It was one of the more dramatic moments of the Labor primary’s June 4 debate. Labor candidate Erel Margalit asked fellow candidate Avi Gabbay, if he ever voted for the rival Likud. Gabbay quickly said no before Margalit whipped out his phone and showed a video of Gabbay admitting to having previously voted for Likud, catching him in an embarrassing lie. Assertive, if sometimes brash, Margalit may be the only Labor candidate able to take on Netanyahu head-to-head as opposition leader, after the party’s primary next week on July 4.
Born in Kibutz Na’an in central Israel, Margalit served in the elite Golani Orev combat unit. He earned millions as a venture capitalist before tossing his hat into politics and entering the Knesset in 2013. Margalit launched his Labor primary campaign two months ago with an unapologetic video embracing his ideological core, a controversial stance for more liberal Israeli politicians. “The term ‘leftist‘ has become a curse word in Israel, and we’re going to stop that. Yes, I am a leftist, and I am not embarrassed about it. Only after we stop lowering our heads and feeling ashamed of who we are, will we win.”
Margalit’s willingness to embrace liberal views stands in stark contrast to other opposition figures. Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, has run away from any association with the left and leads chants of “We love Israel” in Stockholm, and the current labor leader Isaac Herzog noted that peace is currently impossible and insisted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner.
Tal Schneider, a prominent Israeli political analyst explained that Margalit’s campaign embracing his left wing roots touched on an important sentiment. Young Labor party activists have been “very upset in recent years that the left has been tagged as traitors and anti-Zionists by the Israeli government,” she added.
In addition to strong rhetoric, Margalit has pushed the envelope on policy. If elected, Margalit promised to form a government for the first time with Arab parties including Ayman Odeh, breaking a taboo in Israeli politics. During the height of the Palestinian prisoner protest, Margalit met with top Fatah official Jibril Rajoub in April, who the Jerusalem Post called a “convicted terrorist” and called on Netanyahu to give into the demands of the Palestinian prisoners. In highly controversial remarks for a top Israeli politician, Margalit asserted, “The right-wing government is cooking up an intifada because of a pay phone. Netanyahu and Erdan are ignoring Israel Prisons Service recommendations… over nonsense like installing pay phones for prisoners. These are not leaders; these are irresponsible pyromaniacs.”
A fluent English speaker, Margalit has urged for Israel to push for peace — for years a word absent from the vocabulary of Israeli officials — and offer painful concessions to the Palestinians with significant withdrawal from the West Bank. As Margalit explained in an interview, “Israel needs to go back to lead an agreement rather than being led and cornered.” The former venture capitalist emphasized that he supported close to what former PM Ehud Olmert offered to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, which was considered the most far reaching Israeli offer in history to solve the Palestinian conflict.
In addition to policy, Margalit offers the Labor party a toughness not seen by the current leader. With Netanyahu using the dirtiest of tricks when he feels his power is in jeopardy (Before the 2015 election, Netanyahu warned of Arabs voting “in droves” to motivate his hawkish base), Margalit’s willingness to throw some mud may be the only Labor candidate capable of defeating Netanyahu in a future head-to-head matchup.
While many leftists appreciate Margalit’s defense of their values, some question the hiring of Moshe Klughoft to run his campaign. Ido Benbaji, political correspondent for IDF radio – noted that Klughoft also directed Naftali Bennet’s “Stop apologizing” campaign, the ultra-right wing minister and Jewish Home party leader. Some political activists felt “uneasy” with Margalit appointing Klughoft since he targeted leftists during Bennett’s 2015 run including Labor parliamentarian Yossi Yonah as a “traitor,” Benbaji explained.
Some center-left Israeli politicians have been enthralled by President Donald Trump’s push for peace, including MK Tzipi Livni who called the real estate mogul’s administration a “big opportunity for Israel.” Nonetheless, Margalit was unafraid to offer a candid assessment of Trump. After the US President’s uneventful May visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Labor MK noted, “Trump’s visit will be remembered as a historic failure. The president left us with nice pictures but no diplomatic horizon.” Margalit demonstrated that he wouldn’t be bullied by any leader, Israeli or foreign.
Some Labor activists have pinned hope on top contender Amir Peretz. While a strong social activist, Peretz already led the Labor Party and was Defense Minister during the failed 2006 war against Hezbollah and eventually resigne. Peretz left the Labor party to join Livni’s Hatnuah party in 2012 before returning once again. Labor supporters see “Herzog, Yachimovich and Peretz leading the party for 7-8 years,” Schneider, the political analyst, said. “You take those three people and the voters have had enough of them. Maybe, it’s time for a new generation.”
Margalit has some limitations. He never worked as a minister and never rose the military ranks to a senior post like former Labor prime ministers Ehud Barak or Yitzhak Rabin. Yet, his hi-tech background, readiness to use aggressive political tactics, which are necessary to defeat Netanyahu, and willingness to embrace his leftist ideology could make him a formidable foe. With the Labor party’s 16 year wandering in the political desert since the party’s last victory, Margalit may be the left’s last hope after three consecutive Netanyahu victories.