Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Somewhere Better Than We Are Now? Only a Big Tent Offers Hope

The news this morning carried a hurried announcement that MK Merav Michaeli, running to head the battered, bleeding and, many say, moribund Labor party in today’s party primaries, had made a deal with Ron Huldai of the new Yisraelim party, for the two parties to  run together in March’s election — if she wins Labor’s primary.

But the news this evening is that there was no such deal. Yet, at least.

And also that Michaeli has won the Labor primary overwhelmingly, with a stunning 77% of the votes cast.

A poll just out shows Huldai’s party just at the electoral threshold, down from the double digits it polled when first announced but a few weeks ago, while Labor, for the first time in months, passes that threshold.

Clearly, things are very volatile and likely will remain so until the party’s lists are finalized on Feb. 4. But that short period is critical for forming political combinations that are the only hope for an end to the reign of Netanyahu. A multiplicity of parties means lost votes of those which, inevitably, will not pass the electoral threshold, and those, effectively, go to Likud. Indeed, For Netanyahu, the more parties the merrier, and not only on the center left. He is urging the radical-rightist, openly racist, MK Bezalel Smotrich, to break from Netanyahu’s nemesis, Naftali Bennett, of Yamina, and form his own party, in the hope of diminishing them both. Smotrich may fall for this. If he doesn’t, Bennet will have to accommodate him, which would also make Netanyahu’s day, but far less so than splitting that vote while Netanyahu, now running as a centrist, courts Arab votes. All the splits, and some Arab votes, could give him 3-4 seats and put him over the top, if not with 61 seats, then still with enough to get the nod to form yet another government, the Knesset having failed to pass legislation barring Prime Ministers under indictment from forming a government or continung to serve as the head of one, a stricture which binds mere members of Knesset. For this, we have Gantz and Kahol Lavan, and Labor under Amir Peretz, to thank.

The opposition to Netanyahu simply must join up. This means, of course, Yesh Atid, the largest of the opposition parties to Netanyahu/ Likud, aside from Gideon Saar and his new party. Either this or we are doomed to Netanyahu, yet again, and to a fifth election– March’s being the fourth in two years.

Michaeli is a veteran legislator, smart, principled, openly feminist, and pragmatic, a doer. It would be terrible if she is out of the Knesset because of what her predecessors at the head of Labor, Avi Gabbai and Amir Peretz, did to the party, the first, taking it from its 24 seats under Isaac Herzog to six; the second, from six to a threatened zero. Michaeli opposed Peretz joining with Gantz when both made the fatal error of forming a government with Netanyahu, a disfunctional coalition of Netanyahu enablement that endured until it imploded under the weight of Netanyahu’s lies and manipulations.

Michaeli, unlike Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, refused to take a ministry under that regime. That leaves her clean now, credible, on top of her long record before that fiasco.

We need hope. So badly, we need hope that the era of Netanyahu will finally end. That he will go to trial already.

That the learned helplessness that plagues us– that there is no alternative to Netanyahu– will be exploded in a functional new reality.

Meretz now has two Arabs in the top five of its electoral list, one of whom, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, is in spot #4, and all but sure to get in, since all polls show Meretz consistently passing the electoral threshold (of 3.5% of the vote, which gives a minimum of 4 Knesset seats). Zoabi (no relative, familial or ideological, of the radical, erstwhile MK Hanin of the same family name), has been an activist for local Arab community needs and is an expert on local management. That should position her to pull Arab votes to someone who actually is familiar with those needs and has a record of delivering. She is careful not to criticize the Joint List while stating that her place with Meretz because she is a liberal-leftist, while the Joint List is an amalgam of Arab parties that include the Islamist Ra’am, which lately turned to helping Netanyahu in the Knesset and learned, to its distress, what that gets them (about this, see

Both Haaretz and, notably, even the center-right Jerusalem Post, had interviews with Zoabi in their most recent weekend editions. She comes across as smart and impressive, clear about her ideological positions, and a pragmatist.

So, there are seeds of hope, from a number of directions. But only smart decisions now will deliver seeds to fruition– and begin to deliver us from Netanyahu.

Lapid/ Yesh Atid has already signed a surplus vote sharing agreement with Liberman/ Yisrael Beytenu. Labor and the latter party don’t make a natural partnership but Liberman has shown himself ready to make pragmatic decisions, including this surplus vote deal with Lapid, whom Netanyahu labors endlessly to tar with the deadly “leftist” label, not one Liberman would seek. But Netanyahu has called Liberman a leftist, too, since that term, with the traitorous connotations he has succeeded in attaching to it, to him, simply means anyone who opposes him. He is having a hard time pinning that label on the ideologically pure, right-wing Gideon Saar, who now has Benny Begin with him. We can only wonder what he will concoct to try to delegitimize them.

Liberman and his party have been declining in the polls since Saar split from Likud and made his own party. He has reasons to shore himself up with a large coalition that could actually take Netanyahu down, working in some tandem with Saar.

Who ends up with more power in that scenario and gets the nod to form a government, may it only be, depends on the outcome of the voting in March. A broad, center-left coalition now could at least take former Kahol Lavan voters who might otherwise go to Saar– and let’s hope Gantz, whose party is just at the electoral threshold, does the right thing, so that any votes he might get won’t go to waste, meaning, to Likud.

What does Labor, even under Michaeli, have to offer anyone? Not much. Heading Labor now does not give Michaeli many/any cards– and it says much about her that, despite this, she fought to lead it. Her only real currency at this point– is her. But Michaeli winning the party primary overwhelmingly is indication that she has a following and, she could claim, though she will still have to earn them, voters.

How marvelous it would be if she  managed to bring Tzipi Livni back in, after the ignominous trashing Gabbay gave her while throwing her out, and then driving the party into a ditch. What a shakeup that would be; what competence, experience, record, creds, the two of them would represent, for all their differences. Ah, to hear Michaeli say: when we win enough votes, Livni is Justice Minister.

Clearly, an agreement of Labor with Meretz has to happen. Meretz got thrown a lifeline out of electoral extinction in the last election. It’s Meretz’s turn to do the same now for Labor.

Michaeli’s win is a fragile branch of hope that, with further intelligent stewardship, combinations will be made that will lead us somewhere better than where we are now.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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