Labor Chief Hopefuls May Be Asked to Vow Not to Bolt if Defeated

The candidates so far are MKs Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich, as well as the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, Shlomo Buhbut; former party chairman Amram Mitzna may also run.

Candidates for the Labor Party leadership are expected to be asked to sign an agreement that they will not bolt the party if they lose the primary.

Labor was burned in 2005 when Shimon Peres left the party a few weeks after he lost the chairmanship race to Amir Peretz. In January this year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak split from the party, taking four Labor MKs to form a new Knesset faction, Atzmaut.

The initiative is being led by the Labor Party's acting chairman, Micha Harish, and its secretary general, Hilik Bar.

"All the candidates will sign it. This agreement is an obvious need in light of the party's unpleasant experiences," Harish said. "Under no circumstances should candidates condition their remaining in the party on the outcome of the elections. The agreement will also create an obligation to the voters on the part of the candidates."

Labor's Ben-Eliezer, Herzog, and Peretz - Limor Edrey - 2008
Limor Edrey

The idea for the agreement came up during preparations for the primary, due in September.

The candidates so far are MKs Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich, as well as the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, Shlomo Buhbut.

But suspense has increased among the grassroots over the past few days: former Labor Chairman Amram Mitzna might throw his hat in the ring.

Mitzna says he has not yet decided whether to run, but he will decide by May to have a few weeks to sign up new Labor Party members to support him, should he run.

Jerusalem businessman Erel Margalit is reportedly also considering running. His membership drive is expected to end in June, when party membership rolls will be closed. Everyone on the rolls will be entitled to vote in the primary.

Mitzna, who is widely admired, could change the face of the race. While Yachimovich and Herzog are leading in the polls, Mitzna is considered popular on the kibbutzim and in the big cities, where the two front-runners also have a following.

Yachimovich said yesterday it was too early to discuss Mitzna's possible candidacy. "But no doubt, the fact that there are many candidates for the party leadership shows that it's a party with a future and hope," she added. "While I'm sure I'm more suitable than anyone else under these circumstances to lead the party, that's not to say that other candidates are not worthy."

Herzog and Mitzna shook hands and exchanged greetings yesterday at the Ein Gev Festival.

The big mystery at the moment is how many new members each candidate has been able to sign up. The candidates are keeping these numbers confidential and will reveal them just before the closing of the membership rolls.

Herzog, Yachimovich and Peretz are conducting energetic membership drives. Yachimovich said yesterday she would set up stands in city centers throughout the country, following a reportedly successful drive Friday in 12 big cities. Yachimovich expects to be able to leverage her popularity in the polls and sign up more supporters.

Labor now has an estimated 30,000 members; that number is expected to double after the candidates sign up more members.