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Former Labor leader Amir Peretz quits party to remain minister

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli expected to follow; new party leader Merav Michaeli pulls faction from coalition, forcing choice between cabinet posts and party membership

Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former Labor party leader Amir Peretz announced Tuesday that he would be quitting the center-left faction in order to continue serving as minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The move came after MK Merav Michaeli won the party’s leadership primaries on Sunday and announced Monday that Labor would be leaving the coalition immediately, forcing Peretz and Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli to choose between their government posts and membership in the party.

Peretz chose the former, leaving the Labor party for the third time in his political career. In the previous two instances, he bolted to join other parties. This time, however, Peretz is not planning on running in the March Knesset elections and instead has widely been reported to be eyeing a run for the presidency.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Shmuli is expected to follow Peretz’s lead by resigning from the party in order to remain in the government. He has yet to announce whether he plans to join another party ahead of the next election.

New Labor party leader Merav Michaeli gives a speech after winning the party’s leadership primaries, on January 24, 2021. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Throughout the previous campaign, Labor — which ran on a joint list with the left-wing Meretz and the center-right Gesher parties — adamantly insisted that it would not serve in a government under Netanyahu. Peretz even shaved his iconic mustache in order for voters to “read [his] lips” when he made the pledge.

But he swiftly walked back on the vow and decided to join the Blue and White bloc in the unity government that ultimately collapsed after seven months. While Peretz brought Shmuli with him into the government, Michaeli — the lone remaining Labor lawmaker in the Knesset — refused to follow suit.

In his letter of resignation from the party, Peretz said leaving the government would have damaged the balance of power in the current coalition at the expense of the centrist bloc. He claimed Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz had therefore asked him to remain on board.

Also in his announcement, Peretz accused Michaeli of “a campaign of hate” against him, without elaborating.

He will be replaced in the Knesset by former Meretz MK Ilan Gilon. If Shmuli drops from the party as well, his spot in the Knesset will be taken by former Labor MK Omer Barlev.

Labor MKs Itzik Shmuli (L) and Amir Peretz at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90/File)

Michaeli on Sunday won the Labor leadership primaries, taking over the storied center-left party from Peretz, as it faces possible extinction in the March 23 general elections.

In her victory speech, she offered thinly veiled criticism of her predecessors. “You, who they lied to and deceived and took your vote, come home. Come to a home of truth,” she told voters.

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 new political players who have eroded its base. Since entering the government after the previous election, the party lost virtually all of its support and few recent opinion polls have predicted it would enter the next Knesset.

A Channel 12 poll on Tuesday indicated that Michaeli had brought a jolt of support to the party and that it was on pace to clear the electoral threshold for the first time in months, receiving four seats in the next Knesset.

Michaeli has said she is open to joining with another party before the election in order to increase Labor’s chances of passing the electoral threshold, but only if they are an “ideological ally.”

Labor will hold primaries for the rest of its list on February 1, three days before the final deadline to register the parties before the March elections, at which time all alliances must be finalized.

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