Israeli Labor's new leader: feminist and battle ready

Tel Aviv (AFP) –


Tasked with reviving an Israeli Labor party seen as near death just weeks ago, new leader Merav Michaeli is campaigning for social democracy, feminism and environmental issues.

"Labor has lost its credibility and its backbone," Michaeli, 54, said.

"It should be the centre-left's party of government, to renew the country and get it back on track," she told AFP at her Tel Aviv campaign headquarters ahead of elections set for March 23.

But the road ahead will be a rocky one.

The party has been in severe decline for a generation and Israeli politics has undergone a significant shift to the right, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power since 2009.

Israeli Labor won just three seats in the 120-seat Knesset in last year's national elections, down from 44 in 1992 and a far cry from its decades in power.

Rather than a return to the party's past glory, Michaeli's immediate goal is to influence the tone and policies of an emerging anti-Netanyahu camp that could cobble together the 61 seats to wrest power from the incumbent.

"The most important thing is that the Labor party will have as many seats as possible within that bloc for change, so that no alternative coalition can be built" without it, she said.

The party has already enjoyed something of a bounce since Michaeli trounced opponents in a party primary on January 24, replacing Amir Peretz and becoming only its third woman leader.

After the latest election -- the country's fourth in just two years -- was called in December, polling initially showed Israeli Labor failing to win enough votes to keep a single seat.

But since she took the helm, polls indicate the party will double its tally to six.

- 'Need to rebuild' -

Michaeli did not rule out any potential political partner, but said there would be ground rules. Her predecessor was widely criticised for joining Netanyahu's most recent ill-fated coalition government.

"Rehabilitation of Israeli democracy, return to the rules of the game, return to the voice of reason, that is the only basis" for forming a coalition, she said.

"To replace Netanyahu is not enough -- we need to also replace 'Netanyahuism'."

The incumbent, Israel's longest serving premier who was also in power between 1996 and 1999, is seen by many as a highly divisive figure.

He has notched up a list of diplomatic and economic successes, lately including normalised ties with four Arab nations, but his coalition governments have quickly foundered in recent years and a corruption trial against him opened in May.

Some of Netanyahu's former lieutenants are now seeking to oust him, including defectors from his own Likud party, among them former ministers.

Any viable coalition joined by Labor would need to accommodate parties that have similar right-wing agendas to Likud.

Finding common ground with other parties beyond a shared opposition to Netanyahu will therefore not be easy for Labor, which Michaeli said had lost credibility by joining right-led coalitions in the past.

"There will be many points of disagreement," she acknowledged, noting that breathing new life into her battered party will not be a quick fix.

"We need to rebuild. It will take time, but if we don't make a start it will never happen."

Labor premier Yitzhak Rabin's 1995 assassination by a Jewish extremist opposed to his peace talks with the Palestinians shook the party and its voters, instilling a sense of fear, Michaeli said.

"I think that the Labor party lost its self-confidence -- it happens to every victim of violence.

"I hope that we shall have the maximum ability to spread the standards that we want to bring to the state of Israel," she said.

"Stronger empires than Netanyahu's have fallen."