Kafe Knesset: Exclusive interview with Labor's Itzik Shmuli | A tale of two Warsaws | Latest political mergers + a look at the week ahead

Welcome to Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and I look forward to briefing you from now through the upcoming election and beyond. Thank you to our daily subscribers for your interest and support. If you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up here. You can also follow me @NeriZilber and please email Neri@KafeKnesset.com or reply to this newsletter with your news tips and feedback. Thanks!

Exclusive Interview with Labor’s Big Winner (and Future) - Itzik Shmuli: Last week was a good week for the struggling Labor party, currently polling between five to eight seats. The party primaries returned a cohesive, diverse and younger slate ahead of the general election — led by MK Itzik Shmuli, 39, who was the clear first place vote-getter. Shmuli shot to prominence in 2011 when he led the National Student Union during the social justice mass protest movement. He entered politics shortly thereafter, earning a reputation as one of the most socially-conscious parliamentarians of recent years.

In an exclusive interview with Kafe Knesset late last week, Shmuli explained how he beat his more experienced and well-known party rivals, why he’s optimistic the Israeli public will come back to Labor despite the low polling numbers, and what he thinks of Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Kafe Knesset: Congratulations on your achievement. You beat out former party chairs and other MKs with perhaps higher public profiles. How do you explain it?

Itzik Shmuli: It was a tremendous victory for me, but also a signal of renewal and revival in the party. Many were eulogizing the Labor party but tens of thousands of voters came out from north to south, it’s inspiring. And the list that they picked is terrific, [we’re] fighters, with the correct mix of diversity and values for the country: (1) a political process and separation from the Palestinians to ensure a Jewish and democratic state; (2) championing social causes and investment in the right areas; and (3) stopping the current attack on democracy that we see, where people are branded as “traitors” because they think differently, or happen to be a minority or from the LGBTQ community. [KK: Shmuli himself is one of the few openly gay MKs serving.]

Kafe Knesset: And yet, why do you think you personally did so well?

Itzik Shmuli: 90 percent of voters voted for me [in their lists] — it shows that it wasn’t just specific groups or interests. I got in their hearts by tackling real problems, in sectors that no one usually touched before: elderly hospice care, lone soldiers, animal welfare, towns and cities in the “periphery” of the country. And I did this from the opposition! I led to changes and people appreciate it. These voices aren’t heard in the critical decision-making positions. Less and less people are enjoying Israel’s economic prosperity. Israel is a champion in hi-tech and in poverty. There are social gaps, poverty gaps, young people serve in the army, go to university, work hard — and they can’t buy a home or build a family. This was the story of the 2011 protest movement, and I went into the Knesset to change these conditions, to change these unfair “rules of the game.”

Kafe Knesset: You mentioned a crisis in recent weeks inside Labor. Why do you think the party finds itself in its current predicament?   

Itzik Shmuli: I have to first say that the crisis isn’t ideological. 65 to 70 percent of the public agree with us! Politically, economically and socially. But the public saw a divided camp and internal battles. I believe that the chairman [Avi Gabai] will now unite people, and that the team will run and fight together. The other issue is the rise of the new centrist parties that take away Labor voters. I think Gantz’s entry into politics is good and welcome. But it’s unclear what he believes. Everyone wants peace — but are they willing to pay the price? There are ideological contradictions inside his party and he hasn’t ruled out entering Bibi’s government. Is he an alternative to the government or a minister in the government? Labor on the other hand is the only party that says clearly: we want to change the government, we have strong positions, and we have the best team.

Kafe Knesset: How would you describe the current state of US-Israel relations?

Itzik Shmuli: It’s not a coincidence that there’s a crisis in the relationship. It’s a clear result of this government’s attack on democratic values. “Traitors” are identified, minorities like the Druze are treated as second-class citizens, the LGBTQ community are told that they can serve the state but not be part of it, and American Jewry sees an Orthodox [religious] monopoly here that holds veto power and gets to decide who’s a Jew. Democratic-pluralist-liberal values are shown to be a joke. Netanyahu needs to be put to a decision to resolve this contradiction: American Jews are encouraged to raise money [for Israel], lobby, support — they’re told they can have an impact — but they can’t be part of the Jewish state?

A Tale of Two Warsaws: The big debate over the weekend was a postmortem of last week’s Warsaw Conference on Middle East security. Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the gathering — which saw several senior Arab officials come together in one room with the Israeli premier — as “a historic turning point.”

The media and political opposition, however, were less charitable, criticizing Netanyahu for multiple missteps made during the trip: openly confirming recent Israeli strikes inside Syria; misstating the conference’s purpose as “war with Iran” (later fixed to “combating Iran”); inadvertently renewing a diplomatic spat with Poland over its level of culpability for Holocaust crimes; and intentionally leaking a video clip of remarks made by Arab diplomats during a closed dinner. Yet Netanyahu likely got what he wanted from the conference imagery, burnishing his reputation among the Israeli public as a global statesman.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Some potentially significant electoral moves took place over the weekend….The Jewish Home and National Union parties finally reached a deal to run together. The two far-right/pro-settler parties had both been polling under the electoral threshold. The merger now gives them a fighting chance to make it into the next Knesset — and with that, to add votes to the right-wing bloc….

Avi Nissenkorn, head of the giant Histadrut trade union federation, joined Benny Gantz’s Hosen Le’Israel. The Histadrut has historically been tied, for obvious reasons, to the Labor party. Nissenkorn isn’t a very charismatic political figure and it’s not at all clear whether he can bring union votes with him, one Histadrut member told Kafe Knesset. But teaming up with Gantz is a sign of where left-wing votes are migrating….

Israel Katz (Likud) was named acting foreign minister after the Supreme Court ordered Netanyahu to relinquish one of his many ministerial portfolios. It’s a real boon for Katz politically, despite the fact that realistically he will only hold the post for three months until the next government is formed.

The Week Ahead: A busy week kicked off today….The Israeli cabinet was set to decide Sunday how much money (in customs and tax transfers) it will withhold from the Palestinian Authority each month as part of a new anti-terror law. The security establishment is concerned about the potential negative impact the move could have on West Bank stability….

The press-shy Benny Gantz is set to give two speeches this week: Sunday at the Munich Security Conference and Thursday in Jerusalem in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Netanyahu will also address the Jerusalem conference on Monday….

The PM will fly to Moscow on Thursday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — the first meeting between the two since the downing of a Russian jet over Syria late last year (for which Moscow blamed Israel)….

The deadline for party registrations ahead of April’s ballot is this week. Parties officially have until Thursday to submit their slates, so Wednesday is shaping up to be the last chance for any election-defining moves by the many (many) players currently in the mix — especially whether Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid can unite to put forward a serious challenge to Netanyahu and the Likud.