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Israel’s Left Realigns

Israeli media is apoplectically busy with the possible emergence of a new lefty political front. The Meretz Party is reportedly discussing the establishment of such a thing with two prospective groups of candidates. One is active Labor defectors, like former General and MK Ami Ayalon and former Minister MK Ophir Pines. The other is former Labor leaders, like ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, ex-Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, and others. Novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman are also expected to support the party, but will not be candidates for the Knesset. (Apparently, some people still believe that endorsements from renowned novelists can add to the political clout of a party.)

This reshuffling of the Israeli left can be looked at in many different ways. First and foremost, it is a vote of no confidence in Labor leader Ehud Barak, who long ago ceased to exist as a real leader of the Israeli left wing. If this scheme is to be successful–and time is running out, as Sunday will be the last day in which names of prospective candidates should be submitted to the election committee–Barak will not only face a deadly challenge from the center (Kadima and Tzipi Livni), but also one from the Left (Meretz on steroids).

However, political maneuvering is only one half of the story, and not even the most interesting half. What this new front on the Left is counting on is the existence of a pool of voters who’d like to see a more dovish Israeli government, but have nowhere else to go. They think that if only the right people would join the ticket, Israelis would suddenly see the light and decide to trust policies they’ve rejected long ago. In that respect, what the Left is trying to do here is to gamble on the superficiality of its own voters. They believe that liberal, sophisticated, educated, knowledgeable, articulate voters are no less prone to being swayed by celebrity than less-sophisticated voters.

Will this work? We will have to wait for polls (and election results) before we know the answer. But it didn’t quite work in 2002, when two political “stars”–Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan– joined Meretz, winning with the party a meager 6 seats. In 2006, it was down to 5. Meretz is still fairly unpopular. As late as 2007 it was looking for solutions. “Unlike its fellow opposition parties,” wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz, “Meretz has not flourished. It had hoped that the election of Barak–with his hard-edged, right-wing image–as Labor chairman would help. Nor has Labor’s participation in the government brought Meretz more votes.”

And an alleged solution has been found: more “stars.” Recent polls show that Meretz has a better chance now of increasing its number of Knesset members. But that is not because of the new people. It’s because the Labor Party is getting weaker by the day. The Likud Party is leading in the polls, and that’s why so many new recruits are pouring in. Meretz shows some signs of life, and suddenly former Ministers are asking to join.

In short, it is not that the stars help the voters decide. The voters make the stars want to join the better-positioned ticket.



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