TEL AVIV, Israel -- Last week, Israel’s Labor party appeared headed for extinction, with polls indicating it wouldn't win enough votes in upcoming elections to enter parliament. But following the election of progressive lawmaker Merav Michaeli as its new leader, the party is showing signs of life.
Labor, home of the country's founding leaders and for decades its ruling party, has begun to climb in opinion polls, and Michaeli is determined to once again make it a major force in Israeli politics.
Michaeli, a firebrand feminist, promotes a message that has rarely been heard in Israeli politics in recent years. She seeks social justice, equality for all Israelis and peace with the Palestinians. Yet she also won't rule out sitting in a coalition with right-wing parties, likely hindering her agenda, if that realizes the shared goal of ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You can disagree with me ideologically but what is clear is that I am here and I fight for equality and peace,” Michaeli told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I believe that Labor is not dead, it is essential for Israel’s future.”
Her election appears to have given Labor a jolt of momentum. But with many traditional voters having left the party, she has her work cut out for her ahead of March elections. Israel's center-left camp is fractured and right-wing parties, led by Netanyahu's Likud, remain dominant.
Opinion polls in recent days have projected that Labor under Michaeli will win five seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. That could jump in the coming days if, as expected, smaller parties with little chance of making it into parliament withdraw from the race ahead of a Thursday deadline. Although the projections are far below Labor's glory days, even a modest showing could make Michaeli a kingmaker in a coalition of midsize parties opposed to Netanyahu.
Labor guided Israel to independence in 1948 and led the country for its first three decades, embedding social democratic values most evident today in its universal health care, especially amid the pandemic. Although it led Israel during the 1967 Mideast war and built the first settlements in the occupied West Bank, Labor later signed the landmark Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and today favors a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Yet it has struggled to remain relevant over the past two decades as peacemaking with the Palestinians ground to a halt, other options in the center-left emerged and much of the electorate appears to have embraced Netanyahu’s hard-line ideology.
Michaeli took over Labor after a trying year when it entered parliament with historically low support. The party was torn apart after its former leader joined Netanyahu's government despite pledges not to, driving away lifelong voters. Michaeli chose to remain in the opposition and says she will never sit in a coalition under Netanyahu for a slew of reasons, among them his three corruption indictments.
She believes her decision to stay out of the government, combined with her message of social justice, will bring voters back.
“The fact that I have managed to lift up Labor, it’s still early, but I think people have more faith that it’s possible,” she said.
Michaeli, 54, has long been a recognizable figure in Israel, working for years as a journalist and women's rights activist before entering politics in 2013 as a Labor lawmaker. She is widely known for her alternative views. She shuns marriage, although she is in a long-term relationship with a popular late-night TV host, and says she has never wanted children in a society sprung from the biblical commandment to procreate. She is known for her signature all black looks, which she has said are meant to downplay her body and sexuality.
When she withdrew to the opposition, she promised: “We won't let the Labor party die.” Now at the helm, she will be tested on whether she can fulfill that pledge and stabilize a party that has had six leaders since Netanyahu took power in 2009.
Yossi Beilin, a former longtime Labor minister whose son challenged Michaeli in the leadership race, welcomed her election.
"The eulogies were premature,” he said. “Merav is intelligent and ideological and she proved herself in the Knesset and wasn’t tempted to join the last government,” he said.
While never having served as a Cabinet minister, Michaeli has been an active lawmaker and a leading progressive voice in the Knesset, supporting women’s rights, LGBT causes and the rights of workers in addition to seeking peace with the Palestinians.
Her first step as leader was to withdraw the party from the current caretaker government, prompting the two Labor ministers to leave the party. She has pledged equal representation for women in the party list. And she intends to woo back Labor’s traditional voter base, which largely fled to other less established parties.
Michaeli attributed the center-left’s decline to years of “incitement and delegitimization” by Netanyahu and the right. But she said some mistakes were self-inflicted, like the party repeatedly joining right-wing governments whose values were contradictory to its own.
“They became enablers of right-wing governments and then it’s clear that the party loses its credibility and its ability to be an alternative and that must be rebuilt,” she said.
Tal Schneider, political correspondent for the Times of Israel, said Michaeli has shown the political prowess needed to push the party in a new direction. But she said Michaeli's win doesn't change the disarray in Israel's center-left camp.
“The problem is deeper,” she said. “But there is no doubt that she saved the party from extinction.”