Labor Leader ‘Looking For Bridges’ Within Israel


Q: What is your reaction to the recent comment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he still has the support of Israelis, that he has no plans to call early elections and expects a big victory when he runs for re-election in November 2019?

A: I think change is coming in Israel. I think that after four times that Bibi [Netanyahu] has been the prime minister, a lot of people feel that maybe it is time for new ideas and new initiatives and new people. I think he is in a lot of trouble. [He is under investigation in] three or four major [corruption] cases. … There is enough evidence on the table that would imply that there’s going to be an indictment.

Do you plan to run again for leader of the Labor Party?

I came to Israeli politics from a career where I managed big projects and big things. Right now, I’m part of a team and I will contribute whatever I can. What we need in Israel now is a team of young leaders that would change the strategic direction of the country, and that direction should bring back clean government and economic development of inclusion rather than exclusion.

What things are you working on?

It is very clear you need real projects of cooperation between Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Moroccans on health care, agriculture … and new water strategies for the region because it is drying up.

You need innovators, and I’m meeting with people from Cairo, Amman and Dubai. The younger generation does not have all the baggage. They have the language of entrepreneurs. Let’s start with cooperative efforts. … Countries need to protect their airports and banks [from cyberattacks] — these are things I am promoting with the U.S., Europe and the region. It creates respect and trust. 

Does the Labor Party really have a chance of winning the premiership in the current political climate in Israel?

There are a bunch of political forces in Israel that are interested in having Israel go back to being proactive rather than reactive on the political front. Maybe it is time to bring the entrepreneurial spirit. There should not only be talk of what we have to give up but what we have to gain for the region.

Iran is very active with Hezbollah and Syria and is trying to be active in Gaza. … It is threatening the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. So to be proactive in a regional approach with the U.S. would make sense, and in order to do that you have to be willing to have a political compromise with the Palestinians.

Israel’s High Court of Justice has ruled that the government’s policy regarding exemptions to the ultra-Orthodox for military and national service is unjust because it discriminates against most Israelis who are drafted. Do you agree?

On principle, I agree. But there is a what and a how. It is not army service but it is making a living that is the bridge [to integrating the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli life], and I am looking for bridges. I argue with the ultra-Orthodox about the conversion bill because I think it is detrimental. And the Kotel [Western Wall] agreement should have been honored. I’m saying that I am finding ways to cooperate with them, and I’d like them to understand not just about Israel but the Jewish people. If we send a message to big parts of the Jewish people that their spiritual leaders are not accepted in Israel, it could cause a big problem between younger Jews here and the State of Israel. … We need mutual respect. The new leadership in Israel would embrace American Jewry whatever they are because it is strategic. I want the strategic and amazing relationship between Israel and American Jewry to flourish rather than be under attack.

Erel Margalit has been a member of Israel’s Labor Party since he was elected to the Knesset in 2013. The founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners-JVP, an internationally recognized venture capital fund, he is in the process of creating seven regional centers of excellence in Israel. Earlier this year he lost an election to become his party’s leader. The Jewish Week caught up with him by phone recently when he was in New York.