Trouncing at the ballot box leads Labor, Meretz to contemplate merger

Meretz chief Zandberg: ‘This is a moment in which new things are possible’; Labor’s Yachimovich: ‘We’re both Zionist left, patriotic, social democratic, liberal, free’

Meretz party leader MK Tamar Zandberg at Meretz primaries in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2019. (Flash90)
Meretz party leader MK Tamar Zandberg at Meretz primaries in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2019. (Flash90)

Officials in the Labor and Meretz parties are exploring the possibility of a merger of their two parties in the wake of Labor’s worst-ever election showing on April 9.

The storied Labor party, which led Israel at its founding in 1948 and for the next 30 years, and was for decades the mainstay of the Israeli center-left, won 4.45% of the vote, garnering just six seats in last week’s election.

Meretz won 3.63% of the vote — not far above the 3.25% Knesset threshold — gaining four seats and narrowly missing a fifth, according to official figures.

The two parties’ fate is widely seen as a sign of voters deepening disaffection over the moribund peace process with the Palestinians, with which the two parties are most closely identified. In 1992, the year of Meretz’s founding, Labor won 44 seats and Meretz 12, forming the foundation of Israel’s 25th government under Yitzhak Rabin, which would launch the Oslo peace process.

Current Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg urged a merger of the two parties before the April 9 race, but was rebuffed by Labor, which feared its hawkish wing would defect to the centrist Blue and White party, whose attraction for center-left voters was seen as a major threat.

Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich outside the Labor party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“There has to be a more significant actor on the left in Israel, [both] Jewish and Arab,” explained Zandberg in the Haaretz daily on Sunday. “The components that will make up such a group have to include Labor, Meretz and a meaningful Arab element, like Hadash or part of it. I don’t rule anything out. It’s all worth considering. The vote for Meretz in the last election [which included large numbers of Arab voters] shows it is possible.” (The two Arab parties won a total of 10 seats in the election.)

Zandberg said she viewed the election trouncing as a moment of opportunity.

“This is a period when there’s a chance to do this,” she told Haaretz. “I plan to act to make this happen. We have to start implementing this now. Elections in Israel come by surprise. This is a moment in which new things are possible.”

Zandberg’s enthusiasm may not be shared in Arab political circles, however. A Hadash lawmaker rejected Zandberg’s suggestion on Sunday.

“Hadash isn’t weighing any alliance with Meretz or any other party. We’re focused on strengthening the party and expanding its base as the leading and largest party among the Arab public,” MK Yousef Jabareen said.

MK Yousef Jabareen attends a Knesset committee meeting on December 22, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jabareen told Haaretz his views were shared by other party leaders, and added, “The election results place on us the weighty responsibility to continue to lead the parliamentary and public struggle for full civil and national equality.”

But the call for unity may find more fertile ground Labor, where influential MK and former party chief Shelly Yachimovich has expressed openness to such a possibility, writing on Facebook on Thursday that her party must “abandon for now the unrealistic dreams of returning to power, and build a party that is a clear, sharp option that has nothing in common with the extreme right, but also not with the extreme center.

“That option demands that we courageously and despite the difficulty consider a merger with Meretz. No one knows better than I how many nuanced differences separate us… But let’s also admit: the similarities are many. We’re [both] the Zionist left, patriotic, social democratic, liberal, free.”

But the latest effort also seemed to be encountering resistance in Labor, similar to that faced by Zandberg’s pre-election unification proposal.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay tours the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, on April 3, 2019, ahead of general elections for the Knesset. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Linking up with Meretz might be the right thing to do, but it could also split the Labor party and its supporters,” one unnamed Labor MK said over the weekend.

“Labor has a significant hawkish wing, which doesn’t share the language of Meretz and its messages, and that’s a situation that could bring a split.”

Haaretz quoted a senior Labor official saying it was “still early” and “not the right time” to contemplate such a merger. “Right now the party needs to go through a healing process. It has to pick a new chair, to figure out how to deal with its budget deficit, and how to build itself as an alternative to the government with the slim budget of six seats.”

Campaign funding in Israeli elections is public and based on a party’s size in the outgoing Knesset.

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