New leader seeks to save Israel's Labor party from extinction

Merav Michaeli is hoping to bring life back to Israel's Labor party after a long period of decline
Merav Michaeli is hoping to bring life back to Israel's Labor party after a long period of decline JACK GUEZ AFP/File
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's Merav Michaeli, the feminist now leading Labor, says she is hoping to bring the party back from the brink of extinction in elections next week.

Once Israel's dominant party, Labor had slumped so far that polls following December's snap election call showed it winning no seats at all in the next parliament.

But Michaeli's sweeping win in a January 24 primary sparked hopes of a recovery.

Labor's third female leader in its 50-year history now has the party comfortably projected to pass the threshold required to join parliament.

Recent polls have given it up to six seats in the 120-member Knesset, double what it won in elections a year ago.

Michaeli, 54, concedes Labor has no chance of catching the front-runners: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and its centrist challenger Yesh Atid.

But she wants Labor to make its mark on an anti-Netanyahu camp that could coalesce after the vote to end the premier's record 12 consecutive years in power.

"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 told AFP in an interview this month.

- 'Need to rebuild' -

Michaeli was born in the town of Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, in 1966.

It was the golden age of Labor, whose leader Golda Meir -- so far the only female prime minister in Israel's history -- was in office from 1969 to 1974.

But the rise of Likud, the failures of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and the ensuing second Palestinian intifada set the party on a long slide towards obscurity.

When Michaeli entered parliament in 2013, she prioritised gender and LGBT equality, workers' rights and the moribund peace process with the Palestinians.

Now as party leader, she wants to reform and revitalise Labor's brand.

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

Signs of an overhaul are evident in the party's list of parliamentary candidates, which feature four women in the top 10 and an Arab politician.

In keeping with her commitment to pluralism there is also a reform rabbi, who would be the first non-Orthodox rabbi to sit in the legislature.

Following Israel's last vote in March 2020, Labor under former chief Amir Peretz decided to join Netanyahu's coalition government, breaking a pre-election promise and drawing fire from the left.

Peretz has since left politics.

Michaeli, who refused to sit in Netanyahu's government, is in the ascendant -- and on track become the only female party leader in the Knesset.