Ailing Labor elects past chairman Amir Peretz to lead it through next election

Former defense minister, 67, wins race outright with 47% of vote, beating protest leaders Shaffir and Shmuli and avoiding a second round

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Amir Peretz delivers a speech at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Amir Peretz delivers a speech at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Former Labor leader Amir Peretz was elected Monday as the new chairman of the long-embattled party, beating out social protest leaders Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir in the race to lead it through the September national election.

Taking 47 percent of the vote compared to Shaffir’s 26.9% and Shmuli’s 26.3%, Peretz gained enough support — more than the requisite 40% — to be crowned the outright winner and avoid a second round of voting that would have pitted him head-to-head with Shaffir.

Some 30,000 Labor members, 46% of eligible voters, went to the polls throughout Tuesday to choose a new head of the center-left party that, having led Israel for its first three decades, is now fighting to stay relevant. It won only six seats in April’s general election.

From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m, voters were able to cast their ballots at 105 polling stations across the country — but the voting was extended by an hour amid widespread protests by Israel’s Ethiopian community against police violence, which held up traffic across the country.

Amir Peretz, Labor party parliament member and new leader of the Labor party, visits at the memorial site for late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a day before the elections to the head of the Labor party, in Tel Aviv on July 1, 2019. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90

The position of party chief was opened when current leader Avi Gabbay announced he would step down after leading Labor to its worst ever electoral showing and entertaining an offer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join his prospective coalition, a move met with heavy internal criticism.

In April’s election, Labor dropped from the 24 Knesset seats it received as part of the Zionist Union in 2015 to just six. In total, the party gained only 4.43 percent of the national vote.

Peretz, who led Labor from 2005 to 2007, was seeking support from party members after they most recently rejected him in favor of Gabbay in the 2017 leadership race.

Labor Party MKs Itzik Shmuli (left) and Stav Shaffir (right) meet with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A Knesset member since 1988, Peretz left Labor in the 1990s to form the Am Ehad party, which merged back with Labor in 2005. In 2012, Peretz abandoned his political home again in favor of Livni’s Hatnua party, which in late 2014 joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union. But in February 2016, two years after he resigned from his post as environmental protection minister in Netanyahu’s government over the budget, Peretz announced that he was returning to Labor.

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 by the government-appointed Winograd Commission, though he has since attempted to reframe the narrative in his favor. He is also, however, credited with approving the development of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

MK Amir Peretz with supporters outside a conference of the Labor Party in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While the 67-year-old is seen as somewhat of a dinosaur by some younger members of the party, he played on his experience, both as a minister and a party veteran, to claim that only he has the political clout to restore Labor’s status as a major player.

Shmuli and Shaffir entered the Knesset in 2013 after making a name for themselves as leaders of the 2011 social protests. Both used their primary campaign to offer a youthful hope to return the party to prominence.

Peretz will now likely determine whether the party, plagued by internal divisions, will be able to regain its past glory. Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil in the party, and the emergence of various new political players that have eroded its base.

One of the key issues that he will face is the possibility of allying with other center-left factions ahead of national elections in September, including the new, as-yet-unnamed party of former prime minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak.

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