Familiar faces in Israel resign

JERUSALEM, Jan. 29 (JTA) — Israel’s elections this week ushered some new faces onto the country’s political scene, but may have spelled the end for some old ones. After their parties fared poorly in Tuesday’s elections, the leaders of the left-wing Meretz Party and immigrant-rights party Yisrael Ba’Aliyah announced they were stepping down. Yisrael Ba’Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky said he was resigning from the Knesset after the party dropped from four seats to two. Sharansky said he was taking the step so that the party’s No. 3 candidate, Marina Solodkin, could serve. But he said he intended to remain as party leader, working to broaden the party’s support base beyond immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “It is clear to me that in light of the election results, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah must look for a new future” and “broaden the target audience the party appeals to in the future,” Sharansky told party members Wednesday. Yisrael Ba’Aliyah hit the political scene with great fanfare in 1996, winning seven seats and presumably presaging the immense political power of Russian immigrants. The party soon fractured, however. Sharansky, who became internationally famous as a “Prisoner of Zion” in the Soviet Union, said Yisrael Ba’Aliyah had played a historic role in integrating immigrants into Israeli society. Indeed, some suggested that the party had done such a good job that former supporters had voted this time for “native” parties like the Likud. Another factor in the party’s demise was low turnout among immigrant voters. Others may have felt disappointed by Sharansky, who was perceived to have not fought hard enough for certain issues that mattered deeply to immigrants, such as civil marriage and relaxation of Sabbath laws. In Meretz, Yossi Sarid announced Wednesday that he would resign as party leader after Meretz dropped from 10 seats in the current Knesset to six. Faction members asked Sarid to retract his decision, but he refused. Speaking to supporters in Tel Aviv shortly after exit polls were released Tuesday night, Sarid said the results were disappointing, and he had to take personal responsibility for the party’s disappointing performance. Sarid said he would step aside to enable the party to choose a new leader, but it wasn’t clear if he intended to give up his Knesset seat as well. Sarid’s son, Yishai, told Army Radio that his father had no intention of retiring from politics entirely. “He wouldn’t give his foes the pleasure,” Yishai Sarid said. Sarid, 65, has been a Knesset member since 1974. He served for 10 years in Labor before joining Meretz in 1984. His performance as Environment Minister and Education Minister in Labor-led governments during the 1990s won wide praise. While Meretz members had considered the possibility of losing a seat or two in the current election, they were shocked by the extent of their losses. Meretz legislator Zehava Galon said the entire left wing bore responsibility for Meretz’s poor showing — including the Labor Party, which was part of the Likud-led unity government for most of the past two years. There also were reported rumblings of discontent in the National Religious Party, whose new leader, Effi Eitam, failed to draw additional Knesset seats to the party. The NRP had hoped to approach 10 mandates, but instead held steady at five. Party sources were quoted as blaming Eitam, who proved wildly controversial in his first Cabinet post, for the showing. “I am calling for soul-searching and drawing of some conclusions over the direction of the NRP,” legislator Zevulun Orlev told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “The true potential of the national religious camp is nine to 12 mandates. We have to bring it about to real results at the ballot box. We did not succeed and we have to put our house in order.”

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