Embattled Israeli Labor Party Sets Date for Primary Election Against Leader’s Wishes

Decision still depends on appeal to High Court filed by outgoing party head Amir Peretz ■ Labor likely to be the only party on the left, and possibly in the Knesset, to hold internal election before the March 23 vote

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Amir Peretz in the Tel Aviv District Court in June 2020.
Amir Peretz in the Tel Aviv District Court in June 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Labor Party has set a date for its primary election, ahead of Israel's March 23 general election, following a court case that has been decided against the wishes of outgoing party head Amir Peretz and party institutions.

The vote for party leader has been set for January 24 and the primary election for choosing Labor's Knesset slate for February 1.

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Earlier this week, a Tel Aviv court ruled in favor of a petition from activists asking the party to hold primary election, after Peretz and a restricted assembly of party officials decided that Labor would dispense with it for this election. An appeal was filed with the High Court of Justice, which will hold a hearing on the matter next week.

If the appeal does not go through, Labor will likely be the only center-left party to hold a primary election, after Meretz decided not to earlier this week. It will possibly be the only party currently represented in parliament to do so.

Most of these parties’ lists are either decided by party leaders or a nomination committee, while some parties that normally hold primary elections decided against it in the previous rounds of back-to-back general elections, keeping their lists as they are – and may do so again before the March vote.

Peretz, who serves as economy and industry minister, announced in December that he would not run again for the party chairmanship, but would remain a candidate for a seat in the Knesset in the upcoming election, Israel's fourth in two years.

Sources close to him say they are hoping that a new candidate will breathe new life into the party, which has lingered in the polls well below the 3.5 percent electoral threshold for entering parliament.

Even if Labor does not run independently in the next election, it can provide the organizational and financial foundation for a party that runs together with it, senior party officials said.

In November, Peretz led a move to grant the Labor conference – a limited administrative body of a few thousand members – the authority to cancel the primaries and choose the new leader and its next Knesset list. The conference is elected for a four-year term, and includes representatives from local and regional party branches, as well as other members appointed according to internal party decisions. It has given Peretz substantial support over the last two years, including when he decided to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government – in violation of his campaign promises.

Labor lawmaker Merav Michaeli during a session of the Knesset coronavirus committee, July 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Rachel Lavi-Barkai ruled in favor of the petition by lawmaker Merav Michaeli, currently the only person to have thrown their hat in the ring for the leadership, and about 100 party activists against Peretz.

The party conference’s decision fundamentally harmed the rights of party members to elect their leaders, which has implications for the right of equality – and was conducted hastily on the eve of an election, the judge said.

Such a ruling is considered quite unusual, because the courts tend not to intervene in internal party affairs – which are usually determined through semi-judicial party institutions. The judge said that in order to make such a far-reaching decision on the cancellation of the right to vote, it needed to conduct a referendum among all party members, as the party’s constitution requires. This in itself was enough to invalidate the conference’s decision, she ruled.

The court’s ruling was a major victory for Michaeli, who has led the opposition to Peretz and Labor and Social Affairs Minister Itzik Shmuli since the two decided to join the Netanyahu government. In her ruling, Lavi-Barkai did not accept the petitioners’ request to issue an order forbidding the conference from amending the party constitution and changing how primaries are held. Peretz, party officials and institutions were ordered to pay the plaintiff’s legal costs of 25,000 shekels.

So far, apart from Michaeli, the only other name that has come up for the top position is that of retired general Amos Yadlin, who some senior party members hope will also be a candidate.

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