The Labor Primary / Last Chance for Respectability

Polls have Shelly Yachimovich as the clear front-runner.

After almost being wiped off the political map, the Labor Party now has a chance - perhaps its last - to return to political respectability. The recent social protest, which is seeking a leader, combined with Kadima's failure to establish itself as either a serious alternative to the government or a fighting opposition in the face of this protest, are both strong cards in Labor's hand as it becomes the first party to elect a new leader since the protest began.

Regarding the candidates, one question leaps out. One can understand Shelly Yachimovich and Isaac Herzog; they've never yet been at the top. They haven't experienced the humiliations, the back-stabbing, the frustration, the disappointments and, finally, the inevitable ouster that every Labor chairman of the past decade has undergone. But why did Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz put themselves on the line again?

Mitzna, as party chairman a decade ago, went through every torment, from A to Z. After half a year he'd had it, and resigned from both the chairmanship and the Knesset. He exiled himself to the desert, both literally and figuratively, becoming mayor of Yeruham. Six months ago, he was still seeking an alternative among those virtual leftist parties that may or may not become real ones before the election.

The same goes for Peretz, who became party chairman six years ago. When he was elected he was hailed as almost as a messiah. A year and a half later, he was unceremoniously ousted due to his performance as defense minister in the Second Lebanon War and became a political leper: Even his colleagues in the faction scorned him.

Recent polls of Labor members show Yachimovich as the clear front-runner. The polls have been wrong before, but even her rivals admit she is strong. If the polls are right, it's an impressive achievement: She entered the Knesset, and the party, only six years ago and has never held executive office. She's a lone wolf, and hasn't hidden the fact that diplomatic and security issues - long the party's meat and drink - interest her not at all. That she now leads in the polls can only be attributed to the protest and the new public discourse it generated.

The polls show Herzog and Peretz fighting for second place, meaning the right to face Yachimovich in a run-off. Herzog is in many ways Yachimovich's opposite: a bridge-builder and compromise seeker who avoids confrontation. That, he says, is precisely why Labor needs him now: The party is crumbling, "and I'm a builder."

The fifth candidate, Erel Margalit, dropped out two days ago and threw his support behind Herzog. But its value is questionable: Entering politics after a brilliant business career, he quickly became a political joke. Judging by this record, Herzog has reason to worry.