Explained: Labor Members Head to Primaries as Party Struggles to Survive

Public opinion polls forecast a grim future for Israel's founding party. This dismal horizon will have party newcomers scrapping for member votes, who appear to remain indifferent

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbey with lawmaker Amir Peretz in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019
Meged Gozani

Labor's primaries take place Monday, but according to public opinion polls, the party is facing a grim future. Seven Knesset seats on a good day, five or a scraping of the four-seat threshold on a bad one. These dismal forecasts carry a message not just for the Labor Party ahead of the upcoming election, but for the candidates fighting for their spot on the party's slate. 

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Which Knesset members will attain a realistic spot?

Seven spots remain available in the party's opening ten slots, four for men and three for women. But polls show ten as an unrealistic number. Alongside chairman Avi Gabbay, whose seat is not up for grabs, two additional places are reserved for his candidates of choice, in the second and tenth spots. There are 14 incumbent Knesset members vying for these spots, along with other candidates.

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What is the likely turnout?

The greatest concern is a low voter turnout, not an unlikely scenario in view of the dispirited winds blowing from the latest polls. The party needs persuade its voters to come out and vote.

The party’s Knesset members report finding apathy among potential voters. The top ten candidates are more or less known, but since polls show a drop in the number of seats attained, some party activists may stay home. The lower the turnout, the greater the influence of deal-makers and organized groups within the party, at the expense of unassociated voters, which could impact the final slate's composition. According to one Knesset member, “any turnout over 30 percent will be considered an achievement.”

Will any new candidate be able to squeeze into a realistic spot?

It’s not easy to be an outsider in these primaries. The collapse in public opinion polls, together with the fact that incumbent Knesset members are considered strong and popular, will make it difficult for new faces to make it into a realistic spot.

There are no stars in the party’s list of contenders, but a few interesting characters are trying to make it into the top ten. These include publicist Emilie Moatti, journalist Henrique Cymerman and Gil Beilin - the son of former cabinet minister Yossi Beilin. 

Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir with supporters in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019
Meged Gozani

Matters of state and religion have also characterized some of the prominent newcomers. These include the young Yair Fink, a kippah-wearing member of the peace camp, a social-democrat, a vegetarian from the age of seven and an inveterate feminist. He served in the past as campaign manager for Shelly Yacimovich; there is also Michal Zernowitski, an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) woman who has set up a Haredi cell in the party and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

>> This ultra-Orthodox woman is looking to make history in the Israeli election

“There aren’t enough kippah-wearers in Labor,” says Fink. “Voters see a kippah and think religious coercion, hilltop youth [radical settler group]. People are afraid. I see trying to break these concepts as a public mission.”

Fink is bringing 3,000 white kippahs to the primaries, on which he’s printed, among other things: “Equality for the gay community” and support for public transportation on Shabbat. Everything is a struggle, even these kippahs, which he’ll distribute throughout the day: The first printing house he turned to refused to print these messages.

How far can Eitan Cabel get?

For the last few weeks, MK Eitan Cabel has waged one of the most outspoken and strident campaigns against the leadership of party chairman Avi Gabbay. Although this may give him some support from many of Gabbay’s opponents, his conduct elicited widespread criticism by activists on the ground, who may turn around and take revenge for washing the party's dirty laundry in public. In the last primaries, Cabel was pushed to the tenth place, with voters “punishing” him for being part of a controversial deal.

“You don’t realize how much this is shaking me up,” he says. “Not the issue of whether I’m elected or not. I very much want to be elected, I don’t deny it. But what worries me most of all is the thought that the party which established this country may not pass the threshold for entering the Knesset.”

Unlike Gabbay, Cabel has no illusions. “We’re not going to replace Netanyahu in these elections,” he clarifies. “But precisely in these difficult days I pledge not to leave one house in Israel which I won’t try to convince that our path is the right one, asking for the chance to allow us to pass this phase.”

Will he be forced to depart from the next Knesset? Cabel is unsure. One way or another, he’s convinced that he made the right decision when embarking on his current campaign. “I had other options, recently as well, but I decided not to leave.”

Who will be the highest-ranking woman?

MK Shelly Yacimovich, who topped the list in the previous primaries, embarked on a campaign consisting of cries for help, expressing fears that she’ll crash. “If you don’t place me high up, there is a possibility that I won’t be in the next Knesset,” she wrote to her activists, adding that “a low number of voters, together with some deals and hit lists, will mean a low ranking for me.” It’s doubtful that her standing is as dire as she presents it, but senior party officials estimated that Stav Shaffir may overtake Yacimovich, a move that will have implications mainly for the party’s morale and image.

Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich voting in the Labor Party primary election in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019
Meged Gozani

Will Amir Peretz surprise everyone?

Peretz is running in the primary for the first time since returning to Labor’s fold three years ago. Peretz entered the last Knesset as part of Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah Party, which was part of the Zionist Union. Once seen as a key player in light of his public popularity, he’s now trying to regain his power at the top of the list. Gabbay is doing all he can to place him at the forefront, making use of his high profile and experience in social- and defense-related matters.