Israel's Labor Party Leadership Battle Pits Veterans Against Young Guard

After Gabbay's decision to step down, former chairmen Barak and Peretz are facing off against former protest leaders Shaffir and Shmuli

Labor MK Stav Shaffir at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Labor Party will determine this month how its next chairman and Knesset slate will be chosen – either by a primary among all its 60,000 registered members, or through its 3,000-member party convention. But the big question is whether the next chairman will be a member of the old guard, or if one of the party’s younger MKs will be given a shot.

So far five names have been raised as possible candidates for the position: MKs Amir Peretz, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, former army general Yair Golan and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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Peretz and Shaffir have announced that they plan to contend for the position, but Shaffir has conditioned her candidacy on a primary being held. It’s almost certain that Shmuli, who has yet to formally declare that he’ll run, would prefer to run in a wider forum, given his popularity among party members. Golan hasn’t declared his candidacy either, but he has been testing the political waters over the past few weeks. Associates of Barak, meanwhile, have been lobbying to hold the leadership vote in the smaller forum, on the assumption that his chances are better that way. MK Shelly Yacimovich, who has headed the party in the past, has said she won’t run.

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Before the Knesset was dispersed, Peretz, also a former party chairman, had suggested that he replace Avi Gabbay as chairman on an interim basis so that he could rehabilitate the party in anticipation of a leadership election in two years. But the calling of new elections scuttled that plan.

“There’s no doubt that now is a bad time to be running for the party leadership,” said a senior party member who considered running. “It’s clear that we’re competing for only a few seats and that whoever will lead it now will erode his potential in an election campaign that won’t yield anything substantial for the party.”

Labor’s next chairman faces some tough challenges. During the last campaign the party went from being a potential ruling party to one of the Knesset’s smallest factions, which will now have to battle to cross the electoral threshold. The calling of new elections forced the MKs to delay far-reaching plans to rehabilitate the party. The new chairman will also have to make a key decision on whether to have the party run independently in September or together with Meretz or Kahol Lavan.

Meretz has expressed great interest in such a union, while senior Kahol Lavan members believe that joining up with Labor won’t give it more seats and may distance right-wing voters who might otherwise move to and enlarge the center-left bloc.

Gabbay announced Tuesday that he would not contend for party chairman, but he isn’t leaving the party and plans to work to have the slate’s No. 2 spot reserved for him. “The direction was already clear on the last election night,” Gabbay said. “It was a journey with endless confrontations from all sides, a journey full of complex challenges from within and without that made our mission very difficult. There were also mistakes, for which I take full responsibility, knowing they were made out of a true belief in our path and a commitment to win.”