How a Trash-talking Millionaire Is Positioning Himself to Whip the 'Weak and Whiney' Israeli Left Into Shape

Erel Margalit sees himself as the anti-Herzog: rude, crude and 'man enough' to take on Netanyahu.

Labor MK Erel Margalit, in the Knesset in 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

“Nice doesn’t cut it anymore,” proclaims millionaire venture capitalist-turned-politician Erel Margalit, who is positioning himself to challenge the leadership of, and to try and take the helm of, Israel’s Labor Party.

Where to start his campaign? On social media, of course – and with a lot of shouting.

Margalit’s much-talked-about video, which he posted on his Facebook page almost two weeks ago, has certainly accomplished one thing he set out to do: to get attention.

Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit's video: Give Us Our Country Back, Dammit!

In the two-and-a-half minute spot, Margalit, 55, a mild-mannered-looking man, wearing a light blue, button-down shirt – no tie – and well-tailored dark jacket, stares right into the camera. He takes in a quick breath, as if revving up, thrusts his head forward into the frame and barks: “Give us back our country, damn it!!”

Doing his very best not to seem like a “nice guy,” Margalit sneers at the ruling Likud party’s macho image and calls its members out as clowns, cowards and even, as he puts it at one point, “psychopaths.”

“Basically all they do is whine, incite, get hysterical and curl up with their tails between their legs and then cry,” he charges, his lip curling slightly.

The first-term member of Knesset goes on to mock, bait and question the manhood of the right-wing camp: from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down to the more extreme members among the rank-and-file.

The clip is rude and crude – and 1.2 million people and counting have watched it.

“We have a nice guy at the head of our party and we are not going anywhere,” stresses Margalit, explaining the thinking behind the spot, in an interview with Haaretz.

It is probably no coincidence that the video was released right when the current Labor Party and opposition leader – the soft-spoken Isaac Herzog, whom Margalit has supported in the past – was having one of his worst few weeks ever.

It started with Herzog, who had led the party since 2013, being questioned by the police, under caution, about misuse of donations to his election campaign three years ago.

Several days later, Herzog’s chief rival within the party, MK Shelly Yacimovich, busy slamming him when he was down, had yet another reason to attack. This, after Herzog, trying to seem tough himself, fumbled his words and ended up making a racist comment, claiming Labor shouldn’t give the constant impression that they are “Arab lovers.” To top off the week, Herzog’s armored car was totaled in a road accident.

The charges against Herzog are likely to fade, along with the bruises on his legs and lips. His racist comments will probably be explained away. But still, the weakened leader seems increasingly vulnerable to attacks from within. Recent polls, taken before legal allegations against Herzog were made public, show support for him, his party and the Zionist Union faction – which Labor and another party, Hatnuah, created together in advance of last year’s election – all losing support.

“We screwed up. We screwed up because we let them [the right wing] scream – scream and look like men,” Margalit continues in the video, turning his message toward his own leftie camp. “Now, we are going to show them that we know how to scream better, too.”

In the past 20 years Likud has had two leaders, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, who became prime minister. Labor, in turn, has gone through seven leaders in the same period, only succeeding in getting one of them – military hero, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak – elected.

And that is where Margalit sees himself coming in, positioning himself as the supposed anti-Herzog: not wimpy, not whiney, and "man enough" to run this tough country.

In fact, since no date has yet been set for the Labor primary, Margalit is not officially running for anything. But still, most saw his video as the opening salvo in his race to replace Herzog, and the MK doesn’t deny it: Once there is a date for the primary, he promises – the Israeli public, “will be hearing from me.”

“Let me tell you something: I didn’t come to Israeli politics to be a back bencher,” Margalit stresses in the interview. “I came to politics because I want to lead and there is time and place for everything.”

Talking to ‘thugs’

A kibbutznik who spent his high-school years in Michigan (where he played point-guard for a local basketball team), Margalit, after completing his army service and bachelor’s degree in Jerusalem, moved to New York and earned a PhD in philosophy and logic from Columbia University. Before being elected to the Knesset in 2013, he had an incredibly successful career as a high-tech and social entrepreneur, founding the Jerusalem Venture Partners venture capital firm.

“Yes, I have a PhD and was a key player within the ‘Start-up Nation’ – but it’s now time to go down to the street level and talk to thugs in the way they can hear,” says Margalit. “This is not the way we talk in philosophy class. No. Now we have to start roaring.”

“I ate shit, sweat and blood with my friends from Golani!” yells Margalit in the video, driving home his point that no one is going to teach him, a sergeant major in his infantry brigade’s elite Orev combat unit, about caring for or protecting the country.

“The only gun he held was a water gun he picked up at a pool party at a casino in Bucharest,” Margalit continues, laying into Oren Hazan, former nightclub owner-turned-much-maligned Likud MK, a photo of whom – surrounded by scantily clad women – flashes up on the screen. And that’s just the beginning. Few are left unscathed in Margalit’s video tirade: The hilltop settler youth belong in closed institutions; the problem with the members of the far-right Jewish Lehava organization begins with the fact that “no woman would ever want them.”

Security is not the only arena Margalit is out to reclaim for himself and his party. The right wing “doesn’t even piss in the direction of the periphery,” he shouts, referring to poorer Israelis who live on the margins of the country’s more elite geographic centers.

“I have done more for the periphery in one week than Miri Regev will in her life,” he goes on, putting down the Likud culture minister who herself comes from the periphery and has made taking care of that population a cornerstone of her agenda.

“But we abandoned the stage. We left the stage to those who stick flags up their asses instead of raising them with pride,” Margalit continues, in a reference to a left-wing artist who, at a Haaretz culture conference this winter, did just that.

Since the release of his clip two weeks ago, the MK tells Haaretz, “thousands of people” – among them lapsed Labor voters and both those from the center and moderate right, he says – have contacted him to ask how to register as Labor members, and support him.

But despite this reported interest, the many views the video has garnered and the attention the cursing is getting from the media – the verdict is still out about the spot, and more importantly, about Margalit’s chances of taking the leadership of his party – not to mention winning a general election.

Eitan Cabel, another player sometimes touted as a possible future Labor Party leader, had little good to say about his fellow MK’s tactics: “I would not have made such a video,” he said tersely.

Others were harsher: “The path to losing it all is paved with dirty words,” MK Miki Rosenthal, yet another Laborite said. “Margalit is making a mockery of himself. This is what happens when you let advisers take over.”

Indeed, besides objecting to the language and tone of the video, as well as the idea that to fight vulgarity within the system one has to join it, many here – especially from within Margalit’s own camp – have pounced on the question of the consultants behind the effort.

These, point out the party faithful – with horror – were led by PR man Moshe Klughaft, the very same person who ran the campaign of MK Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing religious Habayit Hayehudi party. Klughaft also created the menacing – and broadly condemned – video spot for the far-right wing organization Im Tirtzu, which portrayed human rights and left-wing activists as “foreign moles.”

In line with his new “I don’t give a damn,” image, Margalit breezily dismisses this line of criticism.

“Let them say what they want,” he responds. “I had so many people who wanted to work with me – and I chose these guys. I needed a voice that was different and bold, and I don’t care if they are left or right,” he says. “I don’t only like ideas from my own camp. I am interested in ideas from all segments of society. If we want to talk just to ourselves – that would be boring.”

He never expected everyone to connect with his message or his tone, Margalit admits, but he has faith that his is the winning formula.

“We can’t watch what is going on in this country and just say ‘Oy, oy, oy’” he charges. “We can’t stop thugs with nice language. And enough is enough. I am speaking the language that will lead the left wing to victory.”

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