Center Field: Is the Green Movement-Meimad the little counterweight that could (help tremendously)?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-4-09

As an American historian, I instinctively dismiss third parties. In American elections they usually are spoilers. At best, they fulfill the role the historian Richard Hofstadter identified, serving as bumblebees, stinging larger parties, injecting their ideas like toxins into the system, then dying. In Israel, at best, third parties have been comets, illuminating an issue brilliantly but fleetingly, then crashing and burning. Usually, Israeli third parties are like rotten eggs, their stench creates a strong presence you cannot ignore even though most voters wish the politicians would. Yet in this desultory but critical election campaign, with three flawed candidates leading three tired political parties, third parties may once again shape Israel’s future. And one party in particular – the Green Movement-Meimad — may play a particularly constructive role.

This small but potentially transformative party has been generating surprising buzz despite the challenges of this truncated campaign. The Gaza operation deprived new parties of weeks to become better known while refocusing debate from quality of life back to security. Polls favor established parties, due to small sample sizes and younger voters’ reliance on cell phones rather than the land-lines most pollsters call. As a result, horse-race-driven reporters ignore small parties. Also, too much green is clouding Israel’s political horizon – the Green Movement-Meimad with its electoral sign “Hay” is not The Greens nor is it Alei Yarok – the Green Leaf, pro-marijuana party, nor the Green Leafers who allied with Holocaust refugees forming a party that makes Israeli politics seem like a Seinfeld parody.

Despite this color confusion, the Green Movement-Meimad has a distinct identity and has been gaining traction. Two leading environmentalists, Eran Ben-Yemeni and Professor Alon Tal, founded the Green Movement. This grassroots, quality of life party allied with Meimad – a left-leaning religious Zionist party established in 1999, led by Rabbi Michael Melchior. Meimad is a Hebrew acronym for Medinah Yehudit, Medinah Democratit, a Jewish state, a Democratic state. This powerful alliance unites religious and secular activists with an impressive track record for cleaning Israel’s environment, improving Israel’s education system, and, most important, showing Israelis that grassroots activism and traditional politics can improve their lives.

Some experts, noting that 2000 people attended the campaign launch and 12 percent of Hebrew University students participating in the recent campus vote voted Green Movement-Meimad, speculate they might yield the election’s surprise. A recent Maagar Mohot Survey Institute poll found as many as 7 percent polled saying that if they did not worry about the voting threshold for getting Knesset seats, they would likely or definitely vote Green-Meimad. The approximately 70,000 votes needed to pass the threshold are attainable. Some security-minded voters, expecting Bibi Netanyahu’s victory, even confessed they are considering the Green-Movement Meimad to pull Likud toward the center and toward quality of life concerns.

To learn more about this little engine that may succeed, I contacted my old friend Alon Tal, who is number three on the list. Full disclosure: Professor Tal and I were Young Judea Zionist Youth Movement leaders together and graduate school tennis buddies. Despite his academic credentials combining a Hebrew University law degree with a Ph.D. from Harvard’s School of Public Health, and his current job as a professor of environmental policy at Ben Gurion University, Tal is a doer. While he can wax eloquent about his green dreams for a better Israel, he focuses on what the Green Movement can accomplish if it is elected, reassuring voters that voting “Hay” will not be wasting votes but maximizing their impact. “Israel’s political system gives undue influence to small parties,” he said, responding to my third-party skepticism. “Sadly, the system has been exploited by sectoral parties that seek benefits for special interests – ultra-Orthodox, agriculture, kibbutzim, etc. We are the only small party that seeks to ‘blackmail’ the large parties for the good of the general public, especially:  access to excellent education for Israeli children; clean air and water for all; open spaces and habitat for the creatures and nature of the Holy Land.” Finessing his blunt academic analysis, he added:  “I think ‘leverage’ would be a better verb than ‘blackmail.'”

Tal believes allying with Meimad boosted the party’s chances of getting elected and, even more important, the party’s potential to make history in the next Knesset. He notes that “Rabbi Melchior, operating virtually alone as head of the Knesset’s environmental lobby, passed laws from a new Clean Air Act to the Polluter Pays Law. As head of the Knesset’s education committee, Melchior passed the revolutionary ’12 year mandatory education law.'” Melchior clearly is one of Israel’s good guys – and he knows how to get things done.

Speaking practically, Tal addressed the unfortunate color confusion with the Greens, who, he reports “are universally rejected by Israel’s environmental community. Their party leader is highly unpopular for his anti-democratic norms and bullying tactics. The new ‘Green Movement’ was a result of Israel’s environmental movement’s collective decision to provide voters with an authentic alternative with integrity, professionalism and leaders with strong records.”

American presidential elections concentrate on the one individual who will wield tremendous power. That focus, along with America’s winner-take-all elections, marginalizes third parties – although the Republican Party began as an anti-slavery third party in the 1850s. In Israel, with proportional representation and prime ministers perched on broad frequently unstable coalitions, third parties play a critical role. The correct third party can be a constructive protest vote, tempering extremes or advancing specific agendas.

Zionism has always been about making a better world not just surviving. Perhaps after this election, the Green Movement-Meimad will function as neither comet nor rotten egg but as a contrapuntal melody line in the symphony of visions shaping the next Knesset, yielding a more vibrant governmental chorus bringing harmony and security to Israel.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Montreal. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today,  his latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.