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InterviewHer goal? 'Revive Labor as a place that can be believed in'

Back from the brink? Merav Michaeli has two months to save the Labor Party

Labor’s dwindling membership decided this week it would rather be led, after all, by the one MK who didn’t break her promises. Now she has to win back a wider electorate… fast

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party (Courtesy)
Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party (Courtesy)

On Sunday, Merav Michaeli, the only one of Labor’s three MKs in the outgoing Knesset who opposed joining the Netanyahu government in spring 2020, was overwhelmingly elected her party’s new leader. Overwhelmingly elected, that is, in a vote in which fewer than 10,000 Labor members bothered to participate; overwhelmingly elected by a party whose entire membership numbers fewer than 40,000.

The party Michaeli now leads governed Israel under one name or another for the first 30 years of modern statehood. As recently as 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin came to power, it won 44 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. But at least until Sunday, it was universally assumed to be finished.

Labor had been gradually but inexorably reduced since the assassination of Rabin, marginalized by the collapse of mainstream Israeli confidence in the possibility of peacemaking with the Palestinians, and helped toward oblivion by the campaign mastery of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of its historic rival Likud. Its apparently unstoppable demise was expedited by a rapid turnover of increasingly inappropriate, inept and even duplicitous leaders, with the apparent death blow delivered when Amir Peretz chose to betray his own and Labor’s electoral pledge and partner with Netanyahu in the short-lived outgoing coalition.

As of Sunday, however, its wipeout in the March 23, 2021, election has been amended from “universally assumed” to “just possibly avoidable” — partly on the strength of a manifestly unreliable snap (internet) poll by Channel 13 that predicted Labor might scrape into the Knesset after all, and largely on the strength of Michaeli’s victory.

An MK since 2012, Michaeli, 54, was widely described in recent months as the “maverick” who sought in vain to prevent Peretz leading Labor into the last government, and subsequently became a bizarre sort of one-woman opposition to the coalition from within. Her victory on Sunday, however, represents her vindication, and suggests that the dwindled band of Labor loyalists believes the party might best be served, after all, by a woman who sticks to her principles and espouses its Rabinesque peace-with-security policies, its emphasis on social justice, and the equal weighting of Israel’s foundational Jewish and democratic essentials. (This is as opposed to a man who shaved off his mustache so Labor voters could “read my lips” when he swore he would never partner with Netanyahu.)

Labor party chair Amir Peretz (right) and MK Merav Michaeli at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Writing about and interviewing her last year, Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur noted Michaeli’s feminist activism, her pre-political career in journalism, her family history, and her “clear and often ruthlessly blunt” responses to questions. That straight, frank-speaking style was reliably present when The Times of Israel spoke to her on Tuesday morning, at the start of her second full day in the job. Indeed, the insistence on plain speaking, reflecting deeply held beliefs she fully intends to maintain, is central to the task ahead: the short-term salvation of Labor and its long-haul reconstruction as a potent political force.

Michaeli is adamant that Labor can be resuscitated. “When people see that they can put their faith in something, they come, and my goal is to revive Labor as a place that can be believed in,” she says.

She’s adamant that there’s a great mass of Israelis who support pluralism, equality, religious freedom and even a two-state solution, who had nobody to vote for, but who will now have Labor again.

And while she won’t, indeed can’t, say whom Labor might merge with before the elections or serve with after them, she is adamant, too, that Netanyahu is “obviously a red line.” One rather tends to believe her.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our (Hebrew) interview.

The Times of Israel: You have two months to save the Labor Party. What’s your realistic goal? What can be achieved?

Merav Michaeli: The first priority is to get the party on its feet — so that it’s reliably clearing the Knesset threshold in the polls. The worst thing was that the party was in a situation where everybody assumed it was finished. So first we have to restore the certainty that Labor exists, that it is not finished.

There was a snap poll on Sunday that showed Labor clearing the threshold, but does Labor have its own data?

I only started in the job yesterday. The party is not in a very good situation, organizationally or financially. I haven’t been able to do any surveys. We will in the next few days.

I’m trying not to say anything arrogant. I don’t want to make wild promises. But when people see that they can put their faith in something, they come, and my goal is to revive Labor as a place that can be believed in. People are thirsty for this

But there’s this norm where the surveys are seen to determine the reality. Well, we’ll change the reality, and that’s what will change Labor’s fortunes.

There are some things that I truly know. I’m out and about. I know what the public is looking for. There’s a huge, outrageous gulf between what the Israeli public wants, needs, cares about and between its political representation. In terms of ideology, the ideals of the center-left have triumphed, even in Israel. If you look at the research by places like the Israel Democracy Institute, as opposed to political representation, the public believes in pluralism, supports equality, religious freedoms. There’s even a majority, a small one, that’s for a two-state solution. And there’s nothing in politics that represents all this.

So, I’m saying let’s restore Labor as the party that represents all this, to build on the party’s foundation and update it. That’s what I’m pouring myself into doing. I’m trying not to say anything arrogant. I don’t want to make wild promises. But I think if I work at it, there’ll be dividends. I’ve many times been in situations that appeared hopeless, but determination and genuineness prevail. When people see that they can put their faith in something, they come, and my goal is to revive Labor as a place that can be believed in. People are thirsty for this.

Do you feel vindication — that you tried to stop Labor from entering the coalition, that it proved as disappointing as you had predicted, and that now Labor has chosen you as its leader? Or is that irrelevant now, and the challenge is to move forward?

People left the party because it entered the coalition, and I want them to return and for new people to come. We’ll put together a Knesset slate. The party constitution allows me to choose two of the top ten on that list, but I hope not to do that. I hope a powerful Knesset slate will be chosen. It’s very important to stress that Labor’s Knesset slate will not be selected by its leader, as is the case in some other parties. The notion that you can put together a party slate with all the right pieces, as though you’re casting a reality TV show, is fundamentally mistaken.

Is there room on that list for Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, should they want to run again?

Amir Peretz said he won’t run again and I heard today that Itzik Shmuli is resigning from the Knesset and from Labor and staying on as a minister — that’s after I told them yesterday that the party is leaving the coalition.

So he’s quitting Labor rather than leaving the government?

Yes.

In principle, however, you’re not closing the party to them.

I’m not working to ensure this, but if Labor wants to survive, there is no place for them on the slate.

Labor lawmakers Itzik Shmuli (L) and Merav Michaeli at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Since Labor will plainly not be the largest party in the next Knesset, I have to ask you about possible mergers before the elections and possible coalitions you would or wouldn’t join. 

Regarding mergers, in contrast to all kinds of disinformation, I didn’t hold any discussions with anybody, directly or indirectly, before becoming Labor leader. I spoke to Ron Huldai (the Tel Aviv mayor and head of the new The Israelis party) yesterday for the first time. It was polite and we agreed that our representatives would talk. Likewise, I’ll speak to everybody who’s relevant.

My priority is to get Labor back on its feet, not to think about whom to merge with. We have to keep channels open so that votes don’t go to waste in the bloc and to see if there are constellations that maximize our political weight. But the picture is not clear. There’s a lot of pressure. It’s trendy to talk about mergers. We’ll have to see how the slate fares, what we’re likely to be able to achieve, how others are doing. It’s premature.

The parties have only got until next week to file their Knesset slates. 

I’m aware of the timetable. We’ll do what needs to be done.

And if it’s premature to talk about mergers, it’s certainly premature for me to talk about which coalitions Labor would or wouldn’t be part of. Obviously, Netanyahu’s a red line. Beyond that, in politics, as in life, you make the best choice you can at the given time.

It may be that there’ll be a possibility to oust Netanyahu and from the perspective of much of the electorate, including that part of the electorate that I represent, that’s the most important thing, so it might be necessary to be part of that. But that also depends on what the price is. I certainly don’t pledge to join a government that, in my opinion, would do terribly destructive things for the state of Israel.

I’m not making any kinds of promises. But I’ve been in politics for a long time. People know my positions and my values. People know what to expect from me. So I don’t think I need to be specific [when so much is unclear]. Politics is endlessly awash with speculation. People talk with certainty about things that are completely up in the air.

We’ll move ahead with our values. We’ll do the most that we can when the time comes. What’s important is that we have as much power as possible to use for the good.

Are you even prepared to say that Labor will run for these elections rather than as, say, the second party in a merged slate.

No, not even that. Why would that be good to say right now? What I say specifically is that my priority is to strengthen Labor, to make it a significant force when it comes to mergers. That’s where I have to succeed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and MK Merav Michaeli, right, attend a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan at the Knesset, on November 11, 2019. (Flash90)

Why the obvious red line on Netanyahu? Hasn’t he kept the country safe? It’s by no means certain that he’ll be convicted of corruption. Maybe he’s not the worst thing?

I beg to differ.

I don’t know if he’ll be convicted. That’s not the point. As soon as he was indicted, he ought to have stepped aside, and not mortgaged the entire state for his legal battles, because that’s what makes him particularly dangerous.

Every day that passes without a border between Israel and a Palestinian state is a day that deepens the threat to Israel’s future

But I also beg to differ when it comes to external threats. Iran is much stronger today in terms of its danger to Israel than it was when he first began to warn about it. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon, it’s closer to our borders. He didn’t stave off the threat. In his claim to fame — the facing down of Iran — he failed. An abject failure. This gets no attention because he’s a brilliant campaigner and others don’t highlight it. The Iranian threat, which is the most significant military threat to Israel, has become graver since he came to power. It’s a gigantic failure, precisely because it’s his banner policy.

Hezbollah has also gotten stronger.

And most dramatically, there’s the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Every day that passes without a border between Israel and a Palestinian state is a day that deepens the threat to Israel’s future. Israel has already strayed from the Zionist vision. The question is: Can Israel survive as the Jewish state, as the home for the Jewish people, where the Jewish majority determines its fate, with full equality for all Israel’s citizens, or not?

And in this connection too, the situation has only worsened in the Netanyahu era. Resolution of the conflict has gotten harder. Netanyahu has bolstered Hamas, with far-reaching consequences. In essence, he has recognized it, negotiated with it. This conception of Netanyahu as good for security is simply erroneous.

Internally, Netanyahu doesn’t run the country. All he has done since he was elected is campaign.

Our public sector has been weakened, corrupted, its standards lowered. Most of the people who work in the public sector are driven by a laudable sense of mission, but he has increasingly introduced the prioritizing of loyalty to him over excellence.

There is also no long-term strategic planning for the State of Israel. Not in health, not in education, not in transportation, not regarding innovation, not in environment. An example: they’ve just committed to clean energy for the future, but at the same time they’re still building new non-renewable energy projects to the tune of billions. Another example: there was an Israel Space Agency project to ensure that Israel maintained the global lead it had in developing satellites. We were a world power, with all kinds of benefits for scientific development, and security benefits, of course. This program was never adopted and nor was any alternative. And so Israel has fallen back globally in this field.

US President Donald Trump pictured with key participants from the US, Israel, Bahrain and the UAE in the Abraham Accords ceremony at the White House on September 15, 2020 (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

And yet, he signed a series of normalization deals, the Israeli economy is strong, innovation is extraordinary.

No. Our economy is the worst in the OECD in terms of inequalities. I’m sorry, but it’s not a good economy when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, when fewer and fewer people can support themselves and provide for their families, when they have no financial security. That’s not a good economy, and nobody will convince me to the contrary. The absence of financial security is the major enabler of populism.

As for the normalization agreements, I voted to support them, but they’re not thanks to Netanyahu. They’re thanks to Donald Trump. There’s much to condemn Donald Trump for, but he brought those deals. And by the way, from the first day that Trump promised the deal of the century (with the Palestinians), I said, by all means. Bring it on. He didn’t manage that. He brought these deals; fine. I voted for them.

But let’s not forget: In 2002, the Arab League Initiative was presented to Israel. About 20 years ago, all those states came to Israel and proposed full normalization in return for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with an agreed-upon solution for the refugees and for Jerusalem.

Is that initiative, in that form, acceptable to you?

Not in that form. It needs to serve as the basis for negotiation. It still needs to serve as the basis for negotiation. These normalization deals are better late than never, but instead of using them as leverage to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is Israel’s number one interest, Netanyahu uses them to ostensibly prove that there is no need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No.

Everyone from Ben Gurion to Rabin was astonishing in terms of the courage of their decision-making

If Netanyahu is not fit to be prime minister and plainly you’re not going to be, who is?

An open question. I have no answer right now.

As the new leader of a party with an immense tradition, do you have a Labor leadership role model? You’re sitting in front of a painting of Ben-Gurion and a bust of Rabin.

There’s no one person who I’ve ever said I want to be like them. But I draw a lot from many people. In terms of Labor, I think everyone from Ben-Gurion to Rabin was astonishing in terms of the courage of their decision-making. Ben-Gurion, Golda [Meir] … they all made brave decisions. That’s inspiring. Rabin always struck me, as a citizen, as very real. I truly believed him. He spoke at eye level, honestly. He made necessary decisions, courageously, decisions that turned the ship around. I hope I can be an heir to that legacy of courage, to do good, not to make too many mistakes.

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