Israeli Labor Party looks to new leader as elections loom


Islamabad – March 17 (Online): The once-dominant Israeli Labor Party has struggled in recent years to stay relevant. But, following the election of lawmaker Merav Michaeli as its new leader, the party could be heading for a revival.
After three long lockdowns, a shopping center near the town of Rehovot is once again bustling with people. Making her way through the crowd, the new leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Merav Michaeli, stops every few minutes for a brief chat or a selfie. Though Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign has allowed the country to reopen, it is still unusual to see a politician mingling with crowds during this election campaign. Israelis will be voting for a new parliament for the fourth time in two years on March 23, but the majority of events have been held online.
The Israeli Labor Party is pinning its hopes on the 54-year-old Michaeli. The social-democratic HaAvoda — the party’s Hebrew name¬¬ — used to be the major ruling party in Israel. But, in recent years, it has struggled to avoid complete political oblivion. In the past three elections, the party earned just six to seven seats in Israel’s Knesset, the 120-seat parliament, and at times barely cleared the electoral threshold. That’s far cry from its heyday in 1992, when it secured 44 seats under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“Everybody was so sure that the [Labor Party] was dead. That it’s not possible to revive it. And I knew that it wasn’t true,” Michaeli told DW while on the campaign trail at a kibbutz. “Labor has a role to bring back the Zionist dream, a home for the Jewish people with equality for all, with a just society and with security that stems from striving for peace. Israel needs a strong ruling party on the center-left. That is what I insist on rebuilding now.”
But Michaeli faces a difficult task. Israel’s left-wing camp has long been fragmented, allowing the political right, led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, to dominate the discourse.
As Michaeli makes her way through the throngs of people, there are cries of “rag Bibi” — which means “only Bibi”. It’s the signature slogan of diehard supporters of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s long-term prime minister.
Michaeli keeps smiling under her face mask, even as a group of Likud supporters try to drag her into a discussion about the former Likud prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. She has a clear message for them. “Netanyahu has been in power for 12 years in a row. Removing him is a mandatory requirement,” Michaeli said. “Only after Netanyahu is removed can we start rebuilding our democracy, our politics, our public sphere – without the unbelievable hold that he has had after having been in power for so long.”