Political suicide of a peace-loving party

TEL AVIV — Israel’s politics is in a mess. How do I know? The party that stands most firmly for peace talks, environmentalism, liberal education, social justice, separation of religion and state, women’s rights, equality between Jewish and Arab citizens and human rights is considering dissolving itself.

The party in question, Meretz, has taken such a battering in a series of elections that the committee set up to examine its failings decided that it ought to merge with a larger party (probably the not-much-bigger Labor Party which is gradually drifting toward oblivion itself) or “brand itself” as a small niche movement. However, Labor pretty much stands for nothing any more except keeping Ehud Barak in the defense minister’s job, and calling yourself a small niche party is an acknowledgment that you don’t expect your ideas to have much influence.

Given that Meretz, whose name is an acronym forming the Hebrew word for “vitality,” stands for all the values most Westerners like (or hope) to associate with Israel, what went wrong? And what does its decline tell us about the politics that’s left over when you take out peace talks, environmentalism ... etc?

Meretz started out in 1992 as the alliance of three political parties often called leftist. In Israeli political parlance, a “leftist” is someone who believes in peace talks, environmentalism, liberal education — you get the idea. With a dozen seats, it was the third-largest party after Labor and Likud, forming a coalition with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin which secured passage of the Oslo Peace Accords.

Abrasive, controversial leaders and Palestinian suicide bombers lost Meretz some support at the next couple of elections. Still it kept its agenda in the public eye and had some successes, including the election of the first Arab woman and the first gay man to the Knesset as its representatives.

But the onset of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 signaled the beginning of the end for Meretz. The party’s response to the mailed fist Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wielded against the Palestinians was critical. That marked a shift from its earlier approach to security, which was more in line with that of the Labor Party and was by no means soft on the use of force against Palestinians.

Trouble was, just as Meretz was expressing outrage against Sharon’s invasions of the West Bank and Gaza, most Israelis wanted to hit the Palestinians hard in revenge for a slew of deadly suicide bombings and they didn’t want to be told that they weren’t being nice.

The supporters who stuck with Meretz through that long, gloomy period were angered or disillusioned in their turn just over a year ago when party leader Haim Oron flipped to support for the government’s harsh crackdown on Hamas in Gaza. The result: Meretz’s registered membership is down to 20,000 from 40,000 before the intifada, and at the elections last year it returned only three legislators in a body of 120 seats.

Who took the place of Meretz in the Knesset?

More members of right-wing parties who don’t stand for nearly the same things as Meretz, mainly when it comes to peace talks and religious affairs, and a so-called centrist party, Kadima, which is largely home to Likud Party retreads with less than savory records when it comes to Palestinian affairs. At the last election a year ago, many Meretz voters cast their ballots for Kadima simply because they thought a vote for the diminishing Meretz was a waste.

The party committee suggested Meretz messed up at last year’s elections by giving the top spots on its electoral list to men of European Jewish background (read, the people most considered to be elite and out of touch). No woman, Arab or Jew of Middle Eastern or North African background had a reasonable chance of making it into the Knesset, thus making the party seem — you guessed it — elitist and out of touch.

Meretz leader Oron’s response this week was to say he’d look for a bigger party or movement with which Meretz might join. That’s a long fall from third-biggest party.

By the way, the third-biggest party in the Knesset today is Israel Our Home, headed by the bullish, rightist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Last month, Oron stood in the Knesset and accused the militaristic Lieberman of wanting to turn Israel into Sparta.

Perhaps Oron was suggesting that, in the Peloponesian War between the two great Greek states, he’d have been on the side of Athens, with its traditions of democracy and equality. Well, that didn’t work out too well for Athens, which surrendered in 404 B.C. Now Meretz is rolling out the white flag, too.