Analysis |

Young and Restless: Labor Primary Voters Send Veteran Lawmakers Into Retirement

Without impressive names or stars from the outside, primary voters have made it tough for Merav Michaeli to fulfill her dream of returning the Labor Party to power

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Labor Party head Merav Michaeli.
Labor Party head Merav Michaeli.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fenton
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Labor Party – a political entity the average age of whose voters we can assume is just a bit higher than that of retirees – carried out the ageist targeted killing of two of its current cabinet ministers in Tuesday’s party primary: Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, who is 68, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, who is 75. They finished with low spots on the party’s slate for the November 1 election.

Bar-Lev couldn’t avoid the fate of many Israeli public security ministers over the years; it's said nobody gets out of that ministry alive. And when it comes to Shai, granted that his ministry is semi-fictitious in nature, but he has been one of the party’s most prominent spokespeople and has a long and respectable record of service. Yet Labor Party voters still found him not up to the task.

Until recently, the Labor primary was typically marked by the beheading of leaders but support for other senior figures. With the reelection of Michaeli as party leader, and in light of the rest of the primary results, we have seen the exact opposite.

The polls currently show Labor getting roughly five Knesset seats. Let’s assume that the party surprises us with six.

Second on the slate after Michaeli is diligent lawmaker Naama Lazimi, who jumped from eighth place and relative anonymity and took the second spot without having been a cabinet minister or committee chairperson. After her on the slate, there’s that thorough parliamentarian Gilad Kariv, who gained prominence through his role as chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and as an opponent of the ultra-Orthodox of the Netanyahu bloc.

Labor Party lawmakers stand around party leader Merav Michaeli following the party's primary elections on TuesdayCredit: Moti Milrod

He is followed by Efrat Rayten, the chairwoman of the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee; Ram Shefa, the party whip and Knesset mover and shaker who was the address for those who found Michaeli too hard to digest – and who along with Rayten had been universally predicted to be higher on the slate; followed in sixth place by Knesset member Emilie Moatti.

Yair Fink, in seventh place on the slate, will be waiting for a miracle on November 1 or for the so-called Norwegian law, according to which Knesset members who are appointed to the cabinet can vacate their Knesset seats in favor of the person next in line on the slate. The chances that Labor will be part of the next governing coalition are slim, so it’s not clear which of the two possibilities he needs to pray for.

By the way, both Lazimi and Fink are members of former party leader Shelly Yacimovich’s camp, and Tuesday was certainly a joyous evening for her. It was less so for Michaeli, whose close associates Shefa and Rayten ended up not placing very high.

All in all, except for Bar-Lev and Shai, who were disrespectfully booted into retirement, one can say that the slate in its present form is reminiscent of the joke about the Golani soldiers who are stuck on the base over so many weekends that they change socks – with one other.

Michaeli has a dream – actually more of a naïve fantasy – of bringing Labor back to power. Every pretension must have some kind of foundation, but the Knesset slate chosen on Tuesday looks more like a high school student council. They’re a pleasant group, rather young, and they lack ministerial experience or significant gravitas of any kind.

The slate has no impressive names, no stars from outside the party to give it the glamour that it otherwise lacks – or alternatively the statesmanlike and experienced countenance that Shai and Bar-Lev provided it with.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Bar-Lev deserves a few more words here. On more than one occasion, with his lame performance in the media and his gangly appearance, he was ridiculed and disrespected. But when it came to the test of actual results, he was a valued minister who did good work at one of the most complex government ministries – a place where there is an inherent power struggle between the minister and the police commissioner and his senior officers, who have statutory and independent status.

He deserved to be rewarded for this at the very least, certainly in light of the hatred for him on the right and particularly over the numerous public and repulsive attacks against him by Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir. He certainly didn’t deserve to be punished for it.

The Labor Party gave Michaeli the authority to appoint two candidates of her choosing among the first 10 slots of the Knesset slate. We can assume that over the next few weeks, she will try to bring people in from outside the party to compensate for what is lacking. Based on past experience, Labor’s appeal doesn’t appear to be a major attraction not only for the candidates who ran in the primaries, but even for those who were offered electable spots – gift-wrapped with a shiny ribbon – on the party’s slate.

The Labor Party primary will be quickly forgotten as it is being followed a day later by the same process in former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. There, as in every Likud primary – and because of the system, which is actually very fair – heads are expected to roll. Some of them, of course, will be interesting.

The picture in Likud will not be clear before the voters in the party primary voters go to sleep on Wednesday night – and the candidates themselves won’t go to sleep due to the party’s leaders’ mistrust that digital voting can be devoid of bugs, cheating and various other harm. The party’s good old hand counting of votes will stress out a much larger group of candidates than in Labor until the crack of dawn on Thursday.

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