Israel's Zehava Galon: A Voice in the Political Wilderness

Some see her as just the brave leader the Israeli left needs at this time: a bold voice for peace, human rights, and social justice, who is nudging the only democracy in the Middle East in a more enlightened direction. Others view her as a self-hating rabble-rouser who, at best, is detached from the harsh realities of the Middle East and, at worst, is a collaborator with the enemy. She is loved. She is despised. She inspires hope. She arouses revulsion. Perhaps the only emotion she does not evoke is indifference. She is MK Zehava Galon, the leader of the unabashedly left-wing Meretz party.

Galon is the only current leader of a Zionist political party that is pushing for ending Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and establishing an independent Palestinian state that would live side-by-side with Israel. For many years, it was the more mainstream center-left Labor and the now-defunct Kadima parties that took the lead in pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. However, this week, the head of the opposition, Labor's Isaac Herzog, echoed a sentiment more typically heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man he seeks to replace: a two-state solution is not realistic in the current reality.

Herzog and his centrist rival, Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, are talking about the need to politically separate Israel from the Palestinians. Galon and her Meretz party colleagues are alone among Zionist parties, however, in advocating an end to the occupation. (The Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab lawmakers, regularly calls for an end to the occupation but as a non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist party, it has little impact on public opinion among Jewish Israelis.)

Galon is a protégé of the late Shulamit Aloni, who led Meretz during its heyday when the party, having won twelve seats in the 1992 elections, joined Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led government and helped usher in a new era of hope. Like her mentor, Galon is an outspoken critic of Israel's occupation and a passionate voice for peace, separation of religion and state, and minorities' rights. In today's more religious, nationalistic, and conservative atmosphere, her liberalism - in particular, her defense of controversial civil society groups, Arab rights, and peace diplomacy with the Palestinians - seems almost anachronistic.

Galon took over Meretz during its nadir, doubling its Knesset representation in the 2013 elections from three to six seats. In last year's elections she maintained the party's strength in terms of the number of votes it received but, because the electoral threshold had been raised from two percent to 3.25 percent, Meretz was left with only five seats in the Knesset.

Meretz is regularly lauded by Knesset observers and extra-parliamentary groups for a record of legislative accomplishment disproportionate to the party's representation in the Knesset. Its legislators are known for their diligence, first-rate constituent service, and a squeaky-clean image, free of the corruption and sex scandals that have dogged other parties. In 2013, then-Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz was the recipient of the Israel Democracy Institute's Outstanding Parliamentarian Award. That year, The Public Knowledge Workshop (Hasadna) determined that three Meretz MKs were responsible for over a third of all proposed laws.

Other Knesset watchdog organizations, such as Open Knesset and The Social Guard, have similarly highlighted the party's contributions to Israeli democracy. In the last Knesset, Meretz received the highest "Social Index" score (followed by the Labor Party) by The Social Guard, which scrutinizes MKs' votes on hundreds of socio-economic bills.

Meretz is also distinguished by a strong activist streak. Aside from their parliamentary duties, its five MKs can be seen regularly at left-wing demonstrations, large and small, rain or shine. Like many other Israeli politicians, they also have an active presence on social media, particularly Facebook, where they recently have addressed their fight against the "NGO Transparency bill," which they regard as just the latest manifestation of an anti-democratic wave in Israel.

Yet, their accolades are overshadowed by their reputation as a niche party composed primarily of upper class Ashkenazi Jews that caters to the yuppies and intellectuals of Northern Tel Aviv.

I recently sat down with Galon for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from legislation aimed at silencing NGOs critical of Israeli policies to her thoughts concerning her political rivals to the sorry state of the Israeli left. As if to emphasize the gulf between Meretz and the public, Galon made it clear that working to end the occupation is far and away her party's top priority. In a sign of Israel's rightward shift, the very word "occupation" has long been removed from the national conversation. Yet a decade ago, even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - no leftist like Galon - talked to his Likud colleagues about the need to end the occupation.

Whether Meretz will survive the next elections is anyone's guess. What is certain is that, with Galon at its helm, the party that literally means "vigor" has no intention of slowing down, let alone giving up.

Excerpts from my interview:

On the direction in which Israel is headed:

We are nearing the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the territories, and it is clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not interested in reaching a diplomatic solution and in ending the occupation. It's convenient for him to 'manage the conflict.' It benefits his coalitional needs. It worries me that there is no diplomatic horizon. Moreover, the nearly fifty-year occupation has implications in two directions: Israel's foreign relations and international standing on the one hand and the impact of the occupation on Israeli democracy on the other hand. The latter is dramatic. The more distant the chances of a resolution become, the more it impacts the democratic fabric of Israeli society as well as the rights of minorities. We see it, in particular, with the initiatives against Israeli civil society organizations that are critical of the occupation. Rather than enacting legislation that will protect human rights and minority rights, the Knesset enacts legislation that harms minorities. The world, in the meanwhile, is becoming less and less tolerant toward Israeli policy, the policy of the occupation.

On the link between the occupation and social justice:

Several months ago, I attended a meeting with high school students. When I mentioned the occupation, they asked: 'What occupation?' They didn't say it with cynicism. They're used to this situation. In addition to the occupation's implications for Israel's foreign relations and for Israeli democracy, we see very significant implications for social justice. A popular notion - but a mistaken one - is that given that there's no chance at the moment to reach a negotiated resolution, we should focus now on social issues instead. Yet, these issues are connected. What is a just society? It's a society that doesn't harm the rights of minorities, one that isn't corrupt, and also one that does not rule over another people. I'm not only speaking about the economic pumps for the settlements that reinforce the occupation. I'm speaking about the more general idea that we cannot speak of justice without speaking about freedom. Israeli society today is not making this connection.

On Netanyahu's stated support for a two-state solution:

I did not believe him then [at Bar-Ilan University, where Netanyahu publicly endorsed a Palestinian state, in June 2009], nor do I believe him today. He's paying lip service, no question about it. Netanyahu is a hostage of the far-right. What interests him is [political] survival. When he talks about a two-state solution, he doesn't mean what I mean by it. Netanyahu is referring to a Bantustan [rather than a sovereign] state. You can't continue to build settlements and say you support two states. All of his actions on the ground prove that he does not believe in a two-state solution.

On Mahmoud Abbas as a peace partner:

Abu Mazen [Abbas] is the best partner Israel can have. The problem is that he is eighty and not getting younger. Without achievements, his legitimacy within Fatah continues to decline. I think Netanyahu has missed opportunities to make a deal with him. If the Palestinian Authority collapses, it will be a catastrophe for the Palestinians and for Israel.

On the ex-generals' support for peace diplomacy with the Palestinians:

Netanyahu's incitement is stronger than any logical, rational, or security-oriented argument. Thus, even though the generals speak up in support of territorial withdrawal, they are not able to respond in a way that can overcome the [government led] incitement.

On Meretz's poor showing at the polls:

As it turns out, voting is much more complex than admiration for, or identification with, a particular party. Meretz voters tend to make strategic considerations when voting. When, in 2009, Tzipi Livni was seen as likely to replace Bibi [Netanyahu], they went with her and Meretz dropped to three mandates. When I led Meretz in the 2013 elections, Shelly Yachimovich led the Labor Party. She was not seen as a candidate who could defeat Bibi, so voters voted their conscience. [Meretz doubled its mandates.] In 2015, polls showed us getting ten seats, but when voters concluded that Bouji [Herzog] and Tzipi [Livni] could replace Bibi, they made a strategic decision [to vote for the Zionist Union]. Then there is the matter of incitement against the left, which leads people to be afraid to define themselves as leftists.

On the prospect of replacing Netanyahu:

Meretz can't do it alone. Cooperation and the formation of a united front can turn the situation around, but Bouji doesn't want to define his party as leftist and is afraid of his own shadow. Yair Lapid runs away from the left and delegitimizes it. He also sees himself as a candidate for prime minister. So we are alone.

On the U.S. Role:

Without significant pressure, particularly from the Americans, it will be very difficult here. I would like the next administration to be tough on Netanyahu and his policies.