yachimovich - Alon Ron - September 21 2011
Shelly Yachimovich at her campaign headquarters yesterday. Photo by Alon Ron
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Labor Party members will vote today in a run-off election to choose a new party leader.

The two candidates, who finished first from among four candidates in the first round, are MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former television journalist, and MK Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and Histadrut labor federation chairman who also served previously as Labor Party leader. More than 66,000 people are eligible to vote at the party's 171 polling stations.

The selection of a new party leader follows Defense Minister Ehud Barak's resignation from the helm of Labor and his split with the party to form his own Atzmaut Knesset faction. The run-off is required because none of the four candidates mustered 40 percent of the vote in the first round.

The leader chosen today will in great measure shape perceptions of the Labor Party in the run-up to the next Knesset election, which is expected to be held in about two years. If Yachimovich prevails, the Labor Party would likely direct most of its attention to social issues while deemphasizing foreign policy, and would not aspire to govern the country right away. If Peretz wins, the diplomatic and social agendas would likely have equal prominence, while the party would seek to return to power immediately.

Yachimovich claimed yesterday that her candidacy has huge support, but that party members have to come to the polls and vote. Peretz, for his part, said his plan for the party is to attract former Likud voters who have become disillusioned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and thereby to shift the balance of power in the Knesset.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of today's round. Polling conducted before the first round projected a much larger margin for Yachimovich than she actually garnered. Party sources said yesterday that the result will likely be determined by voter turnout, and by the logistical capabilities of the candidates' campaigns in getting their supporters to the polls.

Last week's first round saw a relatively high turnout of 66 percent of eligible voters. But some in the party predict that fewer members will be willing to turn out for a second round. In the first round, Yachimovich's electoral support base was the kibbutzim and large cities, while Peretz garnered widespread support from outlying towns, Arab voters and moshavim (cooperative agricultural communities ).

Isaac Herzog, who failed to make it to the second round despite surprisingly broad-based support, has refrained from endorsing either of the remaining candidates. Party sources assume most of his supporters now favor Yachimovich, and many of his grassroots activists have been working for her election.

Amram Mitzna, who placed a distant fourth in the first round, has publicly endorsed Peretz.

Yachimovich has made a major effort over the past week to appeal to members who previously supported Herzog and Mitzna, and many observers say she seems to have succeeded. Peretz has taken on Yachimovich directly, accusing her, for example, of claiming credit for social welfare legislation that he sponsored. Yachimovich has refused to respond to Peretz's criticism.

Over the past week, Peretz has attracted support from several prominent figures, including the daughter of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, who said Peretz was continuing her father's legacy. Peretz also received backing from Yariv Ben-Eliezer, the grandson of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well from former cabinet minister Moshe Shahal and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. Current MKs Eitan Cabel, Daniel Ben Simon and Ghaleb Majadele have thrown their support to him as well.

Those who have endorsed Yachimovich include Yariv Ben-Aharon, whose late father, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, was a longtime party leader, as well as current MK Avishay Braverman and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. The current chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Ofer Eini, also endorsed Yachimovich several days ago; Eini is a long-time adversary of Peretz.

Peretz's campaign subsequently lodged a complaint with retired judge Sara Frisch, who is in charge of ensuring the fairness of the election, claiming that Histadrut facilities have since been put at Yachimovich's disposal. But others in the party called the complaint unfair, saying it is a sign of a candidate who knows his campaign is in trouble. Yachimovich's campaign said the accusation is divorced from reality.