Can the Labor Party’s Merav Michaeli save the Israeli left?

For years, Merav Michaeli has worn only black. She’s done a TEDx Talk pushing to…

For years, Merav Michaeli has worn only black. She’s done a TEDx Talk pushing to “cancel marriage.” She casually quotes bell hooks. A few months ago, the former television personality became the unlikely head of Israel’s Labor Party. At a youthful 54, she is the latest “last” hope of the beleaguered Israeli left and, barring another unforeseen twist, a key member of its new government.

“I have been in the public eye for most of my adult life,” Michaeli said. “For the past 25 years I have been, as my beloved nonhusband calls it, a professional feminist. In Israel, we started late, in the mid-’90s, and this feminist wave that came then—I was privileged to have a big part in that.”

I first spoke to Michaeli before the recent Gaza War. At the time, Labor was part of a promising drive for a parliamentary “change” bloc—a right-center-left coalition united by its desire to oust the government of the increasingly lawless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under indictment in multiple bribery and fraud cases.

My interview was pushed back again and again. I could almost feel the sweat coming off Michaeli’s comms person’s WhatsApp messages. At one point, Michaeli called from a traffic jam and I heard her frustratingly reference Israel’s beloved map app: “Aval lama lo histaklata al ha Waze?”—“Why didn’t you look at Waze?”

After we first spoke, and as the change bloc was nearing an agreement to form a government, the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah became the unexpected locus of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinian families fought eviction orders that would have seen them kicked out of homes they’ve lived in for decades; Palestinian protesters bolstered the cause with street marches; and Israeli police responded with panicked, heavy-handed tactics that injured hundreds of Palestinians. What began as a civil protest movement became a military confrontation when Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces began a new round of retaliatory missile launches and airstrikes. According to the Gaza health ministry, after 11 days of fighting, 243 people were killed; among them were more than 100 women and children. According to Israel’s medical service, 12 Israelis, including two children, were killed. Within Israel’s mixed towns—places where both Arabs and Jews live—mob violence erupted.

It escaped no one’s attention that the conflict arose just as the change bloc was moving toward forming a coalition to replace the prime minister. Joining a chorus of criticism of Netanyahu, Michaeli tweeted, “So what was the purpose of the operation?”

When I spoke to Michaeli again after the cease-fire, I wanted to know: Did she blame Netanyahu directly for the tragic flare-up of violence?

“It’s clear that the tensions in Jerusalem and in Gaza and with the Israeli Arabs were mishandled,” she said. “Now, was it designed to lead to a crisis? Or is it just incompetence? It really is bad either way. The problem with Netanyahu is the fact that people even think it was intended. It goes to show you that he does not have a legitimacy as a leader any more. This is really dangerous for a country, for society, for democracy, et cetera.”

But did Netanyahu act purposefully to stoke a conflict and therefore disrupt the coalition talks that could have replaced him as prime minister? “I don’t know,” she said. “I really do not know. What I know is that the mere fact such a question is hovering over us is alone bad enough.”

I moved on to one of the original sparks of the current tensions: the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. I was curious to hear how Michaeli, if she had been in control of the situation, would have handled it differently.

“I would have handled everything differently,” she answered. “It’s not how you deal with the crisis already on the ground. It’s the whole attitude toward the Israeli Arab citizens that deserve a much more equal care by the government.”

In any event, if the conflict was part of a gambit by Netanyahu to hold onto power, it didn’t work. At the end of May, and beginning of June, the eight parties of the change bloc finally agreed to form a government. Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party will serve as prime minister for two years, followed by Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid—assuming this unlikely coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Islamist parties lasts that long. With only a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, basically every part in the coalition will have a veto, including Labor. Michaeli is currently expected to serve as transportation minister in the new government, which is already putting her in the midst of contentious disputes over settlement construction in the West Bank. The formation of the government was nearly held up by last-minute wrangling between Labor and Yamina over a key judiciary panel.

This is still a long way from the past power of the party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, but under Michaeli’s leadership, Labor at least will have a seat at the table again. It’s not a path many would have expected earlier in her career.

Michaeli first made a name for herself as a talk show host in the early ’90s. Eventually she developed into a public intellectual with a presence on campus-lecture circuits and an advocate for sexual assault survivors. She joined the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, as a member of the Labor Party in 2013.

During the run-up to Israel’s latest election in March—its fourth in two years—vintage Michaeli clips made the rounds. One, a bit from an old talk show, featured Michaeli and then newsman Yair Lapid climbing out from behind a couch, pretending they’d just had sex. Back in those days, Michaeli and Lapid were just two telegenic celebrities.

Labor is Israel’s historically dominant leftist faction but has been hemorrhaging voters for decades as Israel has moved rightward. After the previous election cycle, just last year, then-leaders broke a promise not to join a Netanyahu-led coalition. Michaeli was the only Labor Member of Knesset to refuse to go along with it. She stayed in the Knesset as a rogue, unaffiliated member of Labor. She was, as she put it, a “one-person opposition.”

The split suggested Labor was truly crumbling. Additionally, polling indicated that in the fourth election, Labor would fail to pass the minimum threshold of votes required to join the Knesset. “The consensus was that it was over and done with,” Michaeli said. “Really, it’s dead, and that is the end.” But when Michaeli won the primary to lead Labor, suddenly, the party shot up in the polls. And when Michaeli’s Labor eventually managed to win a respectable seven seats in the fourth election, it seemed a minor miracle. Haaretz’s Uri Misgav wrote, “Israel’s bruised and vilified Zionist left, the object of endless ridicule by its myriad enemies and detractors … came off the respirator on Tuesday evening.”

Any positive feeling was tempered, Misgav made sure to point out, by simultaneous historic gains made by a gaggle of far-right extremist groups, who all won Knesset seats, including Kahane Chai (“deemed an illegal terror organization by the state in 1994”) and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Lehava.

Practically speaking, what does it mean to have a feminist-led party in Israel’s government? In the short term, Michaeli’s Labor Party is “the first ever female-majority faction in Israeli Parliament,” she said. (Of Labor’s seven Knesset seats, four are held by women.) In the long term, “we look at life through the angle of equality. Not just gender equality but equality for human beings. Any issue that we are dealing with has a feminist angle to it. But that can relate to how do you make every aspect of life in the state of Israel better for everyone? Where are the inequalities, and how can we fix them?”

It’s an elegant answer that cuts through a lot of thorny issues. What do you want for the Palestinians? Equality! What do you want for the ultra-Orthodox? Equality!

In practice, the terminology can feel stilted or forced. As Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer reported from a Michaeli campaign stop, “Her metaphor for the current state of the Labor Party is that of a battered woman.” (In our conversation, Michaeli said, “the center-left camp has been behaving like the victim of violence that it is.”)

“We here in the center-left political camp need American Jews not to give up on Israel, and not to give up on us.”

— Merav Michaeli

Michaeli pines for Israel to return to an American-style two-party system in which Likud represents the traditional right and Labor represents the traditional left. She argues that Israel is “deeply sunk” in its never-ending political crisis because “there’s only one ruling party, and it’s Likud. This is not a democracy when you only have one ruling party.” She catches herself. Critics of Israel argue Israel’s self-vaunted democracy is, in reality, fundamentally compromised by the occupation. Human Rights Watch just labeled it an “apartheid” state. But that, surely, is a more radical point of view than Michaeli intends to espouse.

“I mean, it’s not not a democracy,” she continues. “But it’s a flawed democracy. Like many other Western democracies—including the U.S.—it is facing serious challenges and hardships and it is being, sometimes, eroded. But I’m not saying that Israel is not a democracy anymore.”

As Michaeli campaigned, the reactions to her vision of Labor were impassioned. “The extreme Left has taken over the Labor Party,” one Jerusalem Post column screamed. “Merav Michaeli’s nihilism will make Labor fall further from grace,” squealed another. The reactionary critique is rooted both in the personal (Michaeli’s decision not to have children, in particular, provokes dismay) and in the political: Even Michaeli’s mild critiques of the state are deemed treasonous.

From another point of view, Michaeli’s Labor is, naturally, seen as not nearly radical enough. The famously leftist journalist Gideon Levy argued that “Israel’s Jews must vote for the Joint List,” the Arab bloc. “Anyone who dreams of genuine change, not [just] about replacing Netanyahu … must vote for the Joint List.”

Michaeli, understandably, is focused primarily on replacing Netanyahu, and she seems to ascribe much of Israel’s political climate to Netanyahu alone. “Israel is living in the Netanyahu era,” she said. “It’s the process that’s been going on ever since ’93, when he became chairman of Likud and he started the campaign against the left and against the Arabs and against peace.” (Netanyahu didn’t become prime minister until 1996, for a three-year stint, and then again in 2009, until the current day.) “He introduced to Israel language and standards that never existed before. He turned the word left into a curse,” meaning a pejorative. “Now the word left is evil. People are afraid to be called left! Seriously! It really is a synonym for treason.” She’s not wrong. But will Netanyahu failing to hold on as head of state really make any of that go away?

Michaeli is careful to explain that, in her view, Labor is now just at the beginning of something. “We here in the center-left political camp need American Jews not to give up on Israel, and not to give up on us,” she said. “The political right in Israel is so heavily supported by this huge influence industry that is financed by very rich American right-wing Jews and the equivalent on the other side does not exist. So, I’m telling them not only not to give up but, au contraire! This is the time to invest in us! There’s so much potential in Israel. It’s here.”

Throughout this latest round of violence, Michaeli was vocal in her support for the IDF. I ask her if it’s actually possible for an Israeli politician to criticize the IDF, or if doing so would be career suicide.

“I think I have criticized the army as a politician, more than once,” she said. (Later, her comms person explains that Michaeli’s criticisms are rooted in lack of opportunities for women inside the IDF.) As for the recent crisis, she said, “In this case the problem is not the army—the problem is the policy. And Netanyahu is the one responsible for the policy.”

This is what Michaeli is best at: presenting a humane, positive, and intelligent face for the Israeli left. Even if the undergirding facts suggest otherwise, it feels like she could be a sane savior. When she is covered in American media—her accent in English is almost as pristine as Netanyahu’s—the focus is usually on the feminist credentials. There’s less talk on how Michaeli does not support the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Israeli war crimes in Palestine.

After the clashes both in Jerusalem and in the mixed towns throughout Israel, it felt like the idea of coexistence between Arabs and Jews had been revealed as a myth, or a lie. Michaeli, ever hopeful, didn’t see it that way. “The majority, both of Jews and Arabs in Israel, are peaceful people who want to recognize the other as a human person,” she argued. “And there is the potential for coexistence—not coexistence, a shared society. A much more just and equal one that’s thriving. The majority are people who totally see the possibility of peaceful coexistence.” To bolster her case, she mentioned Israeli media reports that a majority of Israeli Arabs who had committed acts of violence had previous criminal records.

But there were also clearly documented cases of extremist Jewish mob violence, calculatedly and carefully organized via WhatsApp groups. And yet 90 percent of the indictments over the clashes in the mixed cities were Arab. When I cite the stat, she said, “Listen, I never think that the blame game is constructive. There was a lot of Arab violence and Jewish violence but now, trying to figure out the percentage from each side—I don’t see how that leads us anywhere. What we need is healing.”