In a move based less on the principle of partnership than on their own political survival, the Labor-Gesher alliance and Meretz announced on Monday, January 13, that they will be running on a merged slate in the Israeli general elections scheduled for March 2. This agreement came less than a week after, on January 7, Labor leader MK Amir Peretz refused to run together with the left-wing Meretz, and instead proposed a tripartite political union between the centrist Blue & White, his own Labor party and Meretz.
Both Labor-Gesher and Meretz had feared that, should they run alone, they likely might fail to clear the electoral threshold (3.25% of the valid ballots case, or 4 MKs) for entering the Knesset. In similar circumstances ahead of last September’s elections, talks between Labor and Meretz broke down, and subsequently Labor instead merged with Gesher, led by former far-right Yisrael Beiteinu parliamentarian Orly Levy-Abekasis. Meretz, meanwhile, collaborated with some former Labor politicians and ran as the Democratic Camp.
Peretz’s desire for a tripartite political union reportedly irked Blue & White party officials who sought, on the one hand, to avoid draining votes from Zionist left-wing parties for fear that some of the latter may fail to clear the electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset (thereby arithmetically scuttling the already tenuous chances of the larger B&W to form any sort of coalition, just as it failed to do so after the November elections), while at the same time presenting themselves as more center-right by avoiding direct alliances with Meretz and Labor. Blue & White dismissed Peretz’s proposal of a tripartite merger out of hand, but reportedly told him that if his party merged with Meretz, he would be B&W’s candidate for president (to be selected by the Knesset in mid-2021), and Labor would enter coalition negotiations as if it had won six seats, regardless of how many mandates it had actually secured.
It is in on this background that we can more clearly see through the statement by Labor-Gesher and Meretz confirming what the parties to the agreement term a “significant” move. Labor leader and former defense minister MK Amir Peretz and the head of Meretz, MK Nitzan Horowitz, said the merger “will ensure the ability to form a government of change and hope.” The pair claims that this new alliance will serve as “the social heart and diplomatic compass for the next government after the end of the Netanyahu era.” However, more than anything, the two hope that this merger will be seen as the final nail in the coffin of what they call “the fiction” that progressive Jewish Israelis who view themselves as left-wing have no reason to vote for any party other than the Joint List.
According to the published details of the agreement, in the first 11 spots in the merged slate Labor-Gesher candidates will be assigned six places while Meretz’s candidates will have five.
In the past, Meretz took pride in being a party known for raising the banner of Jewish-Arab partnership. This time, it came down hard on former Meretz MK Issawi Freij in particular and the Meretz Arab voters in general. The party’s Knesset members are exhausted by all of the recent elections coming one after the other, so that today, they are fighting less for the principle of partnership than they are for their own personal political survival.
True, Meretz had recently been negotiating with Mazen Ghanaim, former mayor of the northern Arab city of Sakhnin, and Talal al-Karnawi, former mayor of the Arab-Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev and in the past a candidate from Balad. However, both rejected what they perceived as a less than generous offer when they learned that they would not be given a realistic position in the Meretz’s list of candidates for the 23rd Knesset.
A TV survey released on Monday, hours after the Zionist left-wing Labor (and its previous an current right-wing ally Gesher) and Meretz parties agreed on a merger, indicated that the new alliance would not pay dividends at the polls, nor would it break the political stalemate that has condemned Israel to its third election within a year. In the September election Labor and Meretz received five and four seats respectively. According to the Channel 12 poll, on March 2 they are predicted to win nine seats as a merged list. In other words, no gain whatsoever.
According to this same poll, the largest party in the center-right bloc, Blue & White, did manage to widen its lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, with the survey predicting that MK Benny Gantz’s list would receive 34 seats compared to 31 for the premier’s faction.
The poll also predicts that the Joint List will maintain its current number of Knesset seats, 13. However, the Joint List is expected to be delivering far more messages aimed at the Jewish public in the coming weeks in hopes of winning 15 seats in the March elections. Channel 12 News reported on Monday that among the first steps being taken by the Joint List is the tripling of the budget allocated to attracting votes from the Jewish public. Perhaps the trigger for this move was the relegation of MK Freij from Meretz to the 11th spot on the joint Labor-Meretz slate, leaving the Joint List as the only party to have Arab candidates in realistic spots on its slate.
But then again, the alliance between Labor-Gesher and Meretz and the placing of MK Levy-Abekasis in the second spot on its list are causing quite a few Jewish voters from the left to express their dislike for the merger. Following this week’s announced merger with Meretz, Gesher’s right-wing Levy-Abekasis told Channel 12 that it was merely a “technical step required under the circumstances.” The former member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party insisted that “Labor-Gesher will continue with the same ideology it has had.” Whatever that might be.