Pioneering the new Left

Labor MK Erel Margalit denounces the ‘political fuel of fear’ and extols the virtues of regional cooperation and innovation.

MK EREL MARGALIT refuses to see the situation pessimistically and believes that the Right is not destined to remain in power for much longer (photo credit: ZEEVI COMMUNICATIONS)
MK EREL MARGALIT refuses to see the situation pessimistically and believes that the Right is not destined to remain in power for much longer
MK Erel Margalit is on the warpath. The fiery venture capitalist- turned Labor Party politician has of late become increasingly angry over the state of the country, the direction it is heading, and its leadership, particularly the prime minister.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Margalit spells out his objections to the government’s policies and actions, the projects and plans he has been working on to create social change, and his ideas on how to take the country forward should he be given the opportunity.
The MK is most certainly a man on a mission, and that starts with the first goal of winning the Labor Party leadership. Although a date for the leadership election has not yet been set, the party has determined that it must take place before the end of July.
A Rafi Smith poll commissioned by Margalit in January showed support for current leader MK Isaac Herzog collapsing, while Margalit topped the poll, followed closely by former party leader MK Amir Peretz.
One thing Margalit knows for sure is that the current ruling party is on the wrong track.
“The extremists have taken over the Likud,” he says forcefully.
“The Likud is now going to the right of [Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali] Bennett, and these guys are freakin’ crazy.”
Margalit’s political analysis is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been moving steadily to the Right since before the last election in March 2015, due to a political strategy designed to shore up the Likud’s right-wing base, and to an increasingly rightwing Likud Party membership.
Margalit’s voice has been one of the most stridently critical of Netanyahu in recent months, but it is not just over the government’s right-wing proclivities.
The MK has also campaigned strongly, both publicly and through the courts, to have the prime minister investigated over the so-called “submarines affair” in which a German shipbuilder, represented in Israel by Netanyahu’s cousin and personal attorney, was awarded government contracts after a state tender was canceled.
Margalit has publicly pilloried the prime minister over this issue, and traveled to Europe to look into the allegations.
In January, the MK filed a petition to the High Court of Justice, signed by almost 20,000 members of the public, requesting that the court demand the attorney-general open an investigation into Netanyahu for his part in affair.
Two weeks ago, the court ordered Netanyahu to file a response by March 1, a rare step, which indicates that the court takes the petition seriously.
“The Likud is being fractured by corruption and extremism, and it’s betraying the heritage of Jabotinsky, Begin and Shamir,” says Margalit in reference to some of its ideological and political founding fathers.
He is also highly critical of the Right’s new plan of action, such as the “MK impeachment law,” the “settlement arrangement bill” and unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, viewing such actions as dangerous to Israel’s long-term future as a Jewish and democratic state.
“The Right’s agenda will bring the Zionist vision to a halt 10 to 20 years from now, with a situation like what was in South Africa. Is that what we want?” he demands.
As for the current state of his own party and the Left, Margalit refuses to see the situation pessimistically and believes that the Right is not destined to remain in power for much longer.
He acknowledges that Yesh Atid is far ahead of his own party in the polls, but in a swipe at Herzog says that Labor “doesn’t have a leader right now who can face the Right, but should have one soon.”
However, he does not believe that the polls show only the possibility of a right-wing government after the next election, positing that a somewhat unlikely coalition could be formed between Meretz, the two haredi parties, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu, with Labor and Yesh Atid at its center.
But Margalit’s focus is not only on what he sees as the failings of the Likud-led government, but also on projects and efforts to bring greater prosperity to the periphery as well as programs to bolster the Palestinian economy and build bridges with the Palestinian population.
The agenda for Labor and the Left should be toward a new Zionist pioneering spirit, not focused as in the past on kibbutzim and the land but on entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation.
“I’m for getting Labor back to be a party and a movement of pioneers,” he says, and points to several projects he has initiated in Beersheba, Kiryat Shmona and other parts of the periphery.
In 2011, before Margalit was an MK, he and his Jerusalem Venture Partners venture capital fund initiated a cybersecurity incubator in Beersheba that brought more than 1,700 jobs to the city, which now boasts companies of the stature of Lockheed Martin and IBM, which have set up research and development offices in the city.
In January, an innovation quarter for the field of digital health was launched in Haifa, a project Margalit pioneered together with Mayor Yona Yahav, which is seeking to draw numerous start-ups along with several multinational companies to this incubator, which is hoped will lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs.
And he’s now planning a similar project to create a food-tech hub in the Upper Galilee and Kiryat Shmona. A deal to create a research institute in this field has already been struck between Rutgers University in New Jersey and Tel-Hai College. Margalit was also instrumental in securing NIS 650 million for the economic development of northern Israel, as part of a wider NIS 15 billion government development program for the North, aimed at attracting companies to the region, increasing productivity and budgetary support for small- and medium- sized businesses.
The MK is persistent in underlining his record of concrete accomplishments as proof of his bona fides in being a man of action, who doesn’t talk but gets things done for the benefit of the average citizen.
In fact, he sees this as a critical selling point for himself in his campaign to become leader of the Labor Party, and for the Left in general to make itself more attractive to the voting public.
“You need to show that you can do things, that you’re not just a talker, and what I’m doing is showing, not telling,” he says.
However, he is so intent on accomplishments that it is not immediately clear if he has a definitive political message, and he struggles to articulate one.
On the one hand, his focus on tangible accomplishments through the projects he has launched is a laudable quality in a profession where style can often trump substance.
But in light of recent global political events, the potency and importance of a clear political message, even without a record of achievement, should not be discounted, nor should the dangers of failing to formulate such a vision.
Frequently, it can seem that Margalit’s sharpest vision is of an Israeli political scene without Netanyahu, but as the Left learned during the last election, it takes such an approach at its peril.
Still, he is aware of Labor’s current failings, especially in the image it has been stuck with as not reliable on issues of national security.
To redress that specific problem, Margalit has sought to attract several senior figures from the security establishment to Labor, such as Amiram Levin, a former IDF major-general commander who was OC Northern Command and served as deputy director of the Mossad, who joined the party at the end of January, and Giora Inbar, a former IDF brigadier-general.
“Labor was always the party for which security was its central theme, and commanders and ex-commanders of the IDF, the Shin Bet and so on are mostly with us, so let’s bring them back to be part of the identity of the party,” he argues.
The MK also points to a long list of serving municipal mayors who are part of Labor, who he says could be great assets in attracting voters from outside Labor’s stronghold in the country’s central region. He says that as head of Labor, he would try to recruit some of these mayors to the national electoral list.
Not all would be willing to run for Knesset, but some would, and those mayors could be major vote-winners in a national election, Margalit asserts.
He admits, however, that plying the electorate of the periphery, which is strong Likud country, away from the Right will be hard work and something that will not happen overnight, although he points again to his work generating jobs in the periphery as a strong reason for residents there to vote Labor.
He has also held a series of parlor meetings in the North and South of the country in an effort to get across his political message to these regions, in places such as Kiryat Shmona and Ashkelon.
Besides his plans for rehabilitating the Labor Party, forging a new path with the Palestinians is something Margalit sees as critical for Israel’s well-being.
Should he win the Labor Party leadership, there would be several items on his agenda to advance in order to revive efforts to come to a conflict resolution agreement with the Palestinians, he says.
Because relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have deteriorated so badly in recent years, Margalit says both sides need to initiate reciprocal trust-building measures, and that he would demand the Palestinians stop their campaign of diplomatic warfare, while a settlement construction freeze outside of the main settlement blocs could be considered on Israel’s part.
He says that he would also issue a declaration declaring his support for a two-state solution, and seek the assistance of the US, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League in working toward that goal.
Margalit says that Palestinian refugees and their descendants should be allowed to settle in the putative Palestinian state, and that any resolution would include “a creative” agreement over Jerusalem, which would “respect the rights and dignity of the three religions and their holy sites,” although he has not fully defined this plan yet.
But he insists that he would not take unilateral steps, at least in the short term, stating that reciprocity is a crucial component of finding a resolution, and citing the disengagement from Gaza as an example of the dangers of unilateralism.
What’s critical, he says, is that Israel begin taking the initiative and present its ideas for dealing with the conflict, instead of being passive and allowing others to set the agenda, something he accuses Netanyahu of having done.
“Is everything going to be agreed on? No. But I’m walking into a room with a desire to strike a deal, which then looks totally different in the eyes not of my enemies, but in the eyes of my allies – the US, UK, Germany, France, European and South American countries – which want to be supportive. This creates a vision.”
And Margalit also sees creating regional alliances with neighbors as a critical component of shoring up security, even with a multilateral security framework, akin to NATO, which could draw in Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and moderate North African states such as Tunisia and Morocco.
“The Middle East is not about Arabs against Jews, it’s about extremists against those willing to stand up to them,” he argues, pointing to the common enemies Israel shares with its neighbors, such as Hamas, opposed by Egypt, Islamic State and Iran.
“We need to identify not only our enemies but those who we can work with us against our enemies and perhaps become allies.
This doesn’t mean we will become lovers, but allies is possible.”
He acknowledges, however, that all such plans for regional cooperation would require addressing the conflict with the Palestinians.
Ultimately, Margalit seems most concerned about what he describes as the sharp turn the Right has taken in recent years, and insists that the Left needs a new leader to tackle this phenomenon.
“When you have a debate about the direction of the country, you need a different type of leadership.
If Bibi is leading by fear, if he’s using corruption, if he’s going further right than Attila the Hun and [Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali] Bennett, then you need someone else on the other side,” he says vehemently.
In a historical reference to the original Sicarii extremists of the late Second Temple era, he argues that the country is in danger of taking the same route once again.
“The Sikrikim brought about the destruction, and the rabbis needed to leave Jerusalem in coffins because the Jews wanted to kill them,” he says in reference to the Talmudic account of one of the Talmudic sages being smuggled out of Jerusalem to meet with the Roman commander.
Instead of what he describes as a campaign of fear, Margalit says a vision of hope and the benefits that might accrue to the nation from a more moderate path is required.
“The current government has tapped into fear, and they’re using it; whenever there is a crisis, they are amplifying it.
“Fear is great political fuel, but the only fuel that is even stronger is hope. But hope is tricky because it’s hard to bring it as an agenda, and it’s not always as visible as fear.”
Instead, he insists that it is not only fear and crisis that can unite the state, and argues that the early Zionist leaders, such as Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and others, founded a movement and a nation through hope and out of a shared vision.
Although the political climate in Israel and abroad does not seem particularly favorable for the more hope-filled brand of politics right now, Margalit is doing his utmost to restore some vim and vigor to the Israeli Left, while highlighting the opportunities inherent in regional cooperation and an attitude toward conflict issues that is more restrained than that of the current government.
Whether he will get the opportunity to put these ideas to the test remains to be seen.