Early next month, nine candidates will square off for control of Israel’s ailing Labor opposition. The winner of the leadership bid will likely determine whether the center-left party, plagued by internal divisions, is able to become the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in the next elections and consequently, whether it could seize the premiership.
The primaries come after Labor has plummeted over the past year in opinion polls — unreliable as they have proved to be — receiving a projected 10-12 seats (combined with the Hatnua party that makes up the Zionist Union faction), down from its current 24 seats. Meanwhile, the centrist Yesh Atid party appears to have wooed most of Labor’s voters, climbing steadily in surveys and poised to become the top contender against Likud, according to the polls.
The first round of Labor primaries voting will be held on July 4. Unless there is a decisive winner with over 40 percent of the votes, a run-off vote between the two top candidates will be held within 10 days. Some 53,000 people are eligible to vote, according to a spokesperson for the party’s secretary-general.
Four debates between some of the candidates were held this month, with more to come, as the campaign slowly heated up, veering into fights about how centrist or left-wing the party should be and, as with any Israeli political campaign, touching on identity politics. Below is a look at the candidates.
The embattled incumbent, Isaac Herzog: The party leader since 2013, Herzog has repeatedly reminded his constituents that he snagged 24 seats for Labor in the 2015 election, in a considerable boost for the party. While casting himself as the sole realistic candidate to unseat Netanyahu, Herzog also was the source of deep-rooted division in the party after engaging in coalition talks with the prime minister, which collapsed in May 2016 when the Yisrael Beytenu party joined the government.
Defending his willingness to team up with the prime minister, Herzog has pointed to efforts to launch a regional peace process and what he described as a unique opportunity for Israel. But the hush-hush talks irked many of his fellow party members, who opposed joining the right-wing coalition and resented being sidelined. Illustrating these divides, only two of his current party members — MK Manuel Trajtenberg and MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin — have endorsed him for reelection.
“What everyone remembers is the leaks on the negotiations for a unity government and the criticism I received for it — but they don’t know the real reason behind the scenes and the historic opportunity that was squandered,” Herzog recently lamented on Facebook, noting again the secret meeting held in 2016 between Jordanian, Egyptian, and US leaders that he says motivated him to seek a unity government. The Haaretz daily last week also published a report that Netanyahu and Herzog clandestinely flew to Cairo in 2016 to meet with Sissi on renewing peace talks, setting off the discussion again.
In recent months, Herzog has advocated forming a centrist bloc to oust Netanyahu, at the same time promising that he would give the prime minister a political safety net if peace talks with the Palestinian were restarted and sent Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners scrambling.
He has also warned that without him, the party would fall apart.
“I tell you clearly: There is certainly a possibility that if I’m not reelected, this here will fall apart, the Zionist Union will fall apart, because of the incredible tensions that exist both under and above the surface,” he said during a debate sponsored by Walla news between the Labor candidates two weeks ago.
The primaries vote will test whether four years on, after failing to both win elections and form a unity government, his constituents are still willing to wait on Herzog’s numerous pledges.
The (too?) familiar face, MK Amir Peretz: Peretz, a former Labor party chair in 2005-2007, announced in December that he was throwing his hat in the ring again in the leadership race.
A Knesset member since 1988, Peretz left Labor in the 1990s to form the Am Ehad party, which merged back with the Labor party in 2005. In 2012, Peretz abandoned his political home again in favor of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, which in late 2014 joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union. But in February 2016, Peretz announced that he was returning to Labor. In 2014, he resigned from his post as environmental minister in Netanyahu’s government over the budget.
A former defense minister, Peretz has a mixed military legacy: As defense minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Peretz — who had little significant military experience before assuming the post — was strongly criticized for his handling of the war by the government-appointed Winograd Commission, though he has since attempted to reframe the narrative in his favor. He is also, however, crediting with approving the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
The Morocco-born veteran lawmaker, ex-minister and former Histadrut labor union chief has also vowed to lend support to Israel’s Mizrahi Jews and promote socially-minded economic polices..
With his trademark mustache and laundry list of past political roles, his campaign — which has earned the endorsements of half a dozen sitting Labor MKs — raises the question: will his experience stir respect among Labor voters or just a mildly discomfiting sense of deja vu?
The (flailing) dark horse and ex-Kulanu minister caught lying about voting Likud, Avi Gabbay: In May 2016, as Yisrael Beytenu joined the coalition, then-environmental protection minister Gabbay, of the center-right Kulanu party, quit the government with a dramatic tirade accusing the coalition of leading Israel on a path to destruction.
The breakout moment for Gabbay, a relatively unknown minister who was not elected to Knesset but rather appointed as an external candidate by party leader Moshe Kahlon, was followed by his crossing the political aisle and joining the fight for the Labor leadership.
But that transition was not without its awkward blunders.
Since launching his campaign, Gabbay has danced around defining his partisan loyalties, saying only that he support “left-wing values” but does not consider himself “a leftist.” During a debate hosted by the Walla news site last Sunday, he was asked directly by his fellow contender MK Erel Margalit whether he had supported Likud in the past.
“Never,” Gabbay replied firmly, adding that his family members had. Margalit proceeded to whip out his smartphone, showing a 2015 interview in which Gabbay admitted to voting for the ruling right-wing party. In that interview, Gabbay said he had voted for Likud in the past, had supported Labor under Yitzhak Rabin, voted for Tzipi Livni in 2013 and backed Ariel Sharon’s Kadima.
In a follow-up attempt to rectify the mistake, Gabbay told Hebrew media that he was confused because in 2001 he voted for Likud’s Sharon, who later went on to found the Kadima party.
However, while the ex-minister in the 2015 TV interview suggested he had voted for the Labor party only under Rabin, in his opening remarks at the debate he stated clearly: “Personally, in most elections I have voted for the Labor party. I am part of it. And I would be happy to win for it.”
Gabbay, a former CEO of the Bezeq telecommunication giant who strongly opposed Netanyahu’s offshore gas deal, has been boasting that he brought in 4,000 new Labor voters to the party to support his campaign.
He also received praise from former Labor party leader and prime minister Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister turned Twitter fiend, who has taken an active role in the primaries even as he repeatedly denies rumors of a political comeback.
The brash entrepreneur and proud leftist, Erel Margalit: On paper, Zionist Union MK Margalit has all the credentials needed for a Labor leader bid: He was born on a kibbutz, earned a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University, and built a successful venture capital empire centered in Jerusalem. But the impressive resume is offset by the millionaire sitting Knesset member’s brash style, highlighted in a series of campaign videos over the past year. One widely mocked clip, which saw him yell “Give me back my state, dammit!” earned a parody on “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s “Saturday Night Live.”
In his campaign launch video, Margalit described himself as an avowed leftist and vowed to rebrand the term, saying it had become a “curse word” in the State of Israel. With his “no more Mr. Nice Guy” tone, Margalit represents a sharp contrast to party leader Herzog’s prim demeanor — but will that prove to be enough?
The Breaking the Silence-supporting ex-general who claims to have saved Netanyahu and Bennett’s hides, Amiram Levin: In December 2015, Maj. Gen. Levin took out a full-page advertisement supporting the controversial Breaking the Silence NGO, which collects testimonies about alleged abuses by IDF soldiers against Palestinians.
“The IDF must encourage ‘Breaking the Silence’ and those like them to speak out without fear in the IDF and in Israeli society,” wrote the gritty ex-soldier, whose previous positions include head of the IDF Northern Command, commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and deputy director of Mossad.
Levin hasn’t exclusively ticked off Israel’s right, either: In October 2016, shortly after Shimon Peres died, an interview with Levin was aired in which he called the former president a “crook” and “liar” who had no real role in the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue operation. He later declined to apologize, saying the TV station should say sorry for airing the footage — filmed a month before Peres’s death — after he passed away.
With his military chops, Levin — a newcomer to the Labor party — burnishes the party’s credentials on security somewhat, an area often claimed exclusively as the forte of the right.
Two weeks ago, Levin said he saved Netanyahu’s life (according to Levin, he was the prime minister’s commander in the army) decades ago, and that of right-wing Jewish Home minister Naftali Bennett during the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, which Levin commanded.
In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Bennett said Levin got “carried away.”
“Levin didn’t save my life, but he commanded the operation. He was, in my view, generally a creative field commander, assertive and moral. I disagree with him politically but respect him as a commander,” Bennett wrote.
“Naftali, what happened in Lebanon stays in Lebanon,” Levin replied on Twitter. “Don’t be embarrassed that a leftist saved you. I’m happy you’re alive to tell the story, that’s what is important.”
The gruff ex-general who called Trump a ‘racist,’ Omer Barlev: The two other candidates with a security background notwithstanding, Zionist Union MK Omer Barlev, a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in the IDF, is running on a platform that promises to “bring back security to the Labor party.” Barlev, who holds the rank of colonel and had a career in high-tech companies before he was elected to the Knesset in 2013, frequently comments on Israeli security matters.
In an interview in March, Barlev said Israel was moving closer to “apartheid” every day amid calls to annex the West Bank. In August 2015, he accused Netanyahu of misleading the public on the Iran nuclear deal, writing in an op-ed that while not perfect, the deal had “significant benefits” for Israel.
In 2014, Barlev was suspended from meetings of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for two months after he disclosed classified information in contravention of regulations. He dismissed accusations that he leaked information directly to the media, saying he simply neglected to designate letters sent to the committee chairman as classified.
Critics have noted that despite some four years in parliament Barlev has had little impact, and have accused him of lacking charisma. Barlev, in response, has pointed to his work on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, saying most of his efforts remain behind the scenes.
While openly angling for the position of prime minister, Barlev in December 2015 — amid rumors of an upcoming visit — branded then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “racist” who should not be welcome in Israel’s parliament.
— עמר בר-לב (@omerbarlev) December 9, 2015
The two relative unknowns — activist Hod Kravi, and a historian of science who wrote an admiring article about… Netanyahu, Avner Ben-Zaken: Candidates Krovi and Ben-Zaken, along with Dina Dayan, were not invited to some of the primaries debates, with the hosts saying they didn’t consider them realistic candidates. Nonetheless, the three are on the ballot and in the running. Krovi, a resident of Ra’anana and head of the main student union, pledged to clean up the political system from corruption.
“My advantage over the others is that I come from below,” he wrote on the Labor party website. “I am not a wealthy man and not the CEO of companies with huge salaries. I am connected to the public’s crises. Their pain is my pain and their anger my anger. I believe in my ability to raise the people up to a different place. To a place of reasonableness and real hope.”
Ben-Zaken, meanwhile, is a professor at the Ono Academic College, a historian of science with a Phd from UCLA and author of several books. In 2015 article in the Haaretz newspaper, Ben-Zaken offered a detailed analysis of Netanyahu, tracing his thought to the messianic underpinnings of Spanish Inquisition-era Jewish scholars, and offering a fairly flattering portrait of his now ostensible political rival.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is a highly intelligent individual. This fact is widely acknowledged, even among his political rivals. In his political activities – notwithstanding assertions to the contrary – there is no evidence of any logical inconsistency, charlatanism, zigzagging, predilection for personal interests over the national interest, survivalist reaction, or over-abiding cynicism.
“Nor is he merely a brilliant campaigner: Netanyahu has a firm and coherent philosophical framework, and is guided by a profound conviction in the justice of his ways… He is the sole political leader who is at present conversing with history, corresponding with it and drawing from it practical political conclusions. Essentially, Israel has never had such an ideological prime minister,” he wrote.
In an interview with Channel 2, Ben-Zaken said the Labor party “was on the verge of extinction.”
“And if it disappears, liberal democracy will disappear along with it,” he said.
The ultra-Orthodox woman and self-styled ‘protest vote,’ Dina Dayan: The sole female candidate in the race is Dina Dayan, an ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi activist from Mizpe Ramon in southern Israel who says she represents the interests of Israel’s periphery.
In a video posted online two weeks ago and watched over 400,000 times, Dayan presented herself as “the fears” of most Labor voters. “I am your fears. Haredi. Mizrahi. Not photogenic. A woman… those who stole your state.” The clip strongly criticized the party, drawing on stereotypes about its disconnection from the people and elitism, and what she described as its tired slogans and lack of new blood.
Facing the camera, she slammed the other eight candidates who “are full of themselves. Are certain they’re original, bold, and that only they can [lead the party]. But between us, it’s all a replication upon a replication for 40 years already. The same patronizing tone.”
The powerful clip, which made the rounds on social media, was also criticized for featuring a photo of the parents of Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a disarmed Palestinian stabber in Hebron in March 2016, as exemplars of the sacrifices made by residents of the periphery. And the architect behind the clip, Dayan told Channel 10 two weeks ago, was none other than Tzuriel Sharon, an adviser who was behind Netanyahu’s infamous “the Arabs are voting in droves” election day campaign in 2015.
Speaking to the TV channel two weeks ago on the chances of her success, Dayan admitted “I’m sure they’re not high.”
“I think that voting for me is a very clear protest vote,” she said.