Once Proud Labor Party Seeking to Regain Momentum
After tumultuous several years, revitalized party holds primary elections with 45,000 party members voting
Israel’s rejuvenated Labor party held its primary elections on Monday, exactly 50 days before voters across the country head to the polls for the fourth time in two years in the hopes of finally ending Israel’s ongoing political stalemate.
One week after electing its new chairwoman, former TV personality and eight-year member of Knesset Merav Michaeli, the oldest party in politics formed its list of candidates for the upcoming parliament, amid cautious yet growing enthusiasm.
“I’m optimistic about Labor, because it has deep roots. Trees may fall from time to time, but roots stay in the ground and eventually grow new trees,” Nachman Shai, a Knesset veteran of 10 years who ran in Monday’s primary, told The Media Line.
“Israel is in a deep financial, social and moral crisis. Anyone who believes in this country and its future, who wants Israel to be a home for their kids and grandkids, must enlist in this battle,” he added.
Shai finished the primary in the eighth spot, which is likely not a realistic slot unless Labor merges with another party, which could also push him further down on the candidates’ list. Shai also was pushed back due to Michaeli’s commitment to using the “zipper system” for drawing up the party list, which alternates between men and women to ensure equal representation.
I’m optimistic about Labor, because it has deep roots. Trees may fall from time to time, but roots stay in the ground and eventually grow new trees
Lawmaker Ram Shefa, a former member of Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, also competed for a spot on the Labor ticket.
“I’ve returned to the Labor movement, which has been my home my entire life. I’m from a kibbutz, these are my roots,” he told The Media Line.
Shefa finished in the sixth slot on the candidate’s list after the primary.
Shefa, who last month essentially voted to disband the struggling coalition he was a part of and hold new elections, later left Blue and White for Labor. He explained Michaeli’s presence is a big factor in the party’s current face-lift.
“Obviously her victory creates a major positive momentum. It helps, and women leadership in the center-left wing is something we haven’t had in a while either. People are joining, we have thousands of new registered members. Today is a celebration,” Shefa said.
More than 45,000 party members, who as late as Sunday evening could still register to vote, on Monday compiled lists of their seven preferred candidates out of 62 nominees. In light of the growing spread of the coronavirus, nearly all voting was done electronically and remotely, via voters’ cellphones and computers.
The long list of candidates battled it out over a limited number of potential seats, as the party, despite its renewed vigor of late, is still considered a long shot to net even double digits in the March 23 elections.
Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, with the chair of the largest party usually tapped to establish a majority coalition with other parties, thereby becoming prime minister.
Labor, once the proud home of the nation’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, and legendary leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Golda Meir, has in recent years shrunk to dismal proportions. After decades of dominating the political scene and nearly single-handedly ruling Israel, it has been reduced to a shell of its former self.
The last time the party was a meaningful force in government was in former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition of 2006. The last prime minister to come out of the party was Ehud Barak in 1999.
Years of wilting away on the opposition benches led former party chairman Amir Peretz to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government last May, despite his explicit promise to the contrary. That decision seemed to have put the final nail in the Labor party coffin.
“This was a long process, you can’t blame it all on Peretz,” Omer Barlev, a Labor lawmaker since 2013 who ran for a seat on the ticket Monday, told The Media Line.
“This trend of voters moving to shinier new options has been going on for decades. It’s not new. The past few chairmen have also contributed to it. Our current situation doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Barlev, who will have the second place on the candidate’s list behind Michaeli.
The established party was left for dead in poll after poll over the past year, as voters looked for more promising prospects who would keep their word to oppose Netanyahu, not serve under him.
Yet, immediately following Michaeli’s victory last week, Labor’s revival began, as polls showed it gaining momentum, netting four seats, then five, and surpassing momentary upstarts in the left-wing bloc.
Michaeli has vowed not to enter a government headed by Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“Merav, to her credit, is undoubtedly a warrior, a brave woman whose values totally align with the party,” Barlev said. He added that if Michaeli had not prevailed last week, he would not have joined the race himself.
Shai said he is “very pleased” with the current situation, “and believe the public will come back to us.”
On Monday, before the primary results were announced, the new Labor leader received several additional boosts, as key figures in parliament announced their premature departure.
Avi Nissenkorn, until last month Israel’s justice minister and a prominent member of the government-partner Blue and White party, said he would take a hiatus from politics. Nissenkorn recently jumped ship from the foundering Blue and White to join Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new left-wing party, only to realize it was in even worse shape.
Several hours later, another Blue and White defector, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, announced his flailing party also would not run due to disappointing poll numbers.
I don’t think we should necessarily sacrifice ourselves for the good of the bloc, especially when other parties don’t have the tradition and history of the Labor movement
Both men were Michaeli’s competitors, seen as threats to Labor’s chances of forming a unified left-wing bloc.
The splintered Israeli center-left, still shattered into a handful of tiny parties, will now have until Thursday to coalesce into two or three large parties that have a viable chance of receiving the minimum four seats needed to enter the Knesset.
They will then hope to unseat Netanyahu by gaining a 61-seat majority, a feat both sides have failed to do in the last three rounds of elections, leading to the quagmire still haunting the nation today.
“It’s obvious these splits aren’t helpful, but last time when we merged with other parties, we actually lost seats,” Barlev said. “I don’t think we should necessarily sacrifice ourselves for the good of the bloc, especially when other parties don’t have the tradition and history of the Labor movement. There probably will be some merges, but perhaps not by us.”
Shefa, meanwhile, cautioned not to hitch the cart before the horse.
“Now is the time to win primaries, not talk about future coalitions,” he said. “I trust Merav’s leadership and judgment, after we finalize the list, we’ll talk.”
The challenger most likely to threaten Netanyahu’s 13th consecutive year in office is Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, currently leading the largest party in the center-left. A former prominent member of Blue and White, he too split once the decision was made by party chair Gantz to form a government with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.
After Monday, it seems Lapid has at least one party he can count on to be by his side after March 23. A party only recently left for dead.