Analysis

Israeli Labor Party Taps Former Turncoats in Bid to Save a Sinking Ship

Runoff candidates Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay are both big in the country’s outskirts, where the party is hemorrhaging. The kingmaker might be ex-Labor chief Shelly Yacimovich, who's likely to back Gabbay

Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz
Olivier Fitoussi, Moti Milrod

On Tuesday the members of the Labor Party, about 30,000 of them to be precise, chose to rock their listing boat and throw their support behind the two candidates who symbolize disloyalty to one’s party, or at least a lack of commitment. Loyalty wasn’t a factor.

The first candidate was Amir Peretz, who left the party twice and came back twice. The second was Avi Gabbay, a new face in Labor. Just two years ago he helped set up the center-right Kulanu party with Moshe Kahlon and served as environmental protection minister under Benjamin Netanyahu until quitting a year ago.

Peretz and Gabbay trounced the incumbent Labor chairman, Isaac Herzog, the son of a former president who failed to elude the bitter fate of his predecessors and was tossed out in a primary. Peretz and Gabbay also beat Omer Bar-Lev, the son of a legendary general, and Erel Margalit, who had climbed up the party’s ranks.

Labor  Party primary results

On Monday there will be a runoff between Peretz and Gabbay. One of the two will become the next chairman of the Labor Party and its candidate for prime minister.

The rise of the two Mizrahi candidates – both have Moroccan roots – and the “defeat of the Ashkenazim” seems to be a reaction to the party’s sorry state in the country’s outskirts. Labor barely registers outside greater Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. It has become a niche party. The choice of Peretz and Gabbay, by a wide margin above the other three, signals a desire by the Labor faithful to regain constituencies that have turned away from the party.

Peretz is a left-winger par excellence, and he’s the only one who brought votes to Labor from the outskirts in 2006. On the other hand, he lost a lot of votes among party veterans who decamped and voted for Kadima under Ehud Olmert.

Gabbay is by no means a leftist; he’s not a socialist like Peretz. But he’s a new face, he’s charismatic and he touched voters’ hearts in a way that can’t be explained. They just went for him. The attacks he suffered from the other candidates during the campaign, notably from Margalit, did him nothing but good. He became the topic of conversation, and he wisely eschewed  mudslinging.

Avi Gabbay speaking after coming in second in the first round of the Labor Party primary, July 4, 2017.
David Bachar

Apropos Margalit, it turns out that money doesn’t always talk. The tech multimillionaire spent a fortune on his campaign, investing more than anyone, but he suffered a humiliating defeat. He scattered money like confetti at a church wedding, hired the most expensive and prestigious advisers, and paid a host of veteran party activists, each an expert on one aspect of the party or another. He hired anything that moved. His vast investment didn’t get him near the runoff. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, you better take notice.

At least this time the polls were largely accurate. Prof. Camil Fuchs had Peretz and Gabbay routing Herzog and Margalit the whole time. The results show that the latter two weren’t in the game from day one.

Peretz starts with an advantage in the runoff, but not a big one. Herzog and Margalit still have to decide whom they support, but an even more significant player is another former Labor chief, Shelly Yacimovich. She has wide support in the party, and it’s all but certain whom she’ll choose: Avi Gabbay.

There’s a river of bad blood between her and Peretz, and she’d do anything to give him a taste of failure again. For her, choosing Gabbay, who isn’t a Knesset member, could make her the Labor Party leader in the Knesset. That’s a tidy bonus for a deed she’d be happy to do.