Israel's Labor Party Members Head to Polls in Tight Race for Leadership

Amir Peretz is the presumed front-runner, but with so few voters a swing of a few hundred votes could make a significant difference

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog at a campaign event ahead of the party's internal elections on July 4.
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog at a campaign event ahead of the party's internal elections on July 4. Credit: Tomer Apelbaum
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

After a year of ugly infighting, 52,504 Labor Party members will begin voting at 11 A.M. on Tuesday to elect a new party leader.

The voting is electronic, so the result will be announced almost immediately after the polls close at 9 P.M. However, in the likely event that no candidate wins at least 40 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in a second round next Monday.

Though two of the original candidates, Amiram Levin and Dina Dayan, have dropped out, seven of them remain in the race. Since actual voter turnout is only expected to be around 50 to 55 percent, these candidates will be splitting roughly 26,000 to 30,000 votes among themselves. This means that even a few hundred votes could be the difference between making it into the run-off and being knocked out.

MK Amir Peretz, one of the Knesset’s longest-serving members, is considered the front-runner. Having been in parliament since 1988, he has run for Labor chairman three times, winning once and losing twice. Peretz has been planning his current campaign since 2015 and claims to have enrolled 2,000 new members in Labor to bolster his bid. He also enjoys significant support from Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn, whose successful reelection bid he backed in May.

Peretz is campaigning on his experience and his ability to attract voters from the periphery who normally shun Labor. In private conversations, he admits that he will drive some Labor supporters into the arms of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a rival opposition party. But he argues that he’s the only candidate who can woo voters away from the ruling Likud party.

The surprise candidate of the primary is Avi Gabbay, who joined Labor just last December but has since managed to attract significant support, especially among younger voters, who view him as a breath of fresh air.

His supporters believe that he, like Peretz, can attract Mizrahi voters from the periphery, since both men are themselves Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin. They also admire him for sticking to his principles by resigning from the cabinet, where he served as environmental protection minister on behalf of the Kulanu party, to protest Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister last year.

Gabbay is benefiting from the fact that MK Shelly Yacimovich, a former Labor chairwoman, isn’t running. Although she officially remains neutral, most of her supporters have gone over to him. Campaign staffers say he also benefits from Dina Dayan’s withdrawal, as they believe most of her supporters will go to him as well. But he has been damaged by the successful efforts of another candidate, MK Erel Margalit, to paint him as someone who has supported Likud in the past. And rivals say he also suffers from inexperience and poor organization that could undermine his ability to get voters to the polls – a claim his campaign vehemently denies.

Since Gabbay is not currently an MK, he will not become leader of the opposition if he wins, even though he will head the largest opposition party.

The current opposition leader, incumbent party chairman Isaac Herzog, is hoping to the first Labor leader in 20 years to be reelected. Under his leadership, the party won 24 Knesset seats in the last election. But he has been perceived as an ineffective opposition leader, and his negotiations to enter the Netanyahu government badly damaged his credibility among party members, to the point that he was booed at the party convention last July.

Nevertheless, his support has increased recently, primarily among longtime party members. They are attracted by his platform of forging a united center-left joint ticket, even though the idea currently seems unrealistic.

If he loses, Herzog doesn’t intend to quit politics. Rather, he will stay in the Knesset and run for president in 2021.

Two candidates hoping for an upset victory are Margalit and MK Omer Bar-Lev, both of whom have been in the Knesset only since 2013. Bar-Lev is considered the weakest of the five leading candidates. He is trying to portray himself as a security-oriented figure like former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, but some of his supporters are backing him mainly as a protest vote.

Margalit, formerly a successful high-tech entrepreneur, has been running a crude and aggressive campaign focused mainly on attacking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the goal of demonstrating that he would be the best leader of the opposition. Unlike the other members of the top five, he hasn’t won the support of any of his fellow Labor MKs, and some are actively hoping for his downfall. His support comes mainly from voters not affiliated with any of Labor’s existing factions.

The outcome of the leadership contest could have an immediate impact on Labor’s partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, with which it ran on a joint ticket in the last election. Though Hatnuah has effectively ceased to exist as a party, Livni still has loyal voters whom she could bring as a dowry to any such partnership in the future, or to a broader center-left joint ticket.

If Herzog is reelected, the partnership with Livni will continue. But a Peretz victory would likely dismantle it, given the personal and political disagreements between Livni and Peretz. If that happens, Livni’s political career will likely be at an end, since she does not intend to run for Knesset on her own.

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