Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay, the two candidates in the runoff for chairman of the Labor Party, faced off in a heated televised debate on Saturday two days ahead of the election.
- Why Netanyahu wants this candidate elected as Labor leader
- Israeli Labor Party's primary heralds a democratic awakening
- Labor party hopeful says ousted leader can remain head of Israeli opposition amid battle for endorsements
The contenders spent part of the debate casting aspersions on the other’s ability to draw votes. “Only 6 percent of the public supports you for prime minister after you were defense minister; I have 11 percent,” Gabbay said to Peretz, to which Peretz responded: “Let somebody put Avi Gabbay’s name in the ballot box, then maybe you can start talking so arrogantly.”
Later in the debate, Peretz said to Gabbay: “A little modesty wouldn’t hurt you,” adding, “the public has more faith in me than in you. I promise I’ll win on Monday and on Tuesday the party will have at least 22 Knesset seats.” When Peretz said he could beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gabbay answered: “You brought down Netanyahu when you were chairman of the Histadrut [labor federation] and you let him abuse the citizens of Israel. But we should remember that you lost to [Ehud] Olmert, who was only finance minister. If you lost to Olmert, I find it hard to imagine how you’ll beat Yair Lapid,” Gabbay said referring to the head of the Yesh Atid party.
The debate came after major efforts by both candidates over the weekend to garner the support of Knesset members and senior Labor Party figures. Gabbay has former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon in his corner, making phone calls to persuade other senior Laborites to vote for him. On Friday, MKs Stav Shaffir, Miki Rosenthal, Zouheir Bahloul and Eitan Cabel announced their support for him, along with the secretary general of the Kibbutz Movement, Nir Meir.
Peretz, for his part, garnered the backing of the two candidates who lost to him and Gabbay in the first round – incumbent Labor chairman MK Isaac Herzog and MK Erel Margalit, after both he and Gabbay met with them. On Thursday, Gabbay said that if he wins, Herzog would continue to be Knesset opposition chairman. Herzog did not like the statement, which had not been coordinated with him, and he decided to support Peretz. “I asked for nothing and I received nothing. I insisted on three principles. Maintaining the Zionist Union, that is, unity with Hatnua, the position of Tzipi Livni as chairwoman of Hatnua and a commitment to work for the establishment of a political bloc headed by us to replace Netanyahu and Likud. I’m happy to say that Peretz agreed to all of these and I will be the one to work to implement them.”
Margalit had asked Gabbay at their meeting for a “significant role in the opposition,” but had received no real answer. On Thursday evening Margalit met with supporters in Tel Aviv and decided to throw his support behind Peretz. Margalit told associates that he decided to support Peretz because he felt Gabbay was arrogant. Although in the past Margalit had said that Peretz was corrupt and should leave politics, in a joint press conference with Peretz, Margalit said: “We are completely different; ostensibly we have nothing in common, but together, the two of us, that’s the real Israel.”
Margalit added: “I decided to support Amir Peretz not because of where he comes from but where he’s going: a social, security and national place that I completely connect with. A place where there’s no incitement, but rather acceptance; no separation, but connection; a place that Netanyahu destroyed but we, together, will rebuild.” Peretz, for his part, was effusive in his praise for Margalit, recalling how upon first meeting him 12 years ago he was reminded of a “young Kennedy.”
Emphasis on the last day is on getting voters to the polling stations. A source in Gabbay’s campaign said Saturday night: “We have more supporters but Amir is more organized. We need to close the gap. Amir can’t get more than 15,000 votes. He doesn’t have the numbers. All the rest will go with us, if they come [to vote],” he said.