Interview'I join the coalition against my will'

Labor’s 1-woman opposition: ‘No to a religious, occupying, non-democratic state’

MK Merav Michaeli, dragged into a government she loathes, insists the left will start winning again when its leaders develop a backbone and stop fearing the right

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

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

There are 72 MKs in the coalition, 48 in the opposition, and one, Labor’s Merav Michaeli, who is both. And also neither.

Michaeli, 53, is no. 3 on the Labor party list. Her two fellow faction members, party chief Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, joined the unity government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, becoming the ministers of economy and welfare, respectively.

Michaeli, however, has refused to sit in a coalition under Netanyahu — even as Peretz took her party into the government.

She won’t leave Labor, saying on April 5, “I won’t split off. Labor is my home. I’m not the one who broke a commitment to our voters. I join the coalition against my will.”

But the move rankled. Three weeks later, on April 26, after the party’s central committee voted to approve joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, she scathingly lamented that her fellow Labor MKs had carried out a “great political robbery of the votes of Israelis who supported them…. Unlike Peretz and Shmuli, I believe in the Labor party and I hope we have an opportunity soon to rehabilitate and rebuild it.”

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

She now resides in a strange twilight zone of Israeli politics, in opposition to all sides — she openly opposes the government her party has joined, opposes the coalition she is formally a member of, and opposes her own faction.

“It’s a first for me,” she told The Times of Israel in a candid interview this week.

“I’m used to being in the opposition, not in the coalition. Now I’m in the coalition’s opposition. And I’m alone. The most dramatic thing is that I am alone. Because unfortunately, horribly, Labor only has three seats, and two of them, against everything we promised and committed to, and against common sense, to my mind — and against everything we believed in, or thought we believed in — joined the government.”

Michaeli is famous for her blunt speaking style, and for many other things. She was a prominent journalist before entering politics in 2013. She is the granddaughter of Israel Kastner, the savior of over 1,000 Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust who was murdered in Israel in 1957 over claims — later criticized by the Supreme Court — that he’d collaborated with the Nazis. Her life partner — she has criticized traditional marriage — is the well-known comedian and TV host Lior Schleien.

But she may be best known for her feminist activism, including her insistence on speaking with the feminine gender declension in the plural — a shift from the male-gendered baseline of the language.

(What does that mean? English speakers might reasonably ask. Hebrew nouns have gendered forms. Ezrahim is “citizens” in the male form. Ezrahiyot is the feminine form. Which do you use in a group with both men and women? The standard has always been the male.)

Labor MK Meirav Michaeli, right, and her partner, comedian and TV host Lior Schleien, left, on June 22, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“There was a philosopher of language, Wittgenstein, who said that ‘the boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world,'” Michaeli told an interviewer in January. “As long as we didn’t have the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ in the language, we didn’t have a way to complain about it…. When we [women] are erased, when we’re missing in talk of ezrahim or horim [‘parents’], hayalim [‘soldiers’], yeladim [‘children’], then there’s no treatment of the problems unique to women, ezrahiyot, hayalot, yeladot and so forth.

“Our ability to make ourselves present in the language is a key part of our ability to demand our resources and our rights and the shaping of reality so it’s relevant for women too.”

Israelis have grown used to her insistence in ordinary speech of favoring the feminine declension, of naming plurals as feminine at every opportunity. And Israelis have even begun to adopt the practice in recent years. Whether it’s President Reuven Rivlin or IDF generals, public addresses that once had only male plurals are increasingly showcasing female ones. Many credit Michaeli with the change.

She refuses to wear makeup. Her black attire has become a trademark. “Men have suits,” she once explained. “A suit is armor. It hides everything. A spy, a prime minister, a journalist — everyone can wear one thing. And it has a message. It says the body is irrelevant. The head is relevant. But what do women have? Nothing, no uniform that removes the sexuality. Women’s [suits] emphasize the sexuality.”

Michaeli is a favorite for interview shows. Her responses are clear and often ruthlessly blunt, the sort of interview that makes for good television.

Labor party MK Merav Michaeli speaks at a cultural event in Kfar Saba, February 2, 2019. (Flash90)

But now, the eight-year veteran of the Knesset is in a fight for her political life, and for the survival of her once-ruling party.

In her interview with The Times of Israel, Michaeli was characteristically uncompromising. She is optimistic about Labor’s future, despite the party’s precipitous decline; rejects the unity coalition her party has joined; and insists there is still an Israeli left out there, with robust institutions and millions of voters, ready to return to national leadership if only its leaders developed a backbone.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Labor hasn’t won an election since 1999. It has sat in the governments of Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu since then. You don’t have any sympathy for Peretz and Shmuli’s decision to take what they could get?

Merav Michaeli: If you give up being the opposition and you join the dangerous forces of “Netanyahu and associates,” you’re eliminating the alternative to them. You’re preventing the growth and establishment of the political camp that should represent the more than half of Israelis who do not want a religious state, an occupying state, a non-democratic state. There is a majority that is bigger than its showing in the election, a majority of Israelis who believe in the values that Labor basically stands for — a democratic state for the Jewish people, freedom of religion, equality, gender equality, gay rights, “even” equality for Arabs, a social-democratic state in terms of welfare, equal opportunities in the economy. There’s even a small majority for a two-state solution, even after 11 years of Netanyahu.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli at a Labor party conference organized by MK Amir Peretz in Tel Aviv on January 22, 2019. (Flash90)

Then why do the leaders of the left and center keep joining right-wing governments?

Each had his or her calculation at the time. In 2009 [Ehud] Barak gave his [anti-Netanyahu] votes to Netanyahu. In 2013 it was [Tzipi] Livni and [Yair] Lapid. In 2015 it was [Moshe] Kahlon who many people in the center-left voted for because they assumed he would go with [Isaac] “Boujie” [Herzog], and now of course with Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi.

But I think probably the reason that hovers over any specific calculation in any specific moment is Netanyahu’s campaign of delegitimization and incitement against the left, everything that’s identified with the left and its leaders, ever since 1993, when Netanyahu came onto the national political scene. He and his partners have continued to do it ever since.

The success of this campaign, manifested in the most horrible thing, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, has had such a profound impact on the center-left camp and dominated the narrative and the conversation, convincing people of things that have no connection to reality: that the people have gone to the right, that there’s no left, no alternative, that only Netanyahu can form a government, that he’s a “magician.” It’s amazing to think that even though already in 2009 he didn’t have enough votes to form a government without the center-left, somehow the reality didn’t convince anyone.

We see in [Netanyahu’s corruption] indictments, or just by watching television or reading the newspaper or listening to the radio, how much Netanyahu invests in the media in order to control the narrative.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on May 17, 2020. (Knesset)

The result has been that the left lost its self-confidence, became scattered and fractured, and lost its belief in itself.

But we can trace the left’s shrinking in the polls to the Second Intifada, to the results of the Gaza disengagement. That wasn’t Netanyahu.

It goes back to the issue of the narrative. The disengagement from Gaza wasn’t done by the left, but by Arik Sharon. He did it when he was a prime minister from Likud, before moving to Kadima.

I was against the disengagement in real time because I thought we should get out of Gaza with an agreement and not unilaterally. But even I, who was against, can’t ignore the fact that fewer Israelis have died since the disengagement than when we were sitting in Gaza.

But the facts aren’t relevant to the narrative. They’ve succeeded in planting the narrative in people’s minds.

People now ask, “If we leave the West Bank, will we get a Gaza there?” Since they control the narrative, they’ve managed to attribute the disengagement to the left.

In this July 5, 2005 photo, prime minister Ariel Sharon, surrounded by his bodyguards, inspects temporary housing being built for settlers about to be evacuated from the Gaza Strip under his disengagement plan, at the Nitzanim construction site in southern Israel. (AP Photo/David Silverman, Pool, File)

And the Second Intifada?

Are we partly responsible for the situation? By all means. When Ehud Barak, the prime minister from the left, says there is no partner [with the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000], and then there’s a Second Intifada, this is a devastating blow for the narrative of the left-wing camp.

How does the left deal with it? It starts by dealing with it.

For too long they managed to frighten the left. Too many people on the left were too busy defending. I’m not blaming anyone because it’s only human. You want to say, “No, it’s not true, we’re not what they’re saying about us.”

It’s not that people were ashamed of what they believed in, but there was this urge to say, “No, it’s not true.” It came out extremely apologetic. We were constantly playing defense.

US President Clinton, center, accompanied by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, walk on the grounds of Camp David, Maryland, in this July 11, 2000 file photo. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

How does the left shed its sensitivity to the right’s claims?

I know what I believe in. Do I think it’s possible and achievable [to do that]? I strongly believe it. Not only because I know that unlike the legends that have taken hold in people’s minds, we’ve had a consistent majority since 2009.

In polls today, too, even without an alternative to Netanyahu after the shattering of Blue and White, in Amit Segal’s best polls [on Channel 12] the best-case scenario for the right is, what, 65, 66 mandates [in a 120-seat Knesset]?

The potential is there. You have a million and a half Israelis today who have no one to vote for. That’s one thing.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at an election rally in Ramat Gan, February 25, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The other thing, and this is why I’m still fighting for Labor, is that it should be done through the infrastructure of Labor. The roots Labor had, intertwined with the roots of the state of Israel, is something not to be taken lightly — its problems as well as its advantages.

Not only am I not worried about [the potential for] reviving a grand party suffering from problems, but it’s an advantage.

Why is that? How do you rebuild?

First of all, we’ve only just started. It’s premature to elaborate. But I have to tell you that I have so many partners within the party and outside the party, and to my amazement, even though the media has repeatedly pronounced Labor dead, many people believe it isn’t.

I’m here because I believe. I’m in politics because I want to have a state of Israel that’s democratic and feminist and strives for peace. And I believe these are the things that will make [Israel] strong and sustainable and a good place to live in.

Israelis protest against violence toward women in Tel Aviv, on June 1, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

That is why I’m amazed [that Peretz and Shmuli] can even give those excuses [about making the best of a bad political situation as they joined the government], because come on, the history of the last ten years is full of politicians from our side of the map who have tried that.

I’m not minimizing being able to help a few people or a specific sector at a specific moment [by joining the government]. You know, each person you can help and benefit and defend is important. But under Netanyahu the extent to which you can do this is tiny and very marginal, while at the same time you are flushing the alternative, even a prospect of the alternative, down the toilet.

You believe the alternative camp can rally and win?

Of course. We have amazing strengths. A lot of good and constructive things are happening in Israel, generated by people from the center-left camp. So many amazing forces. And I’m looking for them.

Labor party MK Merav Michaeli seen during a special meeting of the Labor-Gesher and Meretz factions outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Is there any hope of influencing issues that matter to you — gender, religion and state — in the current coalition? I notice you’ve submitted several bills in recent weeks on opening up marriage laws and other issues.

No. It’s obvious there will be a veto from the ultra-Orthodox, as there’s always been. It’s not like Netanyahu is going to jeopardize his political standing for anything else.

I have a vision for Israel, and it’s elaborated in almost 300 bills that I’ve proposed and written throughout my years in politics. My vision covers issues across the board, from the economy, social issues, democracy, equality, the army and peace.

If I believed there was any chance at all of promoting any of those things in the current government, I wouldn’t have thought it was such a mistake to join it. I could have been a minister right now and be talking about influencing from within.

But there’s no such thing with Netanyahu. He determines the policy and the boundaries within which you operate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

And he muddled up the powers and capabilities of the ministries. Different units are moving from one authority to the other. It will take ages just to start working, it’s such a mess. It’s not the first time he’s done this, but now it’s on a whole different scale. It ensures ministers can’t do much, let alone anything meaningful.

You’re known for social issues, women’s issues, economic issues. You don’t come from a defense background. But right-wing members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee have praised your role on that committee. It’s one thing to dislike Netanyahu for his religious-right coalition or his attacks on the left. But he built his reputation among Israeli voters on national security issues, Iran, Gaza, Syria. He’s seen as careful but aggressive when the need arises. Where do you stand on Netanyahu’s national security credentials?

I don’t subscribe for a moment to the portrayal of Netanyahu as a responsible figure on the national security front. Not at all.

I think that avoiding — making a big effort not to reach an agreement with the Palestinians is something that hurts Israel in every part of its national security. When I say every part, that includes the ability to deal with Iran more effectively. Had we been at least negotiating with the Palestinians with a genuine will to reach an agreement, we could have upgraded the alliances with other Arab countries, enhanced our relationships with peace partners Jordan and Egypt, and that would have made us more effective in dealing with Iran.

In this September 2, 2010, photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before holding peace talks at the State Department in Washington, DC. (Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images via JTA)

Second, refusing to work toward an agreement with the Palestinians is slowly but surely gnawing away at the legitimacy of Israel in the world.

Third, the deepening occupation and perpetuation of the conflict is destabilizing Israel from within. And it’s hurting the IDF’s ability and freedom to deal with other threats.

It’s true that Netanyahu doesn’t rush to war, but the damage he’s causing by consistently avoiding and preventing any advance toward a two-state solution is very profound and dangerous.

With Iran, I think that pushing for canceling the US participation in the agreement with Iran without a safer alternative exposes Israel to greater dangers. Had he been able to achieve a better agreement, by all means cancel unilaterally. But Iran can also unilaterally not keep its commitments in the agreement and we have less cooperation from other partners in the West to work against Iran.

There’s one last thing. By giving too much political power to certain factions in Israeli society, to the messianic forces, to many rabbis who have too much access inside the army to spread messianic ideas and demands, and to demand standards that are anything but military or professional, but are religious and reactionary — these are dangerous processes now taking place in the army.

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