Interview'The political left almost doesn't exist anymore'

Outgoing Labor head Michaeli: ‘I don’t have political answer’ on how to rebuild party

Exiting party chief tells ToI that Yesh Atid, National Unity cannot serve same role as old Labor party in countering Likud, blasts Netanyahu as being ‘consumed’ by self-interest

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 15, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 15, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Outgoing Labor party leader Merav Michaeli accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of causing enormous damage to the State of Israel, while admitting that she does not know how to revive the country’s weakened political left.

In an interview this week with The Times of Israel in her Knesset office a little over a month after announcing that she would soon step down as head of what was once Israel’s dominant political party, Michaeli proclaimed that “Netanyahu has managed to bring not only the State of Israel but also the Jewish people to their worst point since the Holocaust.”

Michaeli bemoaned that the prime minister “managed to crush the political power on the other side,” shifting Israeli politics to the far right in an unprecedented way, and insisted that while she does not know how to revive the country’s weakened political left, the only way for Israel to “save itself” is to “follow the Zionist democratic path.”

“The political left almost doesn’t exist anymore,” she asserted, expressing regret that the powerful “center-left, social democratic labor led by Yitzhak Rabin” had shrunk to the Knesset’s smallest faction and was no longer able to function as a counterweight to the increasingly populist and hard-right Likud.

The old dynamic in which a large center-right and a large center-left party were able to balance each other out has “been ruined for a long time already,” she continued, arguing that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s centrist National Unity and Yesh Atid parties “cannot replace” a strong Labor.

“They are not parties. They are personal political lists owned by one person with zero democracy and, I will be kind in saying, an unclear ideology if there is one at all,” she contended.

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)

After taking over the party from Amir Peretz in 2021, Michaeli managed to increase Labor’s representation in the Knesset to seven seats, but the improvement in its standing was short-lived and, under her leadership, Labor shrank to the Knesset minimum of four seats in the November 2022 election.

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

Internal discontent with Michaeli began to mount last year when Labor’s other three lawmakers decided to take steps against her with the goal of eventually pushing her out of the party.

The MKs — Gilad Kariv, Efrat Rayten and Naama Lazimi — decided to force Michaeli to obtain their agreement before making any decisions, eroding her authority as leader of the center-left party. They claimed that Michaeli had lost the remaining public legitimacy she had and was dooming the party, which led Israel for the first three decades of its existence.

“It’s very hard to come back from such a loss of public faith,” a Labor insider told The Times of Israel at the time. “The problem is that every day our situation worsens, so we have no option but to take over the leadership ourselves.”

The tension in the party could be seen during its faction meeting on Monday when Michaeli addressed reporters without any of her fellow Labor MKs in the room.

In conversations with the three lawmakers, the anger at Michaeli was palpable, including over the election campaign the previous year and the decision not to join forces with the left-wing Meretz party, which failed to enter the Knesset as a result, to the detriment of the bloc of parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Asked whether she regretted not allying herself with Meretz, Michaeli told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that while the “failure of the anti-Netanyahu bloc is indeed very distressing,” she felt that she had made “the right decision at the time” — one which had been “backed completely by the faction and by the party.”

“It’s not relevant to look back because you can’t decide from a different time period. The person who should have taken care of the bloc and made sure that all the parties do well so that we have more mandates was at the time the prime minister,” she said, referring to now Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

Labor party head Merav Michaeli (L) speaks with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at a Knesset press conference, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He failed to do so, unfortunately,” she said, echoing her earlier statements blaming the Yesh Atid chief.

Despite her public criticism of Lapid, Michaeli also took personal responsibility for her party’s flagging fortunes, announcing in early December that the party would hold an internal vote for a new leader within four months — a move which was hailed as “a necessary thing” by Labor MK Gilad Kariv.

“The question is where do we go from here,” Michaeli noted on Wednesday, asserting that “if I had the political answer now I would have continued as Labor chair.”

“That’s why I’m stepping down, so it’s now up to new forces to come on board and be able to do this,” she explained. “I’m so invested in the process of primaries now because I want it to be something that will elevate the party and allow us really to attract as many more good people that are out there and are considering [entering] politics.”

Despite announcing that she will not run in the next general election, Michaeli said she is “not even thinking” about what comes next: “I’m not the kind of person who says in five years I’ll be here, in 10 years I’ll be there,” she said.

As for her bête noire Netanyahu, Michaeli said she doesn’t expect him to learn from her example.

“All the people telling Netanyahu to take responsibility and go home is fallacious, it’s very weird. Why would he now, when he never did before?” she said. “He’s responsible for so many horrible things that happened here. What’s changed? He’s still under indictment, he is still consumed first and foremost with his own interests,” she alleged.

“He should be replaced. My staff always write ‘go home’ and I always change it. I never say go home because I don’t expect him to go home,” she added. “I always say he needs to be replaced. Replace him!”

Carrie Keller-Lynn and Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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