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Interview'Policy won't change in the way American progressives hope'

Allied with the right, Labor’s Michaeli insists she’s keeping peace hopes alive

Transportation minister says she won’t okay West Bank projects that harm 2-state solution, and her ties with US progressives will be critical to rebuilding bilateral relationship

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli leads a Labor party faction meeting at the Knesset on October 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli leads a Labor party faction meeting at the Knesset on October 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While the six-month-old Israeli coalition comprises parties than span the political spectrum, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, head of the center-left Labor party, emphatically characterized the government as “right-wing” and explained that her party’s main role in it is to resist efforts by other members to take steps that could imperil a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview Tuesday with The Times of Israel at the Labor party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Michaeli explained that she did not make the decision to join the coalition lightly. “I knew it was going to be a right-wing government… because a big part of it is right-wing,” she said, adding that Israeli governments have trended right for so long that it would be difficult to alter course.

“But I see my most important job in this government as making sure that the prospect for a future solution on the ground is maintained,” she added.

Labor is one of eight parties in the 61-member coalition (out of 120 legislators) that was sworn in on June 13. It is headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, though his right-wing Yamina party has just seven seats. Also on that side of the spectrum are the New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu parties with six and seven MKs each. In the center is Blue and White (8 seats) along with Yesh Atid (17 seats), whose leader Yair Lapid is scheduled to rotate in as premier in August 2023. To the left is Michaeli’s seven-seat Labor followed by the more dovish Meretz with its six seats. The last party in the motley coalition is the Islamist Ra’am party, which generally takes a pro-Palestinian view on the conflict but entered the government vowing to focus primarily on ensuring much-needed aid and services to Israel’s long-neglected Arab minority.

The narrowness of the coalition gives effective veto power to all parties on larger diplomatic initiatives and Bennett — a long-time supporter of the settlement movement — says it means the government will neither annex territory in the West Bank nor freeze Israeli construction there.

But the premier has refused to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the government green-lit plans for roughly 3,000 Israeli homes in West Bank settlements in October — figures on par with those seen during the Trump administration, which took significant steps to normalize Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Construction work in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on October 28, 2021 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The office that directly oversees settlement approvals is in the Defense Ministry, headed by Benny Gantz. On the one hand, the Blue and White chairman has met with Abbas and supports strengthening the PA, but he has also taken steps that angered many two-state supporters, including blacklisting six Palestinian human rights organizations for alleged terror ties. His office also said earlier this month that all settlements “have a right to exist,” regardless of how deep into the West Bank they are located.

Michaeli, who has been one of Gantz’s most vocal critics in the government, explained she is focusing on matters where she can exert influence more directly.

“My authority is on transportation,” the Labor chair said, adding that she will be careful regarding the West Bank infrastructure projects her office authorizes.

“Everything that will serve a future solution [to the conflict with the Palestinians], I will build. Everything that is endangering a future solution in any way, I will not,” in what appeared to be her first public comments on the matter as transportation minister.

Given the dynamics of the government and the prominence of the settler lobby, though, Michaeli acknowledged that she won’t be able to “freeze… whatever I want to freeze.”

“You also need to do it wisely because I don’t want to fight over this. Fighting may be good politically, but it will achieve the opposite because I cannot win,” she said.

(L-R) Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, Labor head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of the heads of the would-be-coalition in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2021. (Ra’anan Cohen)

“But this is where the relationship with the US people, the ambassador and everyone else [comes into play],” Michaeli said. “I’m fighting for these issues from inside the government, and it’s important to hear the voice of this [US] administration as well.”

The Biden administration issued a blistering critique of Israel’s October settlement approvals and regularly raises the issue, along with its support for a two-state solution, in meetings with Israeli officials. But Michaeli noted that Washington’s priorities are elsewhere, which has led to a deemphasizing of its disagreements with Jerusalem to focus on other matters, namely its competition with China.

The Labor leader said the new Israeli government stood to gain from this reality because it is “much more attentive” to US concerns regarding Jerusalem’s expanding economic ties with Beijing than previous governments under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been.

She said that her office in particular is much more “sensitive” to Washington’s position when weighing bids from Chinese companies in Israel.

Michaeli went on to highlight a tectonic shift that has taken place in the way the new Israeli government approaches its relationship with the US more broadly.

“It is interested in a relationship with the United States of America, not with the Republican Party,” she said, arguing that Netanyahu neglected ties with Democrats and that the new coalition’s goal was to rebuild bipartisan support for Israel.

“There is also genuine respect for this president and for this administration, as much as there [might be] big differences,” Michaeli continued.

Still, the Labor party chairman pointed to a significant rupture that expanded in recent years between Israel and American progressives, arguing that it will take significant time and effort to mend and that it extends well beyond improving ties with the administration in Washington.

Michaeli, a former journalist, said she is uniquely suited for the task, though, pointing to longstanding ties with progressive leaders in the US that were established well before she entered politics a decade ago.

The Labor leader pointed to a recent meeting she held in Washington with American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president Elizabeth Shuler, as well as contacts with progressive Democrats such as Reps. Barbara Lee and Jamaal Bowman.

Before the new government arose, the Labor leader said she would try and assure the likeminded abroad that “Israel is not Netanyahu.”

“Now people know that Israel is not Netanyahu because he is not the prime minister [anymore]. But Netanyahu-ism is still around, and [now I try to convey that] Israel is not Netanyahu-ism [either],” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal . (AP/Andrew Harnik)

She acknowledged that Israeli policy would not soon be changing “in the way progressives hope.” Still, she said, “it will be important to continue emphasizing there is still a majority that supports the two-state solution and that there’s still a big part — even in politics — that supports the two-state solution and the end of occupation.”

The mindset, Michaeli said, is part of her effort to rebuild Labor to once again become the ruling party of the center-left camp in Israel.

“I’m placing a lot of emphasis on foreign affairs and security matters, which were neglected for a long time in the party,” the Labor chairwoman said, clarifying that she seeks to be strategic about the manner in which she weighs in on the issues.

“Like in the cabinet for instance. I’m very loud in cabinet [meetings], but outside there’s no point in having the argument right now,” Michaeli added.

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