Has Merav Michaeli rescued the Israeli Labor Party? We’ll find out in March

Luke Akehurst

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the decision by the Israeli Labor Party to go into the national unity coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, I wrote: “Many critics will see this as Labor finally committing electoral suicide after a long decline from the glory days of David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.” Perhaps predictably, the coalition hasn’t lasted long enough for deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz from the centrist Blue and White party to inherit the prime ministership as timetabled by the rotation agreement for November 17th. It fell apart after failing to pass the 2020 state budget. Ever the shrewd coalition builder, Netanyahu got to continue as Prime Minister without having to reciprocate the deal and at the same time destroyed the credibility of Gantz with anti-Netanyahu voters.

Israel now faces its fourth general election in under two years on March 23rd, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. It uses a very pure version of proportional representation, with 120 seats members of the Knesset (MKs) elected from national party lists, proportionately allocated according to vote share to any party exceeding a 3.25% threshold. On the right, there has now been an overt split. Conservative former minister Gideon Sa’ar, long expected to be Netanyahu’s successor as leader of the Likud party and objectively politically to his right, has tried to speed up his path to being Prime Minister by creating a breakaway party – New Hope. If Netanyahu is to lose power after an extraordinary 12-year run it will be because New Hope, currently predicted in the polls to get 13 or 14 MKs, goes into government with parties ideologically far to its left in a broad coalition of everyone who wants to see the back of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s Likud is polling at 29 or 30 seats, down from 36 at the last election a year ago. The two parties representing the Charedi, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, community are stable on their usual 15 or 16 seats. They are reliable partners for Likud. Yamina, the party to Likud’s right that represents West Bank settlers and their supporters, is polling ten to 13 seats when it only got six last year but is ambivalent about keeping Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Another small, right-wing party – the Religious Zionist Party – is on four or five seats and is closer to Netanyahu. Yisrael Beiteinu, a centre-right party supported by secular Russian-origin immigrants, which is opposed to Netanyahu, is set to get six or seven seats.

The centre of Israeli politics has been recast following Gantz going into government. Blue and White got 33 seats last year but the party with that name, led by Gantz, is now polling only four or five. The other wing, which refused to go into government with Netanyahu after having campaigned on a platform of ousting him – Yesh Atid, led by the former TV anchorman Yair Lapid – is on a respectable 16-19 seats.

Israel’s Arab citizens make up about 21% of the population, with another 4% from other non-Jewish minority communities. Whilst some Arab citizens vote for non-Arab parties, and indeed Netanyahu is making a pitch for Arab votes, most vote for parties that represent their communal interests. The Arab political parties are ideologically divided into Palestinian nationalists, pan-Arab nationalists, communists and Islamists, but had managed to come together to form a ‘joint list’ that performed strongly enough last year to be the third largest party, with 15 MKs. This alliance has now come unpicked a little, with the Islamist party Ra’am running separately to the residual joint list. The former is scoring just either side of the electoral threshold, so between zero and four seats, and the latter is on eight to ten.

The British Labour Party’s two Israeli sister parties, the more centre-left, security-minded Labor and the more left/green and peace movement-oriented Meretz, had unusually – and in some desperation on Labor’s part due to its declining fortunes – run as a three-way coalition with the liberal Gesher last year. Even together they only managed seven seats, with three each from Labor and Meretz. Since then, the once hegemonic Labor, which did most of the work to establish the state, whose predecessor parties held the Prime Ministership continuously from 1948 to 1977 and was still the main opposition party with 24 seats as recently as the 2015 election, has gone through further trauma.

In a group of only three MKs, it managed to split. Two, the leader and trade union veteran Amir Peretz and former student leader and social justice protester Itzik Shmuli, shocked their centre-left supporters by following Benny Gantz into coalition with Netanyahu. They are currently still serving as respectively economy and industry minister and welfare and social services minister. Peretz had been particularly adamant that he would not serve under Netanyahu. He used to have a trademark moustache until proclaiming in a publicity stunt: “I decided to remove my moustache so that all of Israel will understand exactly what I’m saying and will be able to read my lips — I won’t sit with Bibi.” Oops!

The third Labor MK, Merav Michaeli, refused on principle to join the government benches and sat in opposition. By the time this election was called, it looked like Labor was beyond rescue, with polls placing it below the threshold and set to receive zero seats. New centre-left formations started circling to fill the vacuum, notably a new party called The Israelis, led by the long-serving mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, himself previously a Labor member. But Labor’s residual structure as a highly democratic party with a one-time mass membership base saved it. The party was forced by the courts to stick to its constitution and hold a primary to elect its leader for the new general election. This is, despite the name, a leadership election among the party’s members similar to the UK Labour system rather than a US-style open primary that non-members can vote in. At this point Amir Peretz quit as leader, knowing the membership would sack him for going into coalition.

The party’s rump of 37,000 members picked the one MK who had not been tainted by joining the coalition, Michaeli, who secured 77% of the vote in the ballot on January 24th. Peretz and Shmuli have quietly accepted their political careers are over and left the party. In her victory speech, Michaeli proclaimed: “Today we begin rebuilding the party.” Taking a swipe at Peretz without naming him, she added: “Friends, now is the time to come home. You, who they lied to and deceived and took your vote, come home. Come to a home of truth.”

An MK since 2013, other than a short gap in 2019, Michaeli is a 54-year-old former TV and newspaper journalist. She is Labor’s third woman leader, following in the footsteps of Golda Meir and Shelly Yachimovich. A high-profile feminist, she founded Ezrat Nashim, an organisation for survivors of sexual assault. Before entering politics Michaeli said: “Israel needs large, strong parties today that are characterised by continuity and development; parties that have people who are hungry to do things, innovators who see themselves as part of the general public and not soloists. And Israel needs parties that want and are able to hold ideological debates, to take ideological decisions and act according to them.”

Her clear policy of opposition to Netanyahu appears to have resuscitated a party that looked dead, and Labor is now polling well above the threshold on between five and seven seats. The new rivals for the centre-left vote, such as Huldai’s party, have disappeared as quickly as they sprung up. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz is so politically close to Michaeli that cartoonists portray them in identical clothes, holding hands, but Meretz has its own committed core vote that should see it just cross the threshold and get four seats.

Michaeli knows the scale of the task ahead of rebuilding an Israeli left that has been eroded over decades by public blame for first the intelligence failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and then the souring of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians into the horrors of the Second Intifada suicide bombings – and then what was left shattered by a bizarre leadership choice of Avi Gabbay, and Peretz’s entry into the coalition.

Michaeli proclaimed: “At the last moment, we saved this movement from being erased. I understand the enormity of the hour. The Labor Party is still stuck in the mud and I have the mission of rescuing and rebuilding it.” On March 23rd, we will find out if she has indeed rescued Labor and if a wildly diverse coalition of parties united only by their hostility to Netanyahu can end his record-breaking long prime ministership.

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