For Labor, a primary focused on women, unity and victory

Even as the party soars in the polls, its 49,000 eligible voters make this its smallest primary in history

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog  visits the party's primary headquarters in Holon, January 11, 2015. (Flash90)
Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog visits the party's primary headquarters in Holon, January 11, 2015. (Flash90)

It’s hard to pinpoint a single overarching narrative in Tuesday’s Labor Party primaries.

Does it showcase Labor’s decline? With just 49,000 eligible primary voters, this is the smallest primary the party has ever seen. But Labor is also doing better in the polls than it has done in 15 years. Party leader Isaac Herzog has managed to transform himself from a lackluster undesirable to seemingly the only credible alternative (in electoral terms) to incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If Labor has a chance at winning the national election on March 17, then perhaps Tuesday’s primary is significant for the simple reason that it will determine the identities of some of the most senior ministers in Israel’s next government – except that it won’t. Too many reserved slots and promised cabinet appointments already crowd the shared Labor-Hatnua list. A theoretical Labor-led government would see Herzog as prime minister, followed by Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni as foreign or defense minister, with the most senior economic post reserved for the economist Manuel Trajtenberg who Herzog drafted to his list last month, and a senior defense post will go to an as-yet unnamed “security candidate” Herzog will add to the list. It’s exceedingly unlikely that MKs who actually make it onto the list through Tuesday primary will find a place at the government table even if their party runs that government.

There are few new faces – though, to be fair, more than half of Labor’s current list were elected for the first time in the last election.

And there is no overriding substantive message.

Labor argues it wants peace and that the right is incapable of compromise – but it is Likud, not Labor, that oversaw all the major territorial withdrawals of Israel’s history, while Labor’s record of settlement construction is hardly “better” than Likud’s.

On the economy, too, one would be hard-pressed to articulate a major difference between the ruling party and its highest-polling competitor. Both understand that poverty is concentrated in the Haredi and Arab communities, and that policies encouraging higher participation in the workforce could change that – while both are too concerned about Haredi support in a future coalition to speak clearly on the issue. Both support breaking up monopolies and increasing competition while lowering the cost of living and expanding welfare and health benefits; neither is entirely sure how all that might be accomplished.

The relative disinterest Israeli media is showing toward Labor’s primary is thus understandable.

Nevertheless, here are some things to watch for as the primary results begin to come in Tuesday overnight:

Labor party MK Eitan Cabel (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor party MK Eitan Cabel (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. There is a race for the top spot (behind Herzog and Livni) between former party leader Shelly Yachimovich and veteran lawmaker Eitan Cabel. It is a race that generated a surreal political moment. Last week, rumors flew among party activists that Cabel, together with Herzog’s major supporters MKs Erel Margalit and Merav Michaeli, had agreed to coordinate their supporters’ votes to keep Shelly Yachimovich off their lists. The rumors suggested it was a campaign organized for Cabel’s benefit, and also for Herzog’s. Leading a party that has seen 11 leadership changes in the past 22 years, Labor’s chief may be understandably worried about the primary success of possible successors.

But then the rumors reached the MKs concerned. Eitan Cabel briefly left the side of his hospitalized daughter to show up at a campaign event and deny there were any anti-Yachimovich deals. He foisted compliments on Yachimovich and urged primary voters to vote for her.

Meanwhile, Margalit, Michaeli and Herzog himself have all endorsed Yachimovich, if only to dispel the tainted image that rumors of such “elimination lists” can lend to a campaign.

So great was the party leadership’s backing of Yachimovich in the wake of the rumors that some pundits have begun to suspect it was Yachimovich’s own camp that started them, in a bid to position her as the victimized underdog in the race against Cabel.

It’s enough to give any observer a headache – and such antics may help explain why there are so few interested observers.

2. Likud, Israel’s ruling party, has just two women in the first 24 slots of its Knesset slate, the ones likely to enter the Knesset. These are held by Miri Regev and Gila Gamliel. (There is a chance that legal appeals over vote-counting problems may yet add a third, Tzipi Hotovely, to the list.) It’s a dismal showing for a major Israeli party in 2015.

Labor MK Stav Shafir attends a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, September 9, 2014 (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Labor MK Stav Shaffir attends a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, September 9, 2014 (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Labor won’t have that problem. Its constitution reserves two slots in every 10 for women, and there is every reason to think that the cadre of popular female lawmakers running in the primary won’t need those reservations to make it to the top. Shelly Yachimovich, Merav Michaeli, Stav Shafir and Michal Biran are all expected to do quite well on the Labor side, while the party’s number-two slot is already reserved for Hatnua’s Livni.

If the expectations of a more gender-balanced list bear out, voters can expect this fact to be raised a great deal during the election campaign as Labor will turn its full attention to appealing to women voters. In fact, this challenge may lead to greater representation for women in Likud, where Netanyahu has yet to appoint his two reserved slots, nos. 11 and 23. Facing a concerted campaign for women on the other side of the aisle, Netanyahu is likely to choose women to fill out the Likud list.

3. Number 11 on the list is reserved for a Herzog appointee, which Herzog will fill with a “security candidate.” The top figures in the running are Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff, Likud defense minister and Kadima party leader, and Amos Yadlin, a former head of both the air force and army intelligence. If those two names do indeed constitute Herzog’s shortlist, the choice won’t be easy. The well-known Mofaz brings with him political baggage from his days in other parts of the political spectrum, while the respected Yadlin lacks the name recognition that Labor desperately needs in the race.

4. Will Zouheir Bahloul defeat Raleb Majadle for the slot reserved for minority representatives? Bahloul has an interesting advantage over long-time Labor man Majadle: his days as a popular sportscaster mean he is better known and well liked beyond the Arabic-speaking community. Unlike Majadle, he may draw significant numbers of Jewish primary voters.

The primary ballots close at 10 p.m. local time, but it will be many hours before results are known. Unfortunately for Labor, Wednesday is the primary date for Jewish Home, a party with a clear message, a growing activist base and a more media-savvy leadership. By the time Labor announces the results of its lackluster race, the news is likely to be buried in the more titillating dramas underway on the other side of the political map.

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