With huge turnout in first primary, Meretz voters pick veteran MKs for top spots
Israel elections 2019

With huge turnout in first primary, Meretz voters pick veteran MKs for top spots

Ilan Gilon, Michal Rozin and Issawi Frej finish as leading vote-getters, followed by newcomer Ali Shalalha; quartet of former Peace Now heads expected to miss out on Knesset bids

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and other party members are seen in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2019, following the announcement of primary results. (Flash90)
Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and other party members are seen in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2019, following the announcement of primary results. (Flash90)

Veteran MK Ilan Gilon took the top spot in the Meretz party’s first-ever open primary, after an resounding 86 percent of the left-wing faction’s members cast ballots Thursday.

The result means Gilon will be placed second on the party’s slate for upcoming elections, behind party leader Tamar Zandberg.

Incumbent MKs Michal Rozin and Issawi Frej took second and third place, and newcomer Ali Shalalha, a Druze educator from the northern village of Beit Jann placed fourth.

The party, to the far-left of the political spectrum, is predicted to get 4-5 seats in the next Knesset, according to current polling.

From 2 p.m. to 10 p.m, some 21,000 party members were able cast ballots in the primary for the first time at 131 polling stations across the country, choosing four of the 23 candidates running.

The surging turnout of 86 percent vastly outdid the Labor and Likud parties who held their primaries earlier this week and last, notching just 58% and 60% respectively.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg (R) and MK Ilan Gilon are seen outside the party’s polling station in Jerusalem on February 14, 2019. (Flash90)

Gilon first served as a MK for Meretz from 1999-2003 and has been one of the party’s leading figures since he returned to the Knesset as a lawmaker in 2009. He unsuccessfully ran to be leader of the party last year.

Current MK Mossi Raz finished fifth in voting, but will be placed seventh on the list after the spot reserved for a female candidate, which will be filled by Mehereta Ron Baruch, a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.

Avi Buskila, who along with Gilon, lost the leadership race to Tamar Zandberg last year, will be eighth on the list. Raz and Buskila were two of four former Peace Now heads who ran in the primary, along with Gabby Lasky, who will be placed ninth in the spot reserved for a new candidate, and Yariv Oppenheimer, who finished near the bottom of voting and will be placed 13th.

Meretz is one of the few parties to adopt member-wide primaries in recent years, with former leader Zehava Galon even advocating an open primary system in which any Israeli citizen can vote. It previously chose its Knesset slate via a two-stage process in which party members elected delegates to its top committee, which then selected the Knesset list.

The party had been hoping the vote and final slate it produced would expand the reach of Israel’s dwindled and sidelined political left.

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

As with the Likud and Labor primaries, Meretz saw efforts by some in the party to determine the final slate via deals to support or block certain Knesset hopefuls.

One group of activists seeking to rebrand the party as one that deals primarily with social welfare issues urged members to boycott MKs Rozin, Frej and Raz, who were all aligned with Galon and her staunchly pro-Palestinian outlook.

Following the announcement of the primary results, Zandberg said the party would not seek to play down its left-wing bonafides.

“Some in this election take pride in claiming that there is no left or right. We take pride in saying that there is a left, its needed, and it’s Meretz,” she said, referring to Gantz’s campaign slogan.

Voting at the central Tel Aviv polling station earlier in the day, Zandberg said she would be happy with any of the main candidates taking top spots as “whatever happens, our’s will be the winning team of the left.”

Asked if she believed she could lead the party to its first time in government in over two decades, Zandberg said “we will be in every center-left government, we will be the left of the government. If however there will be a right-wing government, we will be in the opposition.”

She also indicated she could back Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz as prime minister after the elections.

Head of the Meretz party Tamar Zandberg speaks during an conference of the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modiin, February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Upon winning the chairmanship of the party last year, Zandberg said her goal in the national elections was for Meretz to win 10 Knesset seats, a feat the party hasn’t managed in 15 years. She has also vowed to change the perception of Meretz as a perpetual opposition party —  the last time it served as part of 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.

As the top candidates joined Zandberg on stage on Thursday night, activists chanted, hopefully, “10 seats for Meretz.”

The top 10 Meretz candidates for the April 9, 2019 elections, as selected in party primaries on February 14, 2019:

1. Tamar Zandberg
2. Ilan Gilon
3. Michal Rozin
4. Issawi Frej
5. Ali Shalalha
6. Mehereta Ron Baruch
7. Mossi Raz
8. Avi Buskila
9. Gabby Lasky
10. Avi Dabush

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