Analysis

No Political Stars in Constellation of Israeli Labor Party Leadership Hopefuls

After years in the opposition, the party is still looking for the Barack Obama who could lead them to unseat Netanyahu, but it seems unlikely that any of the contenders would fit the bill

Labor MKs Stav Shaffir and Amir Peretz at an anti-corruption protest in Tel Aviv, January 2017.
Ofer Vaknin

If any Israelis were holding their breath, hoping for the Labor Party to finally produce a left-wing messiah who will renew the party’s political energy, excite the base, reach out to the center and save them from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they can exhale now.

The party still hasn’t found the Barack Obama who could lead them to victory after years in the opposition, and it seems highly unlikely – barring a miracle – that any of the nine who are officially contending for party leadership could fit the bill. That's the conventional wisdom after Thursday's deadline for submitting the names of those competing in the party's primary election on July 4 (delayed a day because of a Britney Spears concert, of all things.) If none of the candidates wins a sweeping majority, the top two contenders will participate in a runoff on July 13 – a probable scenario, since with such a large field it will be difficult for any single candidate to obtain the required 40 percent of the vote.

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MK Stav Shafir
Olivier Fitoussi

There had been excitement midweek with rumors of at least one possible candidate who could have injected much-needed energy to the race: the young, articulate and camera-ready Stav Shaffir, whose dramatic, viral YouTube speeches vaulted her into one of the top spots in the last round of primaries and has made her a hot ticket at conferences and conventions abroad.

Shaffir’s decision not to run in the end was particularly disappointing in view of the fact that the dominant female party force, former party leader Shelly Yacimovich, was not in the race, having decided to forgo a second attempt for the top spot in favor of a bid to lead the Histadrut labor federation. In the last round of party primaries, three of the top vote-getters in the party had been women: Yacimovich came in second, Shaffir third, and MK Merav Michaeli fifth. It is a sad commentary on women’s leadership in the party that among the list of nine candidates, only one is female and not really a serious contender. Dina Dayan, an unknown ultra-Orthodox social activist from the southern town of Mitzpeh Ramon, may be raising her profile by participating in the race but has no real chance to come out on top.

Labor lawmakers Shelly Yacimovich, Isaac Herzog and Eitan Cabel.
Ofer Vaknin

The best-known faces in the crowd of Labor candidates have already served as party heads: MK Isaac Herzog, the party’s current leader, and MK Amir Peretz, who rejoined the party in February 2016, three years after he left it for Hatnuah. He had been the head of the party from 2005 to 2007, leading it in the 2006 elections, where it finished behind Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party, before he was unseated as party leader by Ehud Barak and stepped down as the country’s defense minister.

If the party follows previous patterns of behavior, Herzog and Peretz will be lucky if they make it to the second round – Labor has not traditionally been forgiving of former leaders who have already failed once in leading the party to victory.

Knesset Member Erel Margalit.
Moti Milrod

The buzz and interest involve fresher faces. MK Erel Margalit has gotten attention with a social media campaign declaring that “the leftists are back.” The other current parliamentarian in the field is Omer Barlev, as is newcomer Amiram Levin, an army general who has yet to make his formal public debut on the political stage. (Notably, Levin spoke out publicly in 2015 in support of the anti-occupation veterans' group on Netanyahu’s blacklist, Breaking the Silence.)

Those who want an alternative with a chance of appealing beyond the party’s traditional support base are looking to Avi Gabbay, who served as environmental protection minister for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party in the Netanyahu government. He resigned in protest over the firing of defense minister Moshe Ya’alon in December 2016 and announced he was joining the opposition Labor Party. He declared at the time that he “decided to join and strengthen the only party which is a real alternative, not a Band-Aid for the Netanyahu government.”

Gabbay, former CEO of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, already has more money in his campaign war chest than Herzog, while the third-largest fundraiser is Peretz, who also claims to have signed up thousands of new party members on the internet.

Avi Gabbay in 2105
Tomer Appelbaum

Rounding out the list of hopefuls is Professor Avner Ben-Zaken, a science historian at Ono Academic College, and social activist Hod Krovi.

It is still uncertain whether Labor will run alone or once again pair with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party as it did in the previous elections, when they formed what is today’s Zionist Union. Together or apart, garnering enough support to stand a real chance will be a challenge for whoever leads the party – time after time, political polls show that in either configuration and with any leader, they trail far behind Netanyahu’s Likud and Yesh Atid, headed by former broadcaster Yair Lapid.