Labor’s Michaeli won’t nix sitting with ultra-Orthodox, rules out merger with Meretz

Transportation minister says main problem cooperating with Haredi parties is that they have ‘chained themselves’ to Netanyahu

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Labor party leader Merav Michaeli attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli said Monday that she would not rule out sitting in a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties and that her party won’t run on a single platform with the dovish Meretz party.

Speaking to Channel 13, Michaeli was asked about her attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox parties after she was among several prominent lawmakers to attend the wedding of United Torah Judaism party chief Moshe Gafni’s granddaughter on Sunday.

Michaeli, who is a staunch supporter of secular rights, said she saw no problem cooperating with the Haredi parties, except for the fact they had allied themselves with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

“I have great respect for the Haredi community,” Michaeli said. “Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox parties have chained themselves to Netanyahu in recent years.”

“I have never disqualified the ultra-Orthodox parties; they are the ones who disqualified everyone else except Netanyahu. I think they are paying a very heavy price, and especially their community is paying a very heavy price, for this bondage to Netanyahu,” she told Channel 13.

Michaeli also said she had no intention of running on a joint slate with the left-wing Meretz party again, as they had two years ago, even though recent polls show both parties struggling, with Meretz in danger of falling below the Knesset threshold. (Israel’s opinion polls can be unreliable but do influence politicians and voters.)

“The experiment of Labor and Meretz together has already failed. It’s an experiment that really failed,” she said.

The two parties ran together in the March 2020 elections, winning seven seats. In the March 2021 elections, Michaeli led Labor to seven seats on its own, while Meretz won six.

Michaeli said she instead wanted to build a strong “center-left” party focused on liberal values.

Michaeli’s comments came the day after she attended the ultra-Orthodox wedding with other lawmakers including Welfare Minister Meir Cohen and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, Yamina MK Idit Silman, and MKs David Bitan and May Golan of Likud.

Gafni’s UTJ, though part of Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc, is seen by some political commentators as a party that could potentially tip the balance in November’s elections.

After the defection of Yamina’s Idit Silman from the coalition in April, which began the process of its eventual collapse, Gafni welcomed her move, but said “the opposition has some reckoning to do before deciding who has the best chances of forming a government without heading to elections.” While Gafni later denied that the statement was directed against opposition leader Netanyahu, some considered it a sign of his waning support for the former prime minister.

Some, however, were not impressed by Gafni’s guest list.

Michaeli, who was filmed dancing hand-in-hand with the bride, Tamar Brecher, drew particular outrage from the Haredi public.

“For what reason is the partition put up if the women’s dancing is recorded and shared for the eyes of hundreds of thousands of men online?” prominent Haredi journalist Aryeh Erlich asked. “What happened to the value of modesty among the Haredi public?”

Fellow Haredi journalist Yishai Cohen added: “What message does Gafni send by inviting Michaeli as his guest of honor? Apparently, UTJ is suffering from battered woman syndrome.”

Haredi lawmakers also suggested that Gafni may have to pay a political price for inviting Michaeli.

“No one among us is going to talk to him today,” one unnamed UTJ official told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister publication.

“The damage [Gafni] has done to UTJ is huge,” the unnamed official added. “If he goes home, it will only benefit everyone. He has been getting on people’s nerves anyway lately.”

United Torah Judaism party member Yitzhak Pindros reacts at the House Committee discussion to cancel the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Coming to Gafni’s defense was UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindros, who said: “Yes, we invite political colleagues to happy occasions and we don’t call security if they, God forbid, start dancing.”

But Pindros also said that the Haredi public “will never forget and never forgive Michaeli… even if she joins the coalition [with Netanyahu] and even if she quits politics altogether.”

Over the past year, Michaeli has strongly advocated for public transportation on Shabbat, which Haredi parties strongly oppose. After failing to introduce reforms that would allow buses to operate on Shabbat, Michaeli has recently tried to promote a reform that would allow local authorities to operate taxi services on the Jewish day of rest.

Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.

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