Political Affairs: Itzik Shmuli is ready to ‘take the reins’

Former student leader tells the ‘Post’ he’s the candidate to beat in the upcoming race for leadership of the struggling Labor Party.

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June 21, 2019 00:19
Political Affairs: Itzik Shmuli is ready to ‘take the reins’

ITZIK SHMULI: I believe I can take a party in a storm to safe waters. (photo credit: REUVEN KAPUCHINSKI)

 
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Itzik Shmuli won 90% of the vote in Labor’s primary for its Knesset list just four months ago.

But those Labor members on February 11 were voting for him for a top slot on the list behind chairman Avi Gabbay.

Will they also choose Shmuli with such overwhelming numbers when the Labor leadership is on the line in the July 2 primary?

The most veteran candidate in the race, MK Amir Peretz, took the threat from Shmuli so seriously that he did everything possible to prevent the primary from happening. He went to court in an unsuccessful effort to enable a small group of Labor activists – not its 60,000 members – to decide the party’s next leader.

Having won that battle, Shmuli must now beat Peretz and MK Stav Shaffir, Shmuli’s fellow leader in the 2011 socioeconomic protests. Other candidates have until Tuesday to enter the race.

Shmuli has come a long way since he co-led those protests as the head of the National Union of Israeli Students.

He brought more than 600 students to live alongside him in Lod to improve life in the central development town.

That initiative, called Tozeret Ha’aretz (Made in Israel), has since been spread to 25 more communities across the country.

Since first getting elected to the Knesset in 2013, he has passed key socioeconomic legislation, which led to him winning the Most Socioeconomically-conscious MK Award from the Mishmar Hevrati (The Social Guard) organization five years in a row and the annual Outstanding Parliamentarian Award from the Israel Democracy Institute in 2018.

But the pinnacle achievement for Shmuli, as far as he is concerned, came on March 21, when his son, Nevo, was born to a surrogate in the United States, less than three weeks before the election. He is raising him with his life partner, Eran, in Kessalon, a small moshav in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council.

Shmuli, 39, notes in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that he is the same age Emmanuel Macron was when he got elected president of France, and says the time has come for young leadership to take over Israel as well.

Do you expect this race to be a repeat of the February primary?

There is a democratic contest. I am taking it seriously. Nothing is clear. I had the support of 90%, which was unprecedented. That makes me the favorite.
There were those who over the past weeks tried to choke democracy and prevent primaries, to make the decision in a closed forum and not allow the members of the party to have their say. You cannot fight for democracy outside and strangle it internally.
I am glad my struggle succeeded. It will enable as many strong candidates as possible to come. I think a healthy competition between strong candidates will be good for the party. I am sure I will get the mandate from the members and will be the next head of the party.

If you win, what will you do first?

The first challenge for the next party chairman is to deal with the worst crisis ever for this magnificent party. I am fully aware of this. We need a restart. We need someone to raise the party from its ruins and give it hope.
I can bring back voters from Blue and White and other places and cause them to believe in us again because of my credibility. When I ask them to give us another chance, they will come.
Labor has not been reaching out to key sectors in recent years, including Arabs, Druze, liberal Orthodox and residents of the periphery. In all those sectors, there is great respect for me. I can build bridges instead of walls with them. Over the past several years, I have fought for them and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with the legislation I passed from the opposition. They will see Labor as a political home they will want to join.
Labor does not lead the Center-Left bloc, but it can build bonds with movements to create a whole larger than its parts, including outside our camp, to enable us to beat Netanyahu.

What bonds do you support?
I am the candidate who can give us the widest options among those in and out of politics. I come without ego. Only enlarging the camp will guide me. I am in touch with relevant players in Blue and White, Meretz, Orly Levy-Abecassis, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni to create the kind of platform to maximize support for the party and the camp.

Is there fear Labor will cease to exist?
I am aware of the danger. This is the worst crisis we have faced as a party.
We need our party to be strong to bring about two states for two peoples by separating from the Palestinians, and to keep the democratic nature of the country; [and] to fight for the rule of law and key socioeconomic issues.
The public believes in the views of Labor. We didn’t succeed in translating our political beliefs into votes, and I believe I can do it. Just as in life I never avoided challenges out of fear, so, too, in politics, I believe I can take a party in a storm to safe waters.

What is your response to Amir Peretz saying that in a time of crisis, the party needs more veteran leadership?

That is nonsense. I didn’t see his generation do too well. We got where we did under veteran leadership. Emmanuel Macron was prime minister at 39. The most important decisions that will have to be made soon will have an impact on younger people.
The time has come for my generation to take the reins. It happened in France, Canada, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Austria and more. The time has come for such young leadership to blossom in Israel as well.

Why didn’t Avi Gabbay succeed?
Besides his failure, we must recall the positives and his good intentions. He made the sensible decision to not continue in politics. He made the mistake of assuming our base was in our pocket. He tried to reach out to new sectors and lost our own.
One mistake was saying settlements do not need to be evacuated. I came out strongly against this. I believe, in order to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, there is no alternative to separating from the Palestinians.
The distancing of the Arab sector at a time when the Right was delegitimizing it was another mistake. Ignoring them as a party was unethical morally and not smart politically.
Of course, there are disputes and great differences between us as a Zionist party and the Arab MKs in the Knesset. But we need to look at our wider goal of replacing the government, and it cannot happen without the support of the Arabs, as there was in the days of Yitzhak Rabin.
We need them to stop the prime minister from harming our democracy by obtaining immunity and promoting extremists. Bezalel Smotrich in the security cabinet is political dynamite. Rafi Peretz has had shocking statements against women, Reform and Conservative Jews and the LGBT community.
Netanyahu, in return from the extremists, is obtaining a shield to protect himself from the prosecution in the future. The Supreme Court override clause would destroy democracy by enabling a thin majority to pass bills that go against the Declaration of Independence and harm human rights.

Does Blue and White have what it takes to lead the country?

We have enough problems in Labor, so I don’t want to get into theirs, but as the party that purports to currently lead the Center-Left, they better get their act back together.
Last time, they took an approach that might have reinforced their egos, but it harmed the ability of the camp to win. Instead of turning to the Center-Right for votes, they took a loser’s approach by taking votes away from Labor and Meretz in their own political camp. We got another chance, and it is forbidden to repeat that mistake.

Will you try to break up Blue and White and replace Yesh Atid as Gantz’s partner?
That is too far down the road. I am running for Labor leader. Let me win first and then work on bonds. I will consider all options and do the right thing for the Center-Left camp and for my party.

Do you define yourself as Left or Center?
I believe in separating from the Palestinians, civil rights, social justice, equality, democracy and defending human rights. If that is what is left-wing, I am left-wing. If it is Center, I am Center.
Instead of stupid definitions, we need to focus on the real danger caused by the current Israeli government. We must stop with the endless internal battles and direct our energy outward.

Why should you and not Stav Shaffir lead, among the socioeconomic protest leaders?
The question is who can build Labor and make more people believe in the party. I have succeeded in bringing about achievements, not just leading protests. The appreciation there for me will enable me to lead the party to new heights, together with Stav, Amir, Shelly [Yacimovich] and more. A Channel 13 poll found that the Center-Left voters want me to win. I am a fighter and a doer and a uniter. I don’t just struggle. I get things done.

Would there be significance to being the first LGBT leader of an Israeli party?

My identity includes many components. I am a social democrat with an emphasis on socioeconomic issues, a leader of the people, and also a gay father to Nevo. I am all those things together. So it has importance symbolically, but my goal is to impact reality practically.
A week ago, the first gay minister was appointed, but the first thing he said was that Supreme Court rulings don’t have to be accepted, which is not only crazy, it hurts the LGBT community, whose rights are protected by the courts.
I will continue acting for the rights of the LGBT community, just as I fight to improve the lives of many sectors in Israeli society.

Would you take Labor into a Netanyahu-led government?
I was the one who blocked and prevented the party from entering the government and saving Netanyahu.
That does not mean the Likud and Labor cannot cooperate. There have been national unity governments, and there can be agreements on policies. But that is not what stands before us, which is Labor being the bulletproof vest of Netanyahu, [protecting him] from his indictments, and I think that would be destructive to the country and the state.
The Likud as part of a unity government with Blue and White without Netanyahu cannot be ruled out, with certain conditions. It is a matter of coalition guidelines, policies, and where such a coalition would take the country. But again, of course, without Netanyahu.

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