WASHINGTON — On a recent trip to the United States, Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit sought to cast himself as an up-and-coming politician who can not only revive Israel’s center-left, but also introduce a new model of economic and security policy to transform Israel’s role in the region.
Margalit, a former venture capitalist and entrepreneur who entered the political fray in 2013, has developed what he calls a “converging interests” plan, designed to enhance Israel’s economy while fortifying and extending its collaborative relationships with other Middle Eastern and Gulf states. It also includes combatting the flow of capital going into Tehran as the Iran nuclear deal is implemented.
The plan, he said, would not only reap Israel with its own set of rewards, but would realign the region in a direction more conducive to peacemaking. “It’s nice to look at the Middle East through the lens of a gun but there’s a few other lenses you could look at,” Margalit recently told The Times of Israel.
The plan’s central argument stems from his conviction that to change the trajectory of the peace process, there needs to be a new framework for looking at it. “We are not dividing the Middle East into Arabs against Jews,” he claimed. “We are dividing it into extremists and those who are willing to stand up to them.”
As chair of the Knesset’s Task Force for Economic Development in the North and South, Margalit has devised a scheme to build “hubs of innovation” throughout the Jewish state that would foster deeper connections with the Arab world.
The geographical locations include dense population centers like Jerusalem and Haifa, along with Afula, Karmiel and the Upper Galilee in the North, as well as Eilat and parts of the Western Negev in the South.
Margalit said he wants to expand on some of his own previous work that’s already in place, such as Jerusalem’s media quarter and Beersheba’s cybersecurity park. He has also proposed furthering participatory projects that would involve the reconstruction of Gaza.
Changing the peace discourse
Beyond serving Israel’s economy and cultivating regional partnerships, Margalit has argued that placing primacy on his plan would “change the discourse” in Israel around the quest to reconcile with the Palestinians.
He defended the notion that his idea does not emphasize the economic ties at the exclusion of addressing the Palestinian issue. Rather, he insisted, he wants to change the focus from being a one-on-one equation that often revolves around territorial compromises by Israel in exchange for non-violence from the Palestinians. “That’s not a big enough equation,” he said.
As opposed to the Saudi’s Arab Peace Initiative, Margalit believes the path toward progress entails a new regional paradigm in which each state collaborates on their shared interest of countering the growing extremist threat by creating an economic model that marginalizes nefarious non-state actors.
That is one reason why he wants to nix language like “Israeli-Arab cooperative efforts,” and instead just call it “regional efforts to face extremists that are trying to undermine the infrastructure of the states.”
One of the largest incentives Israel has to create this kind of network, Margalit stressed, is to combat the other “major threat” of Iran beyond its nuclear ambitions.
“The biggest challenge” the country will face, he said, is “the flow of investments going into Iran making it an economic powerhouse in the coming years.” Which is why there needs to be a model in place to “make it harder to direct the flow of capital into Tehran,” he added.
The dangers posed by a stronger Iran and fundamentalist extremists can be alleviated, he said, by furthering Israel’s cooperation with its Arab neighbors on regional security measures and projects involving medicine, technology, cybersecurity, water and energy.
What’s going on with Labor?
While Margalit came to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with lofty ambitions, he faces an uphill political dynamic within his party, as Labor struggles in the polls while center-left Yesh Atid’s numbers are soaring.
A September poll commissioned by Channel 2 and carried out by veteran pollster Prof. Mina Tzemach found the former finance minister Yair Lapid gaining on his parliamentary rivals. According to the survey, conducted by Tzemach’s Machon Midgam, if elections were held today, Yesh Atid would win 24 Knesset seats, while the ruling Likud party would take just 22.
It also said Zionist Union — an amalgam of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and currently the second-largest in Knesset — would win a paltry 13 seats, making it the fourth largest party along with the Joint (Arab) List.
‘Labor is expected to present the alternative and to be a fierce and vibrant opposition’
In his Times of Israel interview in Washington, DC, Margalit stressed this polling was a result of his party’s current leader, Isaac Herzog, attempting to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Lapid, on the other hand, has situated himself where the Labor camp needs to be.
“Labor is expected to present the alternative and to be a fierce and vibrant opposition,” Margalit said. “If in the midst of all that, it is conceived by the public to constantly be negotiating with the prime minister and joining him, then it undermines our own position.”
“When the prime minister decided to go to the right of [Naftali] Bennett, when the rhetoric is so right wing, when the policies are so right wing, when they are saying the Israeli Arabs are responsible for all the terrorist attacks, that is ridiculous,” he added. “That is the way extremists talk, not centrist leaders. So we had no business joining them. We need to be able to say, ‘There’s your way, which aligns yourself with the extremists, and then there’s our way, which is much more centrist and more powerful.'”
That is an argument he is trying to make, not only for the sake of furthering Zionist Union, but also his own political fate.
Citing a recent Knesset Channel commissioned poll that was conducted by Panels Politics, Margalit said his message is begging to resonate more with Israel’s center-left.
Asking voters who they would pick if Labor primaries were held today, the poll found Shelly Yachimovich leading with 24 percent, Margalit coming in second with 21 percent support and Herzog in third at 15 percent.
With his numbers rising and Labor’s diminishing, Margalit continues to make the case for his ambitious plan, both at home and abroad.
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