Israel's Labor Party Just Elected a New King and Queen

Labor has ceased to be a ruling party – and five other takeaways from Monday's primary

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MK Itzik Shmuli and MK Stav Shaffir.
MK Itzik Shmuli and MK Stav Shaffir.Credit: Moti Milrod, Meged Gozani
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Israel's Labor Party held primaries on Monday, with 14 current lawmakers and several new candidates competing for vacant slots in the ticket's top 10 ahead of the April 9 general election. Here are six main takeaways from the primary's results:

1. The first six people on the Labor Party’s list for 2019 are three Mizrahi men, Jews of Middle Eastern origin – party chairman Avi Gabbay, Itzik Shmuli and Amir Peretz, and three women – Stav Shaffir, Shelly Yacimovich and Merav Michaeli.

Israel Labour Party primary results, February 2019.Credit: Haaretz

So where does Likud stand, which many, for some reason, still see as a party of the people? And where does Labor stand, which even today will still be painted in many circles as arrogant, Ashkenazi and elitist?

2. The upcoming polls will presumably show an improvement in Labor’s performance. Until now, it has been averaging six Knesset seats – a quarter of its strength in the current Knesset (those 24 seats actually belong to the Zionist Union joint ticket, but Labor is the dominant faction in it).

>> Analysis: Will Labor's vibrant primary be remembered as turning point - or gala on the Titanic?

Nevertheless, this rise may be temporary if the new momentum doesn’t create something extra that will restore the party to double digits. What might this be? Merging with Meretz isn’t an option. Neither is replacing Gabbay; there’s nobody to replace him with. Adding former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is a fantasy. Perhaps reconciling with Tzipi Livni, who heads Zionist Union’s junior partner?

But time presses. Only another week remains before the ticket must be finalized.

3. Even if Labor manages to bring back 100,000 voters who have moved to Benny Gantz, this will only affect the balance of power within the center-left bloc. Not a hair will fall from the Likud-rightist-ultra-Orthodox bloc. Thus Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of forming the next government after the April 9 election won’t decrease.

Stav Shaffir and Shelly Yacimovich celebrate the results of the Labor primaries, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Labor has ceased to be a ruling party. The time has come to warehouse those pretensions and announce that it will recommend that the president assign the task of forming the government to the head of whichever center-left party wins the most seats – even if it’s Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael, with all those representatives of the old right on its ticket.

4. There was an impressive voter turnout at Monday’s primaries – much higher than expected of a party in decline dreaming of its glory days.

It signals the change of generations. The leaders of the social protests in 2011, Shmuli and Shaffir, were elected to the top of the list. Meanwhile the two former party chairs and bitter rivals, Yacimovich and Peretz, social icons in their own rights, were pushed into third and fourth place.

The king and queen have died; long live the new king and queen.

5. The election of Shmuli in first place was the surest bet in town. He’s a young MK, thorough and deep, who more than once has been mentioned as an exemplary lawmaker. In his four years in the outgoing Knesset, he passed a long list of laws on social issues. They were full of compassion and thoughtfulness for the marginalized, the people of few means, the weak fighting back against an arbitrary government and the dinosaurs that would die to defend it. And he did this all with unbelievable diligence and outstanding congeniality.

Unlike the number two on the list, Shaffir, we’d never catch him making a spectacle with endless, noisy photo-ops. He made it to first place without being expelled from countless Knesset committees.

From the moment these two arrived in Knesset, they have carried on a cold, yet polite, war over who will be the first to the top. In the end, 33 thousand Labor members had their say.

6. Eitan Cabel apparently won’t be in the next Knesset, unless the party really skyrockets. After 23 years, he’s on the fence.

Labor chairman, Avi Gabbay, and Amir Peretz celebrate the primary results, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Cabel is one of five most efficient and best veteran lawmakers in the Knesset. His achievements on the economic committee are unprecedented and it is a shame that he will be forced to leave, but the man brought it upon himself.

From his historic attacks on the Central Council of the Labor party and Gabbay to the no less historic interviews that he gave in the same spirit, there were signs that he was losing it - especially because these attacks served no purpose.

He committed political hara-kiri before the world. Yesterday he paid the price.

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