One Week Before Israeli Labor Primary: No Clear Front-runner, but Many Are Waiting for Ehud Barak

Eight-candidate race seen as up for grabs, unless Amir Peretz surprises by winning first round with 40% of vote

Ehud Barak.
Ofer Vaknin

With one week to go until the Labor Party’s leadership primary, there’s still no clear front-runner among the eight candidates. The problem, say many party activists, is that none of the eight seems to offer much hope of returning the party to power.

MK Amir Peretz, one of the more prominent contenders, asserted on Twitter this weekend that he would win in the first round, after which the party would immediately jump to 20 Knesset seats in the polls, “and from there, the sky’s the limit.”

>> No political stars in constellation of Israeli Labor Party leadership hopefuls | Analysis

But a senior staffer in a rival campaign dismissed that as bravado. “It’s clear to everyone that with eight candidates, there will most likely be a second round,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for any candidate to get 40 percent” – the minimum needed to avoid a second round – “in the first round.”

Amir Peretz
Emil Salman

For Peretz, a first-round victory is important, because many party members haven’t forgiven him for jumping to the Hatnuah party in 2012. Thus if there’s a second round, even in the likely event that he’s one of the two finalists, he fears supporters of the six losers will unite behind his rival to defeat him.

Either current party chairman Isaac Herzog and MK Omer Bar-Lev could handily defeat Peretz in the second round in this manner, activists said. But a Peretz match-up with former minister Avi Gabbay or MK Erel Margalit would likely be much closer, they added.

Over the past few days, some activists tried to persuade various candidates to withdraw and unite behind one person who could defeat Peretz in the first round. But that effort failed.

Polls commissioned by the candidates contradict one other, making it hard to assess the true state of the race. But most show Peretz placing first by a sizable margin in the first round. One even predicted he would get 36 percent of the vote – almost enough to avoid a second round.

Chairman of Israel's opposition, MK Isaac Herzog, at Haaretz's Peace Conference. June 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

Herzog rallying

Herzog held a final rally with hundreds of supporters in Rishon Letzion on Monday. He believes his position has strengthened markedly over the past two weeks, and that he’ll become the first Labor leader in years to win reelection. Though scorned by many party members for his attempts to join the Netanyahu government and his weakness as opposition leader, a recent series of articles in Haaretz that revealed his role in international efforts to launch a regional peace process may have improved his image.

“For many months, I absorbed criticism from party colleagues and in the street,” he said on Monday. “But I believed we were facing a historic opportunity. I put myself exactly where the Labor Party should be – willing to embrace any chance for peace.”

Nevertheless, many activists want to elect Herzog only to replace him with another, more charismatic leader: He has promised to establish a joint ticket of center-left parties whose leader would be chosen in an open primary. Last week, party activists were whispering about the possibility of crowning former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in this manner.

“A vote for Herzog is a vote of no-confidence in the existing gallery,” said one activist who is considering backing the incumbent. “I’ve met with all the candidates. None of them will take us to the Prime Minister’s Office. Herzog at least promises there will be another race for the leadership of the centrist bloc, which provides an opening for hope.”

“Who would have believed,” added a prominent Labor MK who asked to remain anonymous, “that Herzog, who just a month ago was considered a dead horse, is likely to find himself reelected?”

But Knesset sources said Gabbay has also surged since Amiram Levin – the other outsider in the race – bowed out over the weekend and threw his support to Gabbay. One poll, not commissioned by Gabbay, even showed him ahead of Peretz, as many voters consider him someone who could change the party’s image.

Moreover, Margalit has fired up left-wing activists and trails the leaders by only a few hundred votes.

Another question arising from the primary is the fate of Labor’s relationship with Hatnuah. In the last election the two parties ran on a joint ticket called Zionist Union, and if Herzog wins, this partnership would probably continue, given his promise to form a broad center-left ticket. But a Peretz victory would probably end it, given his personal and political differences with Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni.

Either way, with over 50,000 eligible voters, the small gaps between the candidates mean the outcome may depend largely on their ability to get their supporters to the polls next Tuesday.