Congratulating new Labor chair Peretz, center-left leaders eye potential unions

Gantz, Barak and Horowitz all indicate they will discuss possible alliances with Peretz, who calls for ‘uniting the bloc’

Compilation: Ehud Barak, left, and Blue White leader Benny Gantz (Flash90)
Compilation: Ehud Barak, left, and Blue White leader Benny Gantz (Flash90)

Leaders of centrist and left-wing parties on Tuesday night congratulated Amir Peretz on his election as Labor party chairman, turning their attention to potential alliances now that the identities of the bloc’s leaders ahead of the September elections has been made clear.

“The first and most important thing to do is to unite the [center-left] bloc,” Peretz said.

He said he would put off a more elaborate statement due to Tuesday night’s mass protests by Ethiopian Israelis. But he said he sensed “the weight of responsibility given to me” and added that “this evening should give hope to all citizens who seek peace and justice.” He vowed to “unite the party and make it a political home for every Israeli.”

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz congratulated Peretz, and said they had spoken on the phone and agreed to meet soon.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who last week announced his return to political life under a new as-yet unnamed political party, and who on Tuesday vowed not to join a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “under any circumstances,” wished Peretz luck and added: “I believe we can do what is required and stand together, alongside other forces, to put Israel back on the right track.”

Labor’s Amir Peretz at a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Nitzan Horowitz, who on Thursday won the leadership of the left-wing Meretz party, offered his “congratulations to my friend Amir Peretz” and said, “We at Meretz are prepared to discuss possible cooperation for the success of the Israeli left. I expect to speak to Amir in the next few days.”

Meanwhile, outgoing Labor chairman Avi Gabbay, under whose stewardship the party crashed to its worst election showing in history, winning only six seats in April’s national vote, expressed hope Peretz “will lead the party to achievements it deserves.”

Peretz was elected Tuesday with 47 percent of party members’ votes, beating out Stav Shaffir (26.9%) and Itzik Shmuli (26.3%). Some 30,000 Labor members, 46% of eligible voters, participated in the primary.

Shaffir congratulated Peretz and thanked those who voted for her. “Tomorrow morning we turn to the true fight against the right and to replace the corrupt leadership of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” she said.

Supporters of Labor party candidate Amir Peretz celebrate after he was elected for the leadership of the Labor party, in Tel Aviv on July 2, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Offering his congratulations to Peretz as well, Shmuli thanked his activists and supporters for “putting your souls into it.”

Peretz will hope to bring his party back to relevance in a crowded center-left field. There has been much speculation about potential alliances between the parties in a bid to strengthen their electoral prowess, though party leaders will be closely following internal polling on whether such joint bids will provide them a net gain of votes or whether the sum of their parts is actually greater than any potential whole.

The position of party chief was opened when Gabbay announced he would step down after labor’s poor showing in April and after entertaining an offer by Netanyahu to join his prospective coalition, a move met with heavy internal criticism.

Nitzan Horowitz, the newly voted head of left-wing Meretz party, reacts as he makes a victory speech, after winning the party leadership at a vote in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Peretz, who led Labor from 2005 to 2007, had lost to Gabbay in the 2017 leadership race.

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 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.

Labor’s Avi Gabbay (C) and MKs Stav Shaffir (R) and Itzik Shmuli attend a party meeting in Tel Aviv on February 13, 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.

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