Assailed for left’s Knesset woes, Michaeli says she will step down as Labor chief

Party head announces leadership primary to replace her within months, plans to leave politics once Knesset term ends, without offering explanation or heads-up to fellow lawmakers

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

File - Labor Party chair MK Merav Michaeli announces that she will step down from the party leadership, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
File - Labor Party chair MK Merav Michaeli announces that she will step down from the party leadership, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In a surprise move, Labor party chief Merav Michaeli on Thursday announced plans to hand over the reins of the center-left party and resign from political life, a year after being blamed for the failure of the political left in general elections.

Michaeli did not inform the faction’s lawmakers ahead of time about her plans, nor did she offer an explanation for the decision, but she expressed hope that calling a new leadership primary would be followed by a national election next year.

“The State of Israel is currently in a major crisis. Out of this terrible rupture, Israel needs to have a new beginning, a restart. And for that to happen, elections must be held, and I am convinced that Israel will go to elections in 2024,” she said.

Michaeli told a press conference that the party would hold an internal vote for a new leader within four months, but she would not run. She will remain a Knesset member until her terms ends, when she will step away from political life for good, she said.

“I have no intention of running in the primaries for party leadership and I will not run for a place on the Labor list for the next Knesset either. I will, though, be here to do everything to hand over the steering wheel to the next leader of the party in the best way, for the good of rebuilding the party and our beloved country,” she said.

The announcement was welcomed by both fellow party members and others who have blamed Michaeli for an implosion of left-wing political strength.

Although recent polling shows a marked decrease in public support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government amid its failure to prevent Hamas’s brutal October 7 terror attack, the government could only be brought down by defections from within the coalition.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli, center, with Labor party MKs Gilad Kariv, second from right, and Naama Lazimi, left, after the results of the Labor party primaries were announced, in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Under her leadership, Labor shrank to the Knesset minimum of four seats in the November 2022 election. She has also been criticized for refusing to partner Labor with the left-wing Meretz party, which subsequently failed to make it into the Knesset last year, sapping the strength of the center-left and helping Netanyahu put together a hard-right coalition.

Since then Labor has consistently failed to cross the election threshold in periodic, though unreliable, polling.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv called Michaeli’s planned departure “a necessary thing” and said, “We need a refresh of leadership on the left,” in an interview with Army Radio shortly after her announcement.

A spokesperson for Kariv confirmed that he and fellow Labor MKs Naama Lazimi and Efrat Rayten will ask that all decisions for the next four months leading up to the newly announced Labor leadership primary be made collectively.

Earlier this year, The Times of Israel reported that party MKs had made a similar demand, threatening to go over her head, citing a crisis of faith in Michaeli’s leadership of the party.

Kariv’s spokesperson added that it is unclear who will run in the freshly announced race.

In June, Rayten said she planned to contend for the party leadership the next time elections are called, but she was mum Thursday about a possible bid.

In a statement, she thanked Michaeli for having “worked tirelessly for a just, democratic and egalitarian society,” adding that “there are not many other people in Israeli politics with strength, integrity and experience like hers, and for that I appreciate her very much.”

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