How Media Personalities Became the Israeli Left’s New Generals

Three parties on the left or center of Israeli politics are now headed by former television stars who all learned their craft on live TV – and it’s no coincidence

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Merav Michaeli posing for a photo during a Labor Party primary.
Merav Michaeli posing for a photo during a Labor Party primary.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When Merav Michaeli became leader of the Labor Party last month – instantly boosting the left-wing party’s fortunes in the polls prior to the March 23 election – the internet immediately exploded with speculation as to which parties she might consider merging with. 

A video from the 1990s quickly began making the rounds on Hebrew-language Twitter. In it, Michaeli and Yair Lapid (now leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party), emerge flustered and laughing from behind a sofa, she adjusting a visible bra strap, he buckling his belt. The video wasn’t fake: it came from the archives of Lapid’s early years as a variety show host. It was proof, chuckled the Twitterati, that these two politicians should have no trouble hooking up.

The two young people in the clip are hardly recognizable today. Lapid’s gelled black hair has turned silver; Michaeli has traded her tight tank tops for long-sleeved blouses and slacks, and they have spent numerous years working hard to be taken seriously enough to lead political parties – perhaps even the country.

When the clip was filmed in 1994, both were rising media stars. Michaeli was hosting a talk show on Israeli television, where she became famous for flirting with guests and dipping her fingers into food during cooking segments. Lapid was a multitasker: writing novels and plays along with newspaper columns; starring in a hit romantic comedy (1994’s “Shirat Hasirena,” or “Song of the Siren”).

Television, however, turned out to be his medium and he eventually headed the main weekend news show on Israel’s highest-rated channel. 

Merav Michael back in her days as a TV personality. Credit: Chen Mika

Together with Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz, Michaeli, 54, and Lapid, 57, complete the domination of Israel’s center and left-wing parties by former media personalities.

The three are still standing while former army chiefs of staff – historically viewed as the most promising prospects for political leadership – are falling or fading away. Of the famed leadership “cockpit” of Kahol Lavan in the past three elections, two of those generals (Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon) have announced their departure from the political battlefield for the upcoming contest and Gantz is struggling to stay relevant after having plummeting in the polls. The most recent former chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, has refused numerous offers for top spots in parties and is staying out of the fray.

‘Highly visible people’

The milestone, observes University of Haifa professor of communications Gabi Weimann, represents a “changing of the guard of the Israeli elites.”  He says it’s unsurprising that well-known television figures are succeeding in politics while the generals are struggling. “Political parties are looking for famous names, for celebrities, faces that voters will recognize – highly visible people that voters look up to and admire. That used to be the generals.

“When I was growing up,” he says, “I could easily name four Israel Defense Forces generals. If you ask my children or grandchildren, I doubt they would. But if you ask them to identify people on television, they can do that easily from ‘Ninja Israel’ to ‘Big Brother.’ Today’s cultural heroes are no longer army generals or academics. Professors used to have high social status and fame that political parties sought – their status has now declined. People on television are desirable.” 

More significantly, he notes, their new positions of prominence as party leaders isn’t just an issue of visibility. In today’s political marketplace, a different skill set is needed; one that isn’t honed by barking out orders. 

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz casting his vote in the 2019 party primary.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Generals know about screens when it comes to using them to attack the enemy, not getting messages across,” Weimann says. 

By contrast, broadcasters “know how to deal with the media well from their time in show business,” he adds. “They spent years interviewing people, and so they know how to handle themselves when they’re interviewed. They don’t just know what to say: they know about camera angles, makeup, what to wear. They are more experienced than any career politician when it comes to media, because they’ve lived and breathed it for so long.

“Marshall McLuhan said ‘The medium is the message,’ and that’s more true today than ever with the advent of social media. You have to know how to function in it, and that’s a whole different ball game,” Weimann says.

Ironically, Lapid, Michaeli and Horowitz all began to build their careers in the same place the generals did: the army. After suffering an asthma attack while serving as a combat soldier, Lapid launched his media career as a reporter for the IDF’s in-house magazine.

Horowitz is an army buddy of Michaeli’s, broadcasting on Army Radio in the 1980s. He later transitioned to print journalism with Haaretz, where he was a foreign correspondent. He became an onscreen presence after returning to Israel in 2002, working at Channel 10 News where he established himself as the authoritative voice – and face – when it came to reporting on world events.

All three made the transition from media to politics as they headed toward middle age. Horowitz, now 54, was the first to make the plunge in 2009, running for and winning a spot on the Meretz slate. When he ran again in the 2013 election, Lapid and Michaeli were also now in the mix.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaking in front of the media.Credit: Emil Salman

Michaeli, like Horowitz, did it the more conventional way, running in the party primaries. Lapid, however, did it with a dramatic flourish, establishing his own party, Yesh Atid, on which he was perched permanently at the top with a handpicked list. He was following in the footsteps of his late father, Tommy Lapid, who had also moved from print and TV journalism into the role of political party leader in the late 1990s. 

In June 2019, Horowitz beat Tamar Zandberg in the Meretz leadership race, thus becoming the first LGBTQ Israeli to head a major party. During Zandberg’s reign, he had reappeared on TV screens as a special correspondent in the United States, covering the 2016 presidential election and chronicling the rise of Donald Trump.

And now, in 2021, Michaeli is determined to restore the flagging fortunes of the Labor Party. She made the move from light entertainment to politics through serious journalism – writing opinion pieces for Haaretz on gender issues – and feminist political activism. Serious politician that she is these days, she still retains a twinkle in her eye, a dry sense of humor and a connection to show business (her life partner is comedian and TV satirist Lior Schleien).

Credibility questions

Journalists entering politics is far from a new phenomenon. After all, Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, was a journalist. In the modern era, it began in 1965 with Uri Avnery and Shalom Cohen, whose far-left political party bore the name of the magazine they had founded 15 years earlier: Ha’olam Hazeh. It’s a phenomenon that hasn’t been limited to the left: right-wing and even religious parties also frequently extend invitations to journalists to join their ranks. 

Miki Haimovich. The former TV star-turned-politician is stepping down from the Knesset in March.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

There can, however, be ethics problems when there’s a direct transition from broadcast media to politics. Army generals are required to have a “cooling off” period of several years between their service and entrance into politics, in order to ensure they don’t use their positions for political advantage. Some believe a similar rule should be in place when it comes to journalists, particularly television personalities.  

With the frequency of election campaigns and the growing revolving door between media and politics – and with some journalists admitting openly that they are fielding offers from political parties as they work – Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a board member of the Israel National Press Council, says the time may have come to add guardrails on a trend that can be “unhealthy” for the credibility of both journalists and politicians.

“I would certainly consider thinking about some kind of cooling-off period between serving as a journalist in one of the mainstream regulated media outlets and entering politics,” Shwartz Altshuler says, citing potential conflict of interest. “I don’t see why if someone from the army needs to sit and wait to enter politics, a major superstar journalist shouldn’t do the same thing.” 

While she is cautious about a revolving door between the two professions, Altshuler, like Weimann, is not surprised by the dominance of Lapid, Horowitz and Michaeli. “History shows that journalists became very good politicians,” she says.

Television success doesn’t always translate into political success, though, and even those who do succeed can become disillusioned. The latest example is Miki Haimovich, a beloved broadcaster who was recruited by Gantz to join his party at the start of 2019. Heading into a fourth election in the space of two years, she saw her chances of returning to the Knesset diminishing with Gantz’s political fortunes and announced that she too would not run again.  

Yair Lapid smiling with Naftali Bennett in the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

In an interview last weekend, Haimovich confessed: “Nothing in my 30 years in the media business – whether it was interviewing politicians, understanding the news and really living Israeli politics – prepared me for really being there.” 

Ultimately, Altshuler concludes, whether army general or television star, the key ingredient for climbing to the top is persistence.

In the case of the current party leaders on the center and left, she says that both Horowitz and Michaeli fought in the trenches of their parties for many years. Similarly, Lapid has stuck to his guns, refusing to quit even though he and his party haven’t rocketed to the top in the way he planned after he burst on the scene in 2013. He has spent the vast majority of his political career in the opposition, but is still in place, gearing up for yet another election – his sixth as party leader – while the generals by his side have abandoned the field or, like Gantz, appear mortally wounded. 

Lapid “learned that even superstar journalists, like superstar generals, can’t make it in Israeli politics right away,” Shwartz Altshuler says. “The patience to remain in politics is really the key precondition for success here.” 

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