threat to the state of Israel, to all those Israelis I say: Don’t believe that you are the minority. You are not. We are the majority in Israeli society.”

Newly elected Meretz leader MK Tamar Zandberg giveg a victory speech at the party’a Tel Aviv headquarters, March 22, 2018. (Courtesy)

Zandberg had been left as the only party lawmaker running in the race when, on a single day last month, chairwoman Zehava Galon abandoned her bid for reelection and veteran Meretz MK Ilan Gilon dropped out of the race due to health issues.

Both Zandberg and Buskila had run on platforms promising to lead the left-wing party out of its marginal opposition role.

Zandberg repeated her stated goal throughout the campaign for Meretz to win 10 seats in the Knesset in the next national elections, scheduled for November 2019, a feat the party hasn’t managed in 15 years. She has vowed to change the perception of Meretz as a perpetual opposition party —  the last time it sat in the government was 17 years ago under Labor prime minister Ehud Barak — even suggesting a willingness to join a coalition with arch-nemesis Avigdor Liberman, who leads the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu.

“Meretz is ready to push forward to the center of the political stage. We will lead a strong left-wing force on every stage, in the Knesset, at rallies, on the street, on social media,” she said to the cheers of activists. “Everywhere, we will be part of the revolution that Israel so desperately needs. We will break the mold of Israeli politics that pushed us to a corner and told us that the public wasn’t with us.”

The former psychology lecturer began her political career as a parliamentary aide to former Meretz MK Ran Cohen. In 2008 she was elected a party representative to the Tel Aviv Council, where she chaired the Women’s Affairs Committee and worked to expand the city’s services for secular Israelis.

In the previous elections she entered the Knesset from the fourth slot on the party’s list. As leader, she will now automatically be placed top while other hopeful lawmakers will have to compete in separate primaries to make the list.

Avi Buskila outside a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zandberg thanked Buskila for being a “gracious opponent” and vowed that “from tonight we are all one party.”

Zandberg dedicated a hearty chunk of her speech to thanking Galon for her contribution to the party both as its leader for over six years and as a lawmaker for nearly two decades.

Galon, 62, resigned from the Knesset in October to focus on reforming the party’s internal election process. She had served as Meretz leader since 2012, and as a Knesset member since 1999.

Addressing the crowd, Galon praised Zandberg, saying that her win “is a victory for all of Meretz and for the entire left.”

Galon also praised the election process and the recently adopted primary format allowing all party members to cast a vote to chose the leader.

“The open primaries proved themselves in a big way and provided Meretz with the turning point it needs ahead of the coming elections. Israel needs a strong and forceful Meretz and I believe that you have the ability to do that,” she said of Zandberg.

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’s primaries were previously a two-stage process in which party members elected delegates to the party’s top committee, which then selected the Knesset list. But calls grew in recent years for the party to switch to a more transparent primary system that also allows non-members to have a say.

Galon initially pushed for open primaries that would have allowed any Israeli citizen to choose the Meretz leader regardless of party affiliation, while Gilon resisted the efforts to change the primary voting system. In the end, it was a compromise deal presented by Zandberg that won out, allowing anyone to sign up as a member of Meretz up to a month before the primaries and vote for the party’s slate.

Meretz director-general, MK Mossi Raz said the buzz generated around the primaries proved the party was gaining traction.

“I am happy and moved that Meretz members came out in masses to vote across the country from the north to the south, and proved that Meretz is growing as the leader of the Israeli left,” he said after the results came in.

Advocates of the move hope it will expand the reach of a dwindled and sidelined political left and potentially draw votes from the center-left Labor party, which has hemorrhaged supporters in recent months.

Avi Gabbay at a meeting with supporters in Kadima on March 13, 2018. (Gili Yaari /FLASH90)

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.”

The most recent polls show the Zionist Union sinking from its current 24 seats to just 12, with Meretz going from its current five to seven, a trend the party hopes will continue with its new leader.

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