Labor in upheaval as crowded leadership battle turns ugly
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Labor in upheaval as crowded leadership battle turns ugly

Herzog, who's facing challenges from at least 6 candidates, slams 'self destructive' elements in the party

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Zionist Union party chair Isaac Herzog leads a party meeting in the Knesset,  January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Zionist Union party chair Isaac Herzog leads a party meeting in the Knesset, January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel’s Labor Party continued to be wracked by internal turmoil Sunday, with a series of leadership challenges and political scandals threatening to destabilize the already-shaky opposition faction showing no signs of ebbing.

With a crowded leadership race turning even more cramped over the weekend, contender Eitan Cabel leveled criticism at the party’s current leader Isaac Herzog, describing him as a “garbage leader” on Radio 103.

Over the weekend, MK Omer Barlev and former Kulanu minister Avi Gabbay formally announced they would contend for the party leadership, throwing their hats into the ring along with ex-party leader Amir Peretz, who announced his bid in December. The three are joined by activist Eldad Yaniv, MK Erel Margalit and veteran party lawmaker Cabel, who have all said they were considering bids for the June primaries.

Speculation that former party leader Shelly Yachimovich would also mount another bid for leadership was quashed when she announced in February that she would seek to become the head of the Histadrut labor federation in the organization’s elections in May.

But in a damning exposition of the backroom deals that take place behind the party’s closed doors, recordings leaked on Thursday seemed to show that Yachimovich made a pact with Cabel to support him in a bid for party leadership in exchange for his backing in the Histadrut elections.

“I met with Shelly, I want to go with Shelly to the Histadrut,” Cabel is heard saying in recordings published by Channel 2 news. “Shelly is committed to support me in the elections for leadership of the party.”

Zionist Camp party members Shelly Yachimovich (R) and Eitan Cabel attend at a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Camp party members Shelly Yachimovich (R) and Eitan Cabel attend at a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yachimovich and Cabel had both denied that they were working together to become heads of the two organizations. On Thursday, both again denied any collusion, saying the recording was taken out of context.

Speaking to Army Radio on Sunday morning, Herzog said that he was personally offended by the recordings, in which Cabel, whom he described as a “true friend,” can be heard calling the Labor leader “a cheat, a trickster of meager thieves who has no power in the party and simply isn’t capable of leading.”

Herzog slammed the apparent deal made between Cabel and Yachimovich, saying that it damages the party and turns people away from Labor.

Zionist Union party chair Isaac Herzog (C) leads a party meeting at the Knesset, November 30, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union party chair Isaac Herzog (C) leads a party meeting at the Knesset, November 30, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We need to be looking forward, we have a clear path but we are unable to take off because of the self-destructive DNA of our party that continues to disappoint our voters,” he said. “We have a chance to replace the country’s leadership if we only believe in ourselves and stop ‘playing with kaka and peepee,’” he added, using an Israeli aphorism for behaving like children.

Since 1995, Labor has had a new chairman at an average of nearly once every two years.

After Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Shimon Peres succeeded him. Peres was replaced by Ehud Barak in 1997 after losing the general election the year before to Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak was replaced by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in 2001 after Barak’s election loss to Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Amram Mitzna defeated Ben-Eliezer for party leader in 2002, but was himself soon replaced by Peres after losing to Sharon’s Likud in 2003. Amir Peretz defeated Peres for the party leadership in 2005, then lost to a revivified Barak in 2007. Barak abandoned the party in 2011, triggering a leadership race won by Yachimovich, who then lost the top spot just two years later to Herzog.

Herzog fared better than many of his predecessors, garnering 24 seats in the 2015 elections as head of the Zionist Union — a center-left merger of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party. But despite the relatively strong showing, he was still roundly beaten by Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, which won 30 seats.

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni at a Labor party event in Shefayim, January 14, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni at a Labor party event in Shefayim, January 14, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Now, dogged by Herzog’s refusal to rule out joining Netanyahu’s coalition, and with recent polls forecasting as few as 10 Knesset seats, Labor could be preparing for an astonishing eleventh change of leadership in two decades. And the candidates are taking aim directly at the incumbent and his perceived failures.

On Saturday night, Gabbay, the former environmental protection minister, officially announced he would challenge Herzog, saying that he planned “to transform [Labor] from a party with correct principles to a party that wins elections.”

On Friday, Barlev, a former head of an elite IDF commando unit, announced his candidacy, writing on Facebook that “the State of Israel, as well as the Labor Party, deserves honest, brave, dedicated, pugnacious and a united leadership.”

Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz at a Knesset meeting on February 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz at a Knesset meeting on February 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former Labor leader and defense minister Peretz, considered the father of Israel’s highly successful Iron Dome missile defense system, said that he was the “only candidate who can bring more of the population to vote for us.”

Herzog said Sunday that he welcomed the large field, casting the many candidates as a sign of Labor’s strength, not fragility. “It’s good that people are announcing, it’s good that people want to be part of this party,” he said.

As for Herzog, while his past efforts to join Netanyahu’s coalition may have damaged his reputation at the time, recent reports give credence to his claims of influence, and could help revive his popularity.

According to a report Sunday in the Haaretz daily, the two planned to announce a new regional peace initiative during an abortive bid to piece together a national unity government last fall.

As part of the regional initiative, Netanyahu and Herzog, whose coalition talks collapsed amid mutual recriminations by October, were to release an eight-point English-language text detailing Israel’s position in support of a new peace push.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (L), with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (L), with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

According to the report, the proposed initiative never panned out because Netanyahu was caught in the political vise of the Amona outpost controversy.

“This was a great opportunity. Netanyahu had brought proposals before but this I time I made sure there was something behind it. Nonetheless, Netanyahu, being Netanyahu, ended up doing nothing,” Herzog told Army Radio on Sunday.

“I have proved that, from the opposition, I can be the real alternative,” he said.

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