Israel’s political bellwether?


Israel’s small leftwing Meretz party has been cheating oblivion since the beginning of this century. With its derisive reputation as made up of leftist, secular, Ashkenazi Tel Aviv elites, the party has not been able to get traction for its liberal and dovish platform favoring a two-state solution, LGBTQ rights, social equality and opposition to religious coercion. Meretz has five seats in the Knesset. It hasn’t been part of a governing coalition since Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister in the early 1990s.

Last week an earthquake hit the party. Its chairwoman and its No. 2, both in their 60s, dropped out of the running for party leadership in a March 22 primary. This makes way for a generational change in the party and, perhaps, a change in approach. The frontrunner is MK Tamar Zandberg, 41, but there are other young contenders, including Avi Buskilia, 42, who during his short tenure as head of the Peace Now movement, tried to forge a dovish argument that would ring true to Israel’s Mizrachi majority.

Elsewhere, the Labor Party, Israel’s legacy center-left party, last year picked an unlikely leader in Avi Gabbay, a millionaire businessman who helped found the centrist Kulanu party. In the next election, which the parties are planning for as if it is imminent, Gabbay will be competing against former journalist Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid for the position of prime minister.

And who will eventually follow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead Likud, Israel’s legacy rightwing party? With scandals swirling around him, Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor, has groomed no young leaders as did David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres — all from different parties, but who cultivated successors when their hold on the premiership waned. Still, despite accusations and investigations, polls show Netanyahu would be returned as prime minister if elections were held now.

Netanyahu has survived because he has wedded the Likud to the growing ultranationalist and haredi Orthodox parties that champion a kind of ethnic and religious tribalism. Their growth and the shrinking of the secular Zionism of the state’s founders is explored by political theorist Michael Walzer in “The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions.” Israel’s founders, Walzer suggests, were not able to create a Zionist Israeli culture with deep enough roots to reproduce for more than a generation or two. As in other countries founded by liberationists, the vacuum has been filled by religious revivalists.

This may help explain the near disappearance of Israel’s left. But it doesn’t predict what will come next. Most Israelis are neither fully secular nor haredi. They want peace and economic opportunity. With a new leadership and new approach, Meretz may be in a position to test how willing Israelis are to vote for a party touting social equality, accommodation with the Palestinians and freedom of religion. Then again, they may remain in the political wilderness. When a vote comes, it will be interesting to watch.

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