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Beilin Floats Proposal to Merge Labor with Meretz

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The ideological divisions within the Labor Party have come to the fore this week. A proposal to merge Labor with the left-wing Meretz party collided with an almost simultaneous critique by 14 Labor Party Knesset members who claimed the government has drifted too far to the left.

The revolutionary proposal by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin to fuse Labor and Meretz into an “Israeli Democratic Party” brought down a welter of criticism on the ambitious 44-year-old.

But the idea, floated by Beilin early this week, is not likely to disappear. Political observers here expect it to surface again, in one form or another, in the months and years ahead, as Israeli politics move away from their long-set mold in which a socialist Labor Party perennially vies against a hawkish Likud bloc.

Many observers see this month’s Histadrut election upset, in which Labor renegade Haim Ramon beat his former party for the leadership of the powerful trade union, as the first major step toward new constellations in Israeli politics.

Ramon ran for secretary-general at the head of a list comprising Meretz, his own followers from Labor and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party. Many Likud supporters in the Histadrut voted for Ramon’s list.

Beilin, launching his scheme amid the comfortable surroundings of his own circle of supporters within the Labor Party, argued that there is little by way of ideology or political outlook separating Labor and Meretz today.

CENTRISTS REACT VEHEMENTLY

The Labor-led government’s peace policy has been everything that its junior Meretz partners had hoped for, and more, Beilin noted pointedly.

Meretz campaigned in 1992 on a platform of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This is precisely what the Labor premier, Yitzhak Rabin, has brought about.

Centrist elements of the Labor Party reacted vehemently, arguing that if Labor and Meretz have become indistinguishable, the answer is not a merger but for Labor to reassert its own course.

Knesset Member Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, contended that the peace offensive has led to an undue strengthening of the dovish wing of Labor, at the expense of the more centrist forces in the party.

Beilin’s proposal is a reflection of that trend, he said. Orr is expected to put forward his candidacy for a ministerial appointment if Shas rejoins the coalition; so, too, is Beilin.

An indirect response along these lines came from 14 Labor Knesset members who participated in a founding meeting of a new non-partisan grouping in the Knesset on Tuesday.

Calling themselves “The Third Way,” they criticized the government for veering too far to the left, and called for the inclusion of more coalition partners to balance Meretz on the right, such as the right-wing Tsomet party or the United Torah Judaism party.

Among the Labor participants were Economic Minister Shimon Shetreet, and Knesset member Avigdor Kahalani, who heads the Knesset’s Golan lobby. Also present at the meeting were members of the Religious Kibbutz Movement and Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who heads the religious pro-peace Meimad movement.

Kahalani expressed concern that Rabin would move to the left in order to reach an agreement with Syria before the elections.

And, regarding Beilin’s proposal, he said that “if someone wants to merge with Meretz, let him join them.”

Beilin’s ideological opponents are not the only ones casting doubts on the wisdom of his proposal. Beilin ran into opposition even from among his close friends.

And Beilin’s proposed match seemed to leave the prospective bride, Meretz, fairly frigid too.

Minister for Environment Yossi Sarid, the No. 2 figure in the Citizens Rights Movement component of the Meretz bloc and a likely future head of Meretz, said Meretz itself was engrossed at this time in the task of melding its three constituent elements into a single party. It was not an opportune time, therefore, to open a debate on a possible fusion with Labor.

Despite the lack of immediate endorsement for the Beilin plan, however, pundits are not dismissing it.

Beilin has long been close to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and is drawing steadily closer to Rabin. He would hardly have floated an idea like this if he had had reason to believe the two party elders were flat against it.

Moreover, by drawing the explicit analogy with the U.S. Democratic Party, Beilin deliberately sought to make his “Israeli Democratic Party” an attractive proposition in the eyes of supporters of the Israeli peace camp among Jews and other friends of Israel in the United States.

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