Launching election push, Labor chief Michaeli takes aim at far-right’s Ben Gvir

Center-left leader warns that extremists who once threatened Rabin could be ministers in next government, urges resumption of peace talks with Palestinians

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Then Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 18, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Then Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 18, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli launched her center-left faction’s election campaign Tuesday by aiming fire at the far-right, warning that Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir is causing destruction to the state.

Leading a party forecast to again barely scrape above the four-seat threshold for entering the Knesset, Michaeli harked back to the 1995 assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, saying that those who menaced the slain Labor leader back then were today on the cusp of power.

“I saw upfront the same violence, incitement and racism that threatens us since they threatened Yitzhak Rabin,” she said of Ben Gvir, who as a teen infamously threatened Rabin before he was killed. “Those who were then [troubled youth] are today MKs. And if we don’t win, they can be ministers tomorrow.”

Labor is fighting for its political relevance and perhaps survival, polling at between four and six seats and is expected to lose its place in the government if a right-religious coalition forms after the November 1 election.

Now a cornerstone in that right-religious coalition, Ben Gvir first captured public attention when he was filmed boasting about stealing an emblem from then-prime minister Rabin’s car.

“We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too,” he bragged shortly before Rabin’s 1995 assassination.

Ben Gvir has “a deep moral indictment against him, for the destruction he caused and is causing to the State of Israel and to the people of Israel,” Michaeli said.

Earlier on Tuesday, both Michaeli and Ben Gvir visited Ramat Gan’s Blich High School, where Ben Gvir has twice received a spirited welcome. Blich’s customary mock election has in the past been considered a bellwether for the main electoral contest, though in the last decade its predictive powers have waned.

Despite the loud backing for Ben Gvir at the school, his Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit party pulled 5 seats in the Blich vote, below the 12 to 13 seats most polls show it finishing with.

Labor leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli speaks to students at Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Michaeli also assailed the far-right firebrand while visiting the school, implying that his public turn toward more moderate views on Arabs, homosexuals and others papered over long-held extremist religious and nationalist views.

“I know him from the days when he wouldn’t dress up as a Care Bear… from the days when he would say out loud that gays and lesbians have no place here, from the days when he would say out loud that everything should be closed on Shabbat and women cannot have the same rights as men,” said Michaeli.

Later on Tuesday evening, Channel 13 aired a recording in which an Otzma Yehudit Knesset candidate told activists that the party’s toned down messaging was a campaign “trick” aimed at mollifying more moderate voters and rules against candidates holding racist views.

“Do you want to be right or to be smart?,” Almog Cohen was heard saying.

Ben Gvir returned fire while at Blich, asking the high school students, many of whom will soon be military conscripts, “Who will protect soldiers? Merav Michaeli, or us?”

Ben Gvir himself did not serve in the military, as the IDF exempted him for holding extremist views. However, he has built a brand in zealously backing IDF soldiers, defending troops accused of rights abuses against Palestinians and suggesting deporting Arabs who harm soldiers.

Reaffirming his mantra of promoting the “death penalty for terrorists,” Ben Gvir said that “we love the IDF, we love the State of Israel.”

Otzma Yehudit leader and MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to students at Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Michaeli and Ben Gvir’s visions of the State of Israel both profess to love are deeply at odds. In terms of its ethos, Michaeli pushes for a state with liberal social values, which focuses on “equality” for citizens of different faiths and orientations. To enshrine that, she said on Tuesday that she wants to “fix” the controversial 2018 Nation State Law that gives precedence to Israel’s Jewish character.

Ben Gvir’s hardline approach is committed to a state with a strong Jewish character, at the expense of minorities. He has decried Arab-Jewish political partnerships or romantic relationships, backs controversial policies like deportation and death penalty, and has twice partnered with anti-LGBT party Noam to run on a unified slate, including for this upcoming election. He is also a staunch settlement supporter who wants Israel to annex the heavily-Palestinian populated West Bank and flex its sovereignty over the flashpoint Temple Mount.

Michaeli, on the other hand, called Tuesday for the resumption of long-stalled peace talks with Palestinians toward a two-state solution, disavowing the preference of previous governments, including ones that included Labor as a member, to avoid diplomatic engagement.

“The next government must renew political discourse and stop hiding behind empty words like ‘managing the conflict’ or ‘reducing the conflict,'” she said.

Head of the Labor party Merav Michaeli is on stage with party members during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 20, 2022. (Flash90)

Her comments followed her Sunday push at the government’s weekly cabinet meeting to reopen the currently dormant issue of Palestinian statehood.

“Without a two-state solution, we will stay with one state with two nations and that’s the end of the State of Israel as we know it and love it, and we won’t let it happen,” the center-left Labor leader reaffirmed.

The outgoing government, which included a wide range of parties ranging from the left-wing Meretz and Islamist Ra’am to the right-wing Yamina and New Hope, had assiduously stayed away from the issue in order to keep the unwieldy coalition together.

In addition to attacks against Ben Gvir and his personification of the far-right, Michaeli also reaffirmed Labor’s platform to raise the minimum wage to NIS 7,000 monthly, bolster public transportation on Saturdays, fight the housing crisis tied to high prices, and promote a strong military.

Tied to issues that touch her right-religious political rivals, she said Labor would protect the judicial system from those that are trying to “castrate” it, a reference to efforts by parties in the right-religious bloc for deep judicial reform, including laws that would neuter the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation.

She also called to advance a currently shelved bill to prevent an indicted person from forming a government, seen as aimed at opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases.

Netanyahu, 72, maintains his innocence, but should he be found guilty at trial of an offense carrying moral turpitude, he would be ineligible to be an MK or minister until nearly 80, due to rules mandating a seven-year political hiatus.

Michaeli said she wants to increase the timeout period to 15 years.

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