When the Israeli elections are held on March 17, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor his chief opponent, Labor party chair Isaac Herzog, will be on the ballot. Israelis vote for lists of candidates running for office, not individuals. Some small parties create joint lists to ensure that they get the minimum number of votes necessary to make it into the Knesset.
Recently, this threshold was raised from two percent to 3.25 percent, requiring enough votes to elect four Members of Knesset. It was thought by some that this change was targeting the four predominantly Arab parties, previously sitting in the Knesset with 11 MKs elected on three lists.
Lo and behold, these four parties were prompted to coalesce into a single united Arab list, projected to win 12 to 15 seats, and to possibly emerge as Israel’s third largest Knesset force, behind Likud and the so-called “Zionist Camp” (the name devised for the new joint list of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua party). But now the left-Zionist Meretz party is seen as endangered due to the rules change.
Most polls show Meretz winning between four and seven seats (it currently holds six), yet Meretz generally does better in pre-election polls than in the actual balloting. The most egregious example was in 2009, when nobody expected Meretz to plummet to three seats — probably a result of traditional Meretz voters switching to Kadima under Livni at the last minute.
I fear the same situation this year, with people thinking they are being "strategic" in voting for the new Labor-Livni list, under the mistaken impression that it’s all-important for the Zionist Camp to outpoll Likud in order to form a government headed by Herzog. It’s the overall bloc of parties that can combine to form a majority in the Knesset that is more important than which single party or list receives the most votes. In fact, President Rivlin is not even required to offer the first crack at forming a governing coalition to the list with the most votes, but rather may turn to whichever political leader is most likely to form a majority coalition.
Meretz activists must explain to their base that the importance of voting for Meretz this year is not just in supporting progressive and peace-oriented policies, but that the combined center-left camp would suffer a disastrous loss of at least three seats if too many people try to be "practical" rather than vote their truest convictions.
It’s a shame that Meretz and Hadash (one of the four predominantly Arab parties) could not find a way to run on a joint list. Although Meretz is Zionist in a fundamental way (it participates in the World Zionist Organization and endorses the need for Israel to be a secure homeland for the Jewish people), in theory there should not be a huge divide with Hadash, which is non-Zionist yet officially bi-national, endorsing the Jewish right to national self-determination in Israel. Hadash, which has some roots in Israel’s old Communist movement, has always made sure that one of its MKs was a Jew, even though about 85 percent of its votes are from Arabs. Meretz is a left-liberal, social democratic party, that always runs an Arab high on its list, and supports full civic equality for Israel's Arab citizens.
The two parties generally agree on working toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians living beyond Israel's pre-'67 boundaries. They could have run together as a strong voice for Israel as a uniquely shared Jewish-Arab society, an oasis in a Middle East that is increasingly torn apart by violence and intolerance.
Of course, the other way to go might have been a broader united center-left list, with Meretz joining with Labor, Livni and Lapid. But this would have compromised Labor’s efforts in recent years to portray itself as more centrist — as many, if not most, Israelis believe that elections are won in a somewhat mythic and amorphous center of the political spectrum.
Meretz, on the other hand, has gone against this tide, running proudly as its lime-green tee shirts proclaim, as “The Left of Israel.” If “the Left” is left out under the new electoral law, however, the center will also suffer, as the right returns to power.
Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is currently administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.