On Monday night, Zehava Gal-On was overwhelmingly elected the new chair of the Meretz party. She is now the third female leader of an Israeli political party represented in the Knesset, joining Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Shelly Yachimovich of Labor. (In addition, Einat Wilif is the Knesset caucus leader of Ehud Barak’s new Independence party.)
In her victory speech, Gal-On promised to re-energize the party, and bring back its sharp, smart, brash, against-the-stream spirit. She said the party would be the party of the Left, and would not court the “Center” or choose its positions based on what was easily marketable. Y-net sums up her speech with this quote:

Under my leadership, Meretz will bring Israel‘s Left home… it will no longer be a boutique, north Tel Avivian faction. Meretz will translate last summer’s social protest into political power. It will be a true social-democratic party that supports dividing the land [of Israel with the Palestinians].

As per her capsule online biography: She immigrated to Israel as a child from Vilnius, Soviet Lithuania in 1960. She is 56 years old, married with two children and lives in Petah Tikva. She is a veteran political activist and Member of the Knesset, who is much honored and also controversial for her outspoken progressive views, especially on women’s issues and peace.

My own view is that Israel would be best served if Meretz were to move toward an electoral alliance with Labor, with which it is in basic accord on domestic policy. Labor would probably be resistant to a merger or joint list, however, because Meretz is viewed (wrongly) as “far left” by most Israelis; also Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, is (unlike Meretz) not emphasizing its peace platform.

Meretz could conceivably forge a closer relationship with the bi-national (but mainly Arab) Hadash party; although this would be a bold move, it’s not likely, given Meretz’s mostly Jewish and Zionist character. Israel would only benefit from Meretz’s strongly progressive and peace-oriented platform, but the party’s voting base has shrunk to one quarter of its parliamentary strength at its high-water mark as Yitzhak Rabin and Labor’s main coalition partner from 1992 to 1996. It has been rocked by the general view of the party as being too left and too dovish on the one hand, while being sniped at from the left variously for being too Zionistic, too Tel Aviv-Ashkenazi-liberal-intellectual, etc.

Ms. Gal-On was publicly critical of the Meretz leadership at the onset of the Gaza war, when party leaders were initially quoted as supporting Israel’s military response to the heavy bombardment of Israeli territory by rockets and mortars launched from Gaza, which prompted the war in late 2008 and early 2009. Official party statements, however, called for a prompt ceasefire and argued against a ground invasion of Gaza. But Gal-On was correct that Meretz was saddled with a “pro-war” image, because of initial statements to the press by Gal-On’s predecessor Haim Oron and one or two other party officials. But Oron retired from the Knesset in 2011 to allow her return to parliament after a two-year absence.

While I hope that Ms. Gal-On can reinvigorate Meretz, I am not optimistic. Still, she will proudly raise a progressive banner high from the opposition back benches in the Knesset, at least until the next national elections within a year to 15 months.


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