Interview'Fury, huge opposition' inside party to joining Netanyahu

1 Labor MK tries to save party that founded Israel from ‘utter self-destruction’

Bidding to arrange a vote in Labor’s Central Committee, Merav Michaeli fights to thwart leader Amir Peretz’s move to join a Netanyahu-led coalition

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli (Hadas Parush/Flash90).
Labor MK Merav Michaeli (Hadas Parush/Flash90).

“I want to congratulate the honorable Knesset speaker-designate, Benny Gantz,” Labor-Meretz MK Merav Michaeli said, her words dripping with sarcasm, from the Knesset podium last Thursday. Moments later, the Blue and White party chairman was elected to the position in a move allowing coalition negotiations to take place on him forming a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Congratulations, you and your friend Gabi Ashkenazi will become members of government under the defendant Benjamin Netanyahu. Congratulations, you’ve joined the long, long list of people who believed Netanyahu… and look at where they are today,” Michaeli continued, listing lawmakers from across the political spectrum who had been willing to enter previous Netanyahu governments only to see the Likud leader turn on them.

Sitting next to her as she spoke was her own Labor party chairman Amir Peretz, who was acting as temporary Knesset speaker for the vote due to him being the longest-serving MK. Peretz presumably already knew that he, after Gantz, would be among the next to join that list of politicians ready to put their trust in Netanyahu, or at least partner with him, having promised not to.

Less than a week later, Peretz, together with prominent Labor MK Itzik Shmuli, is now widely reported to be set to join the government being negotiated by Likud and Blue and White, with the two dovish lawmakers expected to receive the economy and welfare ministerial portfolios, respectively, if the talks pan out.

What Peretz may not have known while listening to her trash Gantz was that putting his trust in the prime minister also meant losing the support of Michaeli, his long-time political ally, and facing a last-ditch campaign led by her to prevent him from joining the unity government.

Labor paPty chair Amir Peretz (R) and MK Merav Michaeli at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“I believe in Amir. I supported him. I really do believe in him as a leader. But I think it’s a terrible mistake he’s making, and I am doing everything I can to try and persuade him against it, or to stop it,” Michaeli said in an interview with The Times of Israel Wednesday, as she actively worked to undermine Peretz and have the Labor party’s Central Committee block him from joining the mooted “emergency unity coalition” under Netanyahu.

“If Labor does join, it will be in a very, very dangerous place. It will be at risk of utter self-destruction,” she said solemnly of the once venerable center-left party which, under one name or another, led Israel at its foundation under David Ben-Gurion and for the next 30 years.

In the April 2019 election, Labor dropped from the 24 Knesset seats it received as part of the Zionist Union in 2015 to just six, the worst result in its history. In September’s rerun, running along with the Orli Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, it matched the same result. Competing in March’s election with the left-wing Meretz party as part of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz union, it managed a total of just seven seats.

But with three of those seats belonging to Meretz, which has said it will not join a Netanyahu-led government, and Levy-Abekasis having already split from the parliamentary faction (over disagreements on now-defunct plans for Blue and White to form a minority government with the support of the predominantly Arab Joint List party), Labor is left with just three MKs in the 120-seat Knesset.

And now Peretz and Shmuli are ready to join Netanyahu, leaving only Michaeli to fight for the party’s independence, and warning that this further imminent split could be the last nail in the coffin… and not just for the party.

“Labor went to three elections where our main claim was not to sit with Netanyahu,” she said.

“But this is not just about health or economic policy. [Netanyahu] is a direct danger to democracy. He has worked to take apart Israeli democracy for his own benefit, he has used the emergency situation to help himself,” the former journalist said of the government decision to close down the courts on the eve of Netanyahu’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.

“This is an existential question for the democracy of Israel,” Michaeli warned.

Heads of Labor-Gesher-Meretz Nitzan Horowitz (L) Amir Peretz (C) Orly Levy-Abekasis at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Amid Monday’s first talk of Peretz’s move, Michaeli called for an “emergency meeting” of the party’s leadership to block the reported proposal, arguing that such a radical step would require an internal Labour vote. “This is an emergency. Yet we cannot take reckless steps that would trample the glorious internal democracy of the Labor party,” she wrote in a Facebook post at the time.

Speaking on Wednesday, Michaeli said it was inconceivable that the move could go ahead without party approval.

“According to the Labor constitution, this move needs the approval of the Central Committee. So the party chair needs to hold a committee meeting and hold a vote. It’s simple,” she said, insisting that despite limits to gatherings due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the party could hold an online meeting of the some 4,000 eligible party members and vote.

According to Michaeli, Peretz has personally promised her that if he does decide to join the government, he will allow an internal vote on the legitimacy of such a step. But, with many Labor supporters unhappy with the move in light of repeated promises throughout two election campaigns not to serve under Netanyahu, he could be facing some serious opposition.

In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s speech declaring independence. (AP Photo)

“Many people in the party really, really care and are working against this. I am hearing a lot of fury within the party and unwillingness to join. The opposition from the first day was huge,” Michaeli said.

After the April 2019 election, Netanyahu offered then-Labor head Avi Gabbay the senior defense and treasury posts. Gabbay briefly considered the eleventh-hour offer, which he had vowed throughout the campaign to never entertain. However, colleagues got word of the back-door talks, and Gabbay was forced to walk away, leaving Netanyahu without a government.

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (podium) flanked by Tal Russo (right) and former Labor leader Amir Peretz (left) addresses supporters and media as the results in the general elections are announced in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019 (FLASH90)

Gabbay was subsequently ousted and replaced with Peretz, who similarly vowed not to join any government with Likud ahead of the September election. But this did not stop the premier from promising the new Labor chairman that he’d get him elected president at the expiration of Reuven Rivlin’s term in 2021.

In fact, many believed Peretz would be persuaded into joining a Netanyahu government during the campaign, leading him to shave his trademark mustache on prime-time TV last August “so the public can read my lips when I say: I will not sit with Netanyahu.” He stood by the dramatic declaration after the September vote and Netanyahu was denied another chance at forming a government.

But now, under the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak and under the cover of Blue and White joining, Peretz may need to regrow his famed facial hair.

For Michaeli, staying out of Netanyahu’s government is not just about keeping the party’s word.

“Right now there are millions of people who need a framework that can present an alternative. It’s the responsibility of the Labor party to be that,” she said. “We may be small, but politically we have a place — and an obligation — to act as an opposition.”

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