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Merav Michaeli Elected New Labor Leader, Vows To Rebuild Beleaguered Party

MK Merav Michaeli on Sunday won the Labor leadership primaries, taking over the storied centre-left party as it faces possible extinction in the March 23 general elections.

Michaeli, the only current Labor lawmaker in the race, finished first with 77 percent of the 9,651 votes cast, out of over 37,000 registered party members.

The runner up was Avi Shaked, an ally of outgoing Labor chief Amir Peretz, who got 19.08% of votes. Gil Beilin, the son of former minister Yossi Beilin, picked up 2.37% of ballots, while five other candidates finished below 1%.

“Friends, now is the time to come home,” Michaeli said in her victory speech. “You, who they lied to and deceived and took your vote, come home. Come to a home of truth.”

Michaeli’s remarks appeared aimed at Peretz, who repeatedly pledged not to join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government but did so following elections last March.

Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil in the party, and the emergence of new political players who have eroded its base. Since entering the government after the previous election, the party lost virtually all of its support and no recent opinion poll has predicted it would enter the next Knesset.

New Labor chief Merav Michaeli gives a speech, after winning the party’s leadership primaries on January 24, 2021. (Screen capture: Facebook)

“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,” Michaeli said.

Michaeli also said she would allow anyone to present their candidacy for the party’s electoral slate, but made no mention of a possible joint run with other left-leaning factions, asserting Labor could eventually return as a ruling party.

“Merav is an important leader. We’ll immediately initiate a discussion about building a large home for the entire centre-left. We’ll unite to defeat Netanyahu and bring change to the State of Israel,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who recently launched The Israelis party, wrote on Twitter.

Tnufa party leader Ofer Shelah said, “Now is the time to act and quickly join up without hesitation.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who leads the centrist Yesh Atid, also congratulated Michaeli, as did MK Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz party.

The Labor leadership field was cleared for Michaeli after Peretz announced earlier this month that he would step aside as party chief and not run in the upcoming elections. The party’s No. 2, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli. later declared he would not be running in the primary and that he had decided to leave Labor altogether.

Labor MKs Itzik Shmuli (L) and Amir Peretz at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

After Peretz took Labor into the Netanyahu-led unity government, despite having vowed to never serve under a prime minister facing a criminal indictment, Michaeli rejected sitting in the coalition, making her a de facto opposition member within her own party, and within the coalition.

Michaeli has said she is open to joining with another party before the election in order to increase Labor’s chances of passing the electoral threshold, but only if they are an “ideological ally.” The Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday morning that if she wins, she is likely to sign an agreement to run with The Israelis.

As the results of the leadership race were announced, Channel 13 news published a poll predicting a Michaeli-led Labor would squeak past the electoral threshold into the Knesset if it ran alone.

According to the survey, Netanyahu’s Likud would be the largest party with 32 seats, if new elections were held today, followed by Yesh Atid with 18. Ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope was forecast to get 14 seats, continuing a recent slide in the polls, while the right-wing Yamina and the predominantly Arab Joint List were each predicted to get 10.

United Torah Judaism would receive seven seats and the fellow ultra-Orthodox Shas party would get six, as would the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu.

The poll said Meretz would pick up five seats, while Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, The Israelis, and Labor would get four apiece.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (right) and then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (left) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Together with UTJ and Shas, Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc would get 45 seats. Even if Yamina were to rejoin the fold after being left out of the last government, the premier would still be well short of the 61 seats needed for a ruling majority. Netanyahu’s bloc failed to reach 61 seats in the three consecutive elections between April 2019 and March 2020, but parties opposed to the premier were unable to overcome their differences and form a government without him.

The poll also forecast that if Yesh Atid and The Israelis ran together, they would get 24 seats, but not change the overall dynamic of the race.

The survey was performed by pollster Kamil Fuchs and included 694 respondents, with a 3.7% margin of error.

This article first appeared in The Times of Israel, an Israeli based online newspaper.