The Israeli Labor party will have a new leader after Isaac Herzog lost his bid for re-election earlier this week. With no candidate clearing the 40 percent threshold needed to win outright in the first round, the top two-placed candidates – Amir Peretz (pictured) and Avi Gabbay – will fight for the party’s crown in a run-off next Monday.
Labor members have before them a choice between experience and novelty, as well as two men who, both having served under Benjamin Netanyahu as ministers, are now determined to eject him from office. Both men are also of Sephardic descent, offering Labor the opportunity to reach out to Mizrahi voters who have long regarded the party, and its historic association with an Ashkenazai “elite”, with suspicion.
Tuesday’s first round saw Peretz, a former party leader and defence minister, leading the five-man pack with 32 percent of the vote. Gabbay, a one-time member of the centre-right Kulanu party who defected to Labor last year, polled 27 percent. With 16.7 per cent, Herzog narrowly edged ahead of tech entrepreneur-turned-politician Erel Margalit. Omer Bar Lev trailed with six per cent. The turnout was 59 percent.
Herzog’s defeat was, in some regards, unsurprising. Ever since it introduced primary elections in 1992 – when Yitzhak Rabin avoided a second-round run-off against Shimon Peres by just 46 votes – Labor has failed to re-elect a leader to two consecutive terms. Only former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was elected leader in 1999 and 2009, has managed to win the leadership twice. Peretz – who led Labor after unseating Peres in 2005, before himself being ousted by Barak four years later – will hope to pull off a similar feat.
Herzog thus now joins not just Peretz, Barak and Peres but Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna and Shelly Yachimovich in the curse which appears to afflict Labor leaders, itself a function of the party’s patchy electoral record. Since losing office in 1977, the once-mighty party has won only two general elections – under Rabin 1992 and Barak in 1999 (although it’s performance in 1984 was sufficiently strong to force a national unity government, which saw Peres serving for two years as prime minister).
Despite his ousting, Herzog’s leadership of the party stacks up comparatively well. Defying predictions of a heavy defeat, and after forming the Zionist Union alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnua party, Herzog managed to clock up Labor’s best performance at the polls since Barak’s victory in 1999, driving his party’s strength in the Knesset up from 15 to 24 seats.
However, the past two years have proved rocky for Herzog, with persistent rumours that the Labor leader was in talks with Netanyahu to take his party into government. Herzog defended his discussions with the prime minister on the basis that an historic opportunity existed to advance the peace process with both the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Recent media reports of a summit in February 2016 between Netanyahu, former US secretary of state John Kerry, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and King Abdullah of Jordan – and a subsequent covert meeting between Herzog, Sissi and Netanyahu in Cairo in April 2016 – bore out the former Labor leader’s assertions. Only by Labor entering government, Herzog’s defenders assert, would Netanyahu have been able to fend off disquiet among right-wing coalition parties which any peace negotiations would inevitably have entailed.
Nonetheless, Herzog’s negotiations with Netanyahu caused disquiet among his MKs, which was exacerbated by Labor’s slide in the polls. Recent surveys suggested the centrist Yesh Atid party had overtaken the Zionist Union – which was predicted to lose half of its 24 seats – as the main challenger to Netanyahu. Since the breakdown of negotiations with the prime minister last May, Herzog has attempted to rally other opposition parties with the aim of bringing Netanyahu down. However, the Knesset numbers were not there, especially with Yesh Atid, keen not to cede ground to Labor, remaining aloof.
Ironically, it was the collapse of Herzog’s talks with Netanyahu, and the prime minister’s decision to widen his coalition by bringing Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party into his government, which precipitated Gabbay’s defection to Labor. Angrily claiming that the coalition was leading Israel down the road to destruction, he quit his post as environmental protection minister, changed parties, and signalled his intention to win the Labor leadership and oust Netanyahu from office.
A former chief executive of the telecommunications company, Bezeq, Gabbay is neither a member of the Knesset nor a long-standing Labor supporter – he appears to have supported the party under Rabin, voting for Likud and centrist parties on other occasions – but had been appointed to the government at the behest of Kulanu leader Moshe Khalon. Lacking a seat in the Knesset, if elected Labor leader Gabbay will not assume the title of leader of the opposition. He will instead have to pick an MK for that role, although his choice will have to be ratified by a majority of opposition members in the Knesset. Yesterday, he said he would ask Herzog to remain in post until the next general election.
Commentators suggest that Gabbay’s background on the right and outsider status may help him to attract voters who have rejected Labor in the past, particularly ones who might otherwise opt for Yesh Atid or Kulanu. “Like French President Emmanuel Macron, he is attractive because he isn’t part of the existing system. He hasn’t made unpopular compromises, he hasn’t been involved in personal and public affairs and he hasn’t broken promises,” wrote one. Moreover, while he trailed Peretz by five points in the first round, Gabbay has that most precious of political commodities: momentum.
By contrast to the newcomer, Peretz has a wealth of experience, having served as deputy prime minister when Labor was the junior coalition partner in Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government. During that period, he bolstered his all-important security credentials by serving as defence minister, although, after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, his record came under fire from the Winograd Commission. Seen as on the left in terms of domestic politics, he has also struck a notably dovish line in the past in terms of the peace process. For Peretz, striking a deal with the Palestinians and tackling Israel’s social problems are interlinked. The conflict, he suggests, turns voters who might otherwise back Labor to the right because of their fears about security, and diverts much-needed resources to the settlements. While failing to win the 2006 general election, Peretz nonetheless has proved capable in the past of winning over right-leaning voters in the development towns: in 1983, he was elected mayor of Sderot, ending Likud’s long hold on local politics there.
Peretz’s deep roots in the Labor movement were on display yesterday when he swiftly won the endorsement of the leader of the Histadrut, Avi Nissenkorn. Peretz is a former chair of the trade union body. However, his past relationship with Labor is not without complexity. He has twice quit and rejoined the party, leaving in 1999 to form the One Nation party, which merged with Labor in 2005, and then joining Hatnua in 2012. He rejoined Labor last February.
Whether Gabbay or Peretz emerges triumphant next Monday, Labor’s new leader will have a challenge on his hands, given the party’s poor poll ratings and weak electoral record. One of their former rivals, however, sounded a note of optimism. Recalling Labor’s difficulties since it lost office in 1977, Erel Margalit reminded members earlier this week: “The Jewish people had 40 years in the desert before they arrived at the promised land.”