Israeli Labor Hopefuls Trying to Unite Against Frontrunner in Upcoming Primary

With Amir Peretz leading in polls, incumbent Isaac Herzog fends off appeals to drop out ahead of Tuesday’s party leadership primary

Amir Peretz and Isaac Herzog, Feb. 8, 2016.
Emil Salman

With five days to go until the Labor Party’s leadership primary, the leading candidates are energetically searching for last-minute rabbits to pull out of their hats. Efforts range from pressuring candidates who are trailing in the polls to bow out, to wooing the party’s most prominent Knesset members.

With MK Amir Peretz leading handily in the polls, the big question is who will face him in the second round – hence the numerous and so far unsuccessful efforts by other candidates to join forces against him.

The primary’s outcome could affect not only Labor’s ability to maintain its Knesset strength, but also its continued cooperation with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, which ran on a joint ticket with Labor in the last election under the name Zionist Union, as well as the fate of Livni’s drive to have the entire center-left bloc choose a single prime ministerial candidate via open primaries.

Zionist Union leaders Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog at the Knesset, January 16, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

MK Erel Margalit has repeatedly urged incumbent chairman Isaac Herzog to quit the race. So has MK Omer Bar-Lev, even while trailing both Herzog and Margalit in the polls.

Neither has any real reason to conclude that Herzog is unelectable, given that the polls are highly volatile. But Herzog has many supporters who would likely switch to either Margalit or Bar-Lev if he withdrew.

Herzog dismissed their pleas on Wednesday, saying they should instead withdraw and throw their support to him.

“For several weeks now,” said one candidate who asked to remain anonymous, “there have been numerous efforts to persuade me and others to quit and unite before the elections behind one candidate who could beat Peretz in the first round. It isn’t working so far, mainly because nobody’s willing to be the one who quits.”

All the candidates are also wooing popular MKs like Shelly Yacimovich, Stav Shaffir and Merav Michaeli, who have so far remained neutral.

In addition, they’re going after a virtually unknown candidate named Dina Dayan, who has no real power but has managed to generate considerable public enthusiasm. For the many Ashkenazi men in the race, support from a Mizrahi woman could be a bonus, especially in a race against the Mizrahi Peretz.

Dayan said Wednesday that almost all the candidates had made her generous offers, but for now she has no intention of quitting the race.

Knesset Member Erel Margalit.
Moti Milrod

“We expect 30,000 people to vote,” a senior campaign staffer for one candidate said. “Of these, 12,000 will vote for Amir Peretz in the first round. The others will split the remaining 18,000 votes.”

If he’s right, then a difference of a mere few hundred votes could determine who faces Peretz in the runoff. If so, the Election Day ground game will be crucial. “Whoever manages to bring more voters to the polls will win,” the staffer said.

Livni also hasn’t publicly backed any of the candidates, but would presumably prefer Herzog, who supports her idea of open primaries for head of the center-left bloc.

Though Peretz also favors a united center-left ticket, he insists he should lead it, with no need for another primary. Peretz isn’t running in Labor’s primary “just to win a chance to run again,” one associate said.

Another prominent candidate, Avi Gabbay, has yet to either accept or reject Livni’s proposal.

Michal Fattal

If Peretz wins, Zionist Union likely to redivide

There has been much speculation that if Peretz wins, Livni would swiftly quit Zionist Union and form her own Knesset faction. But her associates denied that on Wednesday, saying “the separation, if it happens, won’t happen so quickly.”

Livni does, however, plan to launch a major, lavishly funded campaign in the coming weeks to drum up support for a center-left joint ticket whose prime ministerial candidate would be chosen in open primaries.

One stumbling block is that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid vehemently opposes the idea, insisting that his party will run independently. He is considered unlikely to change his mind, even though a recent poll commissioned by Livni shows that 60 percent of Yesh Atid voters think he should join a united ticket while only 7.5 percent say he definitely shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, the Histadrut labor federation has quietly begun promoting Peretz’s candidacy for Labor chairman, even though it officially remains neutral. Peretz enthusiastically backed Avi Nissenkorn’s successful reelection campaign for the Histadrut leadership earlier this year, and though Nissenkorn hasn’t returned the favor publicly, behind the scenes his organization is mobilizing on Peretz’s behalf.

Five candidates

Of the Histadrut’s 30 regional leaders, 21 are backing Peretz, himself a former Histadrut chairman, and Labor activists say their presence is evident in the field.

Only some 2,500 Histadrut members can vote in Labor’s primary, but most are expected to vote as they are told. That gives Peretz a big advantage in a race where a few hundred votes could be decisive.

The big loser is shaping up to be Herzog, who made Nissenkorn Labor’s candidate in the Histadrut election and hoped for at least some support from Histadrut members in return.

Primary polls are notoriously unreliable, but four polls commissioned by the Peretz, Gabbay and Margalit campaigns in the last month reveal some trends. In all four, Peretz led, with 23 to 35 percent of the vote. And in all four, Gabbay placed second with about 20 percent, while Margalit and Herzog vied for third place, trailing Gabbay by five to eight points.

Meanwhile, though Labor has long talked about the need to strengthen its presence in the periphery, many communities in the Negev, Galilee and Golan Heights have been left without polling stations for the primary. For instance, people from Safed will have to travel to Kiryat Shmona, about 45 minutes away, to vote.

Moreover, voting hours in outlying communities will be extremely limited – from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. only. That, as Peretz pointed out, makes it almost impossible for working people to vote.

On Wednesday, therefore, Peretz asked the Tel Aviv District Court to order that polling stations be placed in every community that had one in the past and that the hours in peripheral towns be identical to those in big cities. Saving money, he argued, is an unacceptable reason for curtailing voting rights.

The petition will be heard on Sunday, two days before the primary.