Last Day Before Israeli Labor Primaries: Candidates in Last-ditch Effort to Win Over Party Voters

All candidates say they won't join a government led by Netanyahu, but disagree if Labor should break left or cater to centrists

Labor party leadership candidates: (L) Isaac Herzog, the incumbent leader; MK Amir Peretz, (C) Erel Margalit, Omer Bar-Lev and Avi Gabbay (R).
Moti Milrod

Israel's Labor Party will be holding its primary election on Tuesday and the eight candidates vying for the crown are doing last-minute campaigning to win over party voters, driven mainly by concerns that the expected heat wave will discourage supporters from coming out to vote.

That said, sources at the campaign headquarters of the five top candidates admit that the time for persuasion is over. The five are: Isaac Herzog, the incumbent party leader; Knesset members Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and union boss; Erel Margalit, a high-tech entrepreneur; Omer Bar-Lev and also, former businessman and briefly, the environmental affairs minister, Avi Gabbay.

The next Labor chairman will automatically become the country's opposition leader, a formal role that affords meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries and high-profile speaking opportunities. But that job is not guaranteed beyond the next election, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could move up according to his own political calculations.

Five candidates

The candidates – including the other three – Dina Dayan, Hod Krovi and Avner Ben-Zaken, held their last debate on Sunday night. All eight vowed not to join a governing collation led by Netanyahu. Herzog and Peretz vowed to oppose the conversion law that triggered a dispute with diaspora Jewry in the last week.

Herzog's campaign commented that they are concerned about the turnout of his elderly supporters because of Health Ministry warning to stay home due to the heat. Gabbay's campaign noted that the election could be decided by a handful of votes, so turnout is crucial.

The campaign by Bar-Lev, who is considered the least likely to make it to the second round, commented that "if half the party members who say he is a worthy, honorable man also vote for him, we won't need a run-off." It bears saying that the other seven candidates have been pressing the ex-colonel to quit and throw his support behind them.

During their debate, the candidates mainly attacked the incumbent chairman Herzog, driven by impressions that he was gaining ground at their expense. He was criticized for avoiding the soubriquet "left-wing," to which Herzog has been rebutting that Labor has traditionally been a centrist party.

"Four million people are sick of Netanyahu," Herzog said, and predicted that in a general election, Labor would take votes from Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid because his supporters realize he will be unable to form a ruling coalition.

Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog speaking at a rally in Rishon Letzion, June 26, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Amir Peretz commented that blurring the distinctions between left and right causes voters to lose the faith. Erel Margalit remarked, similarly, that clarity is needed: "We need to make an unambiguous statement about two states," he said.

Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a motion by Peretz to change the location and working hours of primary election booths in Israel's outlier areas.  Peretz had claimed that the booths' deployment had not been based on clear, uniform considerations. Some booths meant to serve areas that have Labor voters by the dozens or even hundreds, were too far off; others opened only from 11 AM to 3 PM, or never opened at all, Peretz claims – yet the Labor primary isn't a day off for anybody, unlike the case of a general election. So some people were precluded from voting.