Will Merav Michaeli resuscitate Labor?

Each of the two blocs that are contending in the elections hopes that as many splinter parties associated with the opposite side will fail to unite and persist in their decision to run.

NEWLY ELECTED Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli visits a polling station in Tel Aviv last month. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
NEWLY ELECTED Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli visits a polling station in Tel Aviv last month.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Thursday is the last day to register lists for the elections to the 24th Knesset. It is expected that by that date all the new splinter parties – and established parties that have passed their heyday and that appear to stand no chance of passing the qualifying threshold of 3.25% – will either have joined with other parties in a single list, or have decided to leave the contest. Of course, they might still register, but decide to withdraw before Election Day if the opinion polls persist in showing that they stand no chance of passing the qualifying threshold.
Of course, each of the two blocs that are contending in the elections hopes that as many splinter parties associated with the opposite side will fail to unite and persist in their decision to run, and that those associated with its own side “will do the right thing,” so as to lose as few votes as possible.
On the Right we are speaking of the three extreme right-wing National-Religious parties: National Union, Otzma Yehudit and Bayit Yehudi. On the center-left we are speaking of close to 10 new and older parties. It is going to be a fascinating process in which ego and common sense will be confronting each other head on.
The most fascinating development of the last week has been the convincing victory of MK Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party in the leadership primaries of January 24. Michaeli was the only Labor MK in the 23rd Knesset who insisted on not joining the coalition under Netanyahu, when her two colleagues – the former leader of the party Amir Peretz, and MK Itzik Shmuli – accepted ministerial posts in the unity government formed on May 17. 
Now that she has been elected as the party’s new leader, she has demanded that both resign their ministerial posts. They preferred to leave the Labor Party (Perez is planning to run for president, and Shmuli is rumored to be considering joining Benny Gantz, should he decide to run in the approaching elections). Primaries for the Labor Knesset list will be held today (February 1). In fact, Labor will be the only party to hold primaries before the elections. 
It is going to be a rather weird affair. Several days before the primaries, potential voters have no idea whether their name will appear in the list of those entitled to vote, who is running in the primaries, or where and how the voting will be taking place.
What is most extraordinary is that after weeks of opinion polls showing that Labor does not pass the qualifying threshold, since Michaeli was elected, the party appears to have risen above the threshold – ahead of Ron Huldai’s Israelis, and possibly even ahead of what remains of Blue and White. Besides, Michaeli has been picking up compliments from all around the political spectrum for her incredibly effective political moves in the last few weeks, which might well put the Labor Party back on the political map.
It will now be interesting to see whether she will end up joining Huldai before February 4, or whether he will join her. Right after winning the leadership primaries, Michaeli called upon Huldai and Avi Nissenkorn to “come home.” It will be even more interesting to see whether Michaeli will try to convince any of the ego-filled leaders of the remaining splinter parties to join the Labor list. It has been reported that she suggested to Ofer Shelah (formerly of Yesh Atid) to run in the Labor Party primaries. She knows that if she combines with too many outsiders, there will be no meaning to today’s primaries for the list, since there will be no realistic places left for whoever is elected.
One thing is clear: She is likely to be the only woman standing at the head of a list in the approaching elections, even though what remains of Bayit Yehudi is now also led by a woman, Hagit Moshe. However, it is not clear at this point whether Bayit Yehudi will be running as a separate list or together with National Union.
BESIDES BEING the granddaughter of Dr. Israel Kastner, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from death during the Second World War, but was murdered in Israel in 1957 after being accused of having collaborated with the Nazis (his name was cleared by the Supreme Court posthumously), Michaeli is best known for her very verbose feminism, and especially her insistence on speaking (in Hebrew) in the feminine form. Michaeli was first elected to the Knesset in 2013, and since then has accumulated an impressive legislative record, focusing in her parliamentary work on a wide range of issues in the spheres of gender equality, religion and state, LGBT rights, workers’ rights, and promotion of the peace process with the Palestinians.
A year after Michaeli was elected to the Knesset in March 2014, a relaxed and humorous Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared on the satirical TV show State of the Nation (Mazav Ha’Umma) on Channel 2, which Lior Schleien, Michaeli’s non-husband (that is how Michaeli refers to him), hosted. After complaining about the incessant attacks on his beloved wife, Netanyahu jokingly said to Schleien, “Lior, you never know, perhaps someday you will be the prime minister’s wife.”
It is extremely doubtful whether Michaeli will ever become prime minister, but in 2014 no one could have guessed that she might become leader of the Labor Party, just as a month and a half before she was elected to the job nobody believed she would manage to force the party to hold primaries for the leadership and the Knesset list against the wishes of former party leader Amir Peretz. Toward the end of November, when Peretz was still considering having the Labor Party run in the elections together with Blue and White, and Michaeli was struggling for primaries to be held in the party (she was to as far as the Tel-Aviv District Court to force the party to concede), former Labor MK Eitan Cabel, who knows a thing or two about the Labor Party, was still adamant that she didn’t stand a change.
“Hats off to her. She is really making a heroic effort, in which she will fail,” he said in an interview. “So there will be no primaries?” his interviewer persisted. “Absolutely not. As someone has said, ‘The party is deceased. There is nothing there.’”
One of the interesting questions is whether Labor under Michaeli will not only manage to pass the qualifying threshold, but if it will actually manage to muster six, seven or more Knesset seats. There is no doubt that part of the reason why Huldai’s party appears to have gone below the qualifying threshold in recent polls is because many former Laborites are once again considering voting for Labor. One must see if this trend continues, especially if Labor and the Israelis will run in a single list. In addition, Michaeli might actually muster feminist votes. Already some Mizrahi feminists have declared that they will consider voting for her, even though she represents to them the “white feminism,” which they detest. We shall see.
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to appear in English.