Current Leader Isaac Herzog 'Gaining Strength' on Eve of Israeli Labor Party Primary

Pressure building on long shot Omer Bar-Lev to drop out of Tuesday's vote, since he has little chance of advancing to second round

The Labor Party candidates debating at the Israel Conference on Peace, June 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The five candidates vying to become leader of the Labor Party faced off in a televised debate on Channel 2 on Saturday. Incumbent Chairman Isaac Herzog was heavily targeted by his rivals, with party sources saying his challenge is gaining strength ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Sources say support for Herzog has been growing and that he could now make it into the second round. A second round of voting will be required unless a single candidate receives 40 percent of the vote in the first round.

The four challengers – Amir Peretz, Erel Margalit, Omer Bar-Lev and Avi Gabbay – leveled criticism at Herzog’s efforts to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition last year.

Referring to Eliezer Fishman, the former business tycoon who was declared bankrupt last month, Margalit said, “Netanyahu is like a Fishman of politics. He has been bankrupt so many times.”

Meeting with the prime minister was inappropriate, Margalit added, because “it’s not only what [Netanyahu] says, but who he is.”

Bar-Lev, meanwhile, said Herzog has shifted back and forth on policy, and lost the confidence of the Israeli public. Herzog in turn took Gabbay to task, claiming that he supported antidemocratic legislation while serving as environmental protection minister in the Netanyahu government. Gabbay shot back: “I quit this government. You wanted to join it.”

As Tuesday’s primary nears, the other candidates are pressing Bar-Lev to drop out of the race and support them instead. The polls all suggest he has no prospect of advancing to the second round, but at this stage Bar-Lev is staying in the race.

The challengers criticized Herzog for avoiding calling himself a left-winger. Herzog retorted that the Labor Party had always come from the political center.

Referring to the near-800,000 votes that the Labor and Hatnuah parties received in the 2015 Knesset election (when they ran on a joint slate as the Zionist Union), Herzog said, “Getting more than 800,000 votes requires another 400,000 that will come from the moderate center. Four million citizens are fed up with Netanyahu.” Supporters of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid understand that he cannot form a government, Herzog added.

Peretz said the blurring of policy positions from both the right and left has caused a loss of trust on the voters’ part. Speaking in a similar vein, Bar-Lev addressed the Palestinian conflict and the possible creation of the Palestinian state: “We need a clear statement regarding two states and not one state, and to say things clearly,” he said.

There will be another debate Sunday, this time at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, organized by the party’s youth wing and moderated by journalist Dan Margalit.

Also Sunday, Tel Aviv District Court will hear a petition by Peretz on voting procedures for the leadership race. He is demanding that polling stations be established in more outlying areas of the country, in locations where there had been voting booths in prior party elections. Peretz is also seeking polling stations to remain open there all day, as is the practice in major cities and the center of the country.

The decision regarding where to place voting stations has been unclear and inconsistent, Peretz argued, noting that polling stations are inaccessible to many voters in outlying parts of the country. He also complained that some polling stations were only open between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M., and that since party members don’t get a day off work, such hours could deprive some people of the opportunity to vote.

And in another development, Labor Party Secretary-General Eran Hermoni accused the party’s internal auditor, Boaz Yifat, of working to sabotage the election.

Last month, Yifat sought to examine the party’s membership rolls in the face of complaints about fictitious membership registrations.

Gabbay, meanwhile, petitioned the party’s internal court, seeking to check credit card and bank information in regard to the payment of party dues, and found that 55 accounts were used to pay for 384 members’ dues.

The party was unable to say whether this involved legal payments made for relatives, or illegal payment made on behalf of other individuals. Due to the lack of time, the cases of another 40,000 members who paid their dues using a credit card were not examined.

Yifat was not satisfied with this and is working to determine if there have been fictitious, illegal membership applications paid for by others. He said he would come to the party offices to obtain documents on the matter, but in a letter in response, Hermoni accused Yifat of trying to sabotage the election.

Hermoni said such an examination was not possible prior to the election, adding that by chance he discovered Yifat had approached the district court, without authority, to obtain details related to party members.

Accusing Yifat of blatantly exceeding the bounds of his job and seeking to harm the party, he asked that Yifat turn over any documents he may have provided to third parties.

Hermoni also claimed the party’s voting rolls were thoroughly examined by the party’s election committee and its judicial institutions, and found to be in order.