‘A political corpse’: Tuesday primary could mark revival of ailing Labor party

Former Meretz MK Yair Golan is expected to win Labor’s top spot, opening possibility for merger of two leftist parties as Meretz says it’s ‘ready in principle’ for step

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Yair Golan attends a protest outside of Jerusalem against the government, demanding new elections. May 4, 2024. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Yair Golan attends a protest outside of Jerusalem against the government, demanding new elections. May 4, 2024. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

For much of Israel’s history, Labor party primaries were widely viewed as important contests whose outcome could very well determine the identity of the country’s next prime minister.

But on Tuesday, when members of the once-dominant but now-marginal left-wing movement go to the polls to select a replacement for outgoing chairwoman Merav Michaeli, they are unlikely to garner much attention.

Despite the lack of public interest, however, this week’s vote is of critical importance for both the party itself — which has consistently failed to cross the election threshold in recent opinion polls and therefore is in danger of not making it into the next Knesset at all — and for the further left-wing party Meretz, which failed to enter the parliament in the last election and is seeking a return path.

The candidates

The odds-on favorite to win the primary is ex-Meretz MK and former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, who has pledged to “unify all leftist parties in Israel” into a single bloc in order to “fight for the destiny of Israel, for Israel as a democratic liberal state.”

Also running are longtime Labor activist Azi Nagar, billionaire socialist and online gambling magnate Avi Shaked, and attorney and anti-corruption activist Itai Leshem.

Avi Shaked, a candidate for the leadership of the Labor party, in a campaign video in May 2024. (Screenshot: Instagram)

Shaked is the co-founder and part-owner of online gambling giant 888 Holdings. He has come out staunchly against Golan’s plans for Labor, describing his rival as “a Trojan horse… who suddenly comes out of nowhere and tries to steal our party.”

Nagar, 70, is a longtime Labor activist who works in real estate and fought in the Yom Kippur War, while Leshem is an attorney, tech entrepreneur and anti-corruption activist.

Uniting the left

According to pollster Mitchell Barak of Keevoon Research Strategy & Communications, Golan’s military record is likely to stand him in good stead both in overcoming his primary opponents and, perhaps, in appealing to left-leaning voters who currently aren’t supporting Labor.

“Having someone on the left with a strong military background is an appealing way to get votes from the left of center,” he said.

A former IDF Northern Front and Home Front commander, Golan, 61, now a general in the reserves, was passed over for the position of IDF chief of staff in 2018 after a 2016 speech in which he likened contemporary trends in Israel to the “disturbing processes” that took place in Europe in the run-up to the Holocaust.

Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Yair Golan speaks at a ceremony to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 5, 2016. (Gefen Reznik/IDF Spokesperson)

He later served as deputy economy minister during the short-lived, ideologically diverse coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, and then made a failed bid for the leadership of Meretz ahead of the last elections.

Further burnishing his military bona fides, on October 7, the retired general headed to the frontline of the Hamas onslaught on his own initiative and rescued many partygoers fleeing the massacre at the Supernova music festival, his bravery garnering him praise from across the political spectrum.

“He was like Rambo on October 7. I think voters will feel comfortable with that kind of image, which is reminiscent of [Labor’s former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” said Barak, the pollster.

A diminished party

If he wins, Golan will have a tough road ahead of him.

After taking over the party from Amir Peretz in 2021, Michaeli increased Labor’s representation in the Knesset to seven seats, but the improvement in its standing was short-lived and, under her leadership, Labor shrank to the Knesset minimum of four seats in the November 2022 election.

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Her decision not to join forces with Meretz was seen as contributing to the latter party’s failure to enter the Knesset, to the detriment of the bloc of parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Repeated polls have shown Labor failing to make it into the Knesset in the next elections.

However, none of the polls ran the scenario of a combined Labor-Meretz slate, which could potentially win more seats than Meretz’s projected four if the party were to run alone.

Addressing an online campaign event this March, Golan said that he had sworn “to reestablish the Zionist left in Israel” and was running in the Labor primary “to unify all leftist parties in Israel, all members of the protest movement who are willing to fight for the destiny of Israel, for Israel as a democratic liberal state.”

Meretz party supporters react as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem November 1, 2022 (Flash90)

This rhetoric has garnered him the endorsement of half of Labor’s remaining MKs and if he wins the party’s chairmanship Golan is likely to lead the party “into a sort of new political framework with Meretz, or other segments like parts of the protest movement,” said Prof. Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

While even in such a scenario it is likely to remain marginal due to the Israel’s overall slide to the political right, “the current state of the Labor party is so low that any change, any restart, would be good for it because at the moment it’s like a political corpse,” he said.

“I think it is pretty sure [that after a merger] that we will see a small-to-medium party on the left of the political map.”

The Meretz view

Speaking with the Times of Israel last week, Meretz secretary general Tomer Reznik said that his party is “ready in principle” to unite and “supports a connection with Labor to run together” in the next legislative election but that the details need to be worked out following a Golan win.

“After he is elected can talk,” Reznik said, noting that there had been contacts about the issue “but nothing official.”

“I think it can be done in a relatively short time but it takes the political will to do so from both sides and the understanding of the mission ahead of us,” he added.

Legal challenges

But even if the majority of the more than 51,000 Labor members eligible to vote in Tuesday’s primary support Golan, there remains one last legal hurdle, according to party chief executive Nir Rosen.

Responding to an appeal by party members, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled last Tuesday that within a month of the primary, Labor must hold a new election for its party conference — whose members will be required to sign off on the results of the vote. If they do not, then a new leadership contest will need to be held.

Promising to appeal, Labor argued that the ruling sought to enforce a “procedure that does not comply with the constitution of the Labor Party and has the potential to harm the democratic process which is the lifeblood of the party.”

Labor MKs Naama Lazimi (right) and Gilad Kariv file the center-left party’s list of candidates with the Central Elections Committee, on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rosen explained that elections for the conference were supposed to be held in late 2022 but were delayed by the general election. This, he said, was followed by the outbreak of war and the announcement of Michaeli’s resignation — meaning that the committee that approved the primary was no longer within the period of its elected term.

“The judge said they can hold [the primary] but afterwards that they need to choose a new committee and at their first gathering they can retroactively approve the primary election,” he said during a telephone interview on Thursday.

“I brought an appeal to them today. We hope they will approve.”

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